Island of Fire Review
Sold in the majority of regions as a Jackie Chan film Island of Fire is not, but you can see why the publishers would take that marketing route considering Jackie's international appeal. For Hong Kong movie fans however Island of Fire offers far more than just Jackie Chan (whose role is quite minimal) as it includes a very strong line-up of acting talent from the early nineties, just how that talent was put to use proves to be both the saving grace and downfall of this title.
Encapsulating several stories that revolve around a prison it is best to take you through the various plotlines of Island of Fire on an actor-by-actor basis. The lead role goes to Tony Leung Ka-Fai who plays Andy, a detective whose close friend is mysteriously executed by an assassin who turns out to be a dead man. Andy decides to take the investigation into his own hands so to investigate the obvious cover-up he gets himself incarcerated and sent to the prison where the deceased assassin was once held. Already on the inside is Sammo Hung who plays the cheeky character of John, a father who is desperately missing his son and frequently risks all to escape for the briefest of visits. Now we get around to Jackie Chan, who as Steve, a 'Pool' ace finds himself under pressure from the local triads to deliberately lose to their man in a tournament. Refusing to do so the Triads push a little too hard and Steve eventually buckles under the pressure, which leads to a manic fight and Steve accidentally killing a Triad member. In turn Steve joins the other characters in prison where he must fend off attempts on his life by other Triad inmates. The final lead character is portrayed by Andy Lau, who as Boss Lee becomes increasingly enraged over his men’s failed attempts on Steve's life, so he too deliberately gets himself imprisoned with the sole intent to kill Steve himself and take revenge for his brothers death.
Separately each of the stars own plotlines have potential but they are never exploited to meet that potential, and in many cases seem to be forgotten for large portions of the proceedings. The character of Andy (Tony Leung Ka-Fai) for example, as soon as he is in the prison you all but forget he is even there to investigate the inmates as it soon becomes your standard tales of prison survival and friendship. The same can be said for the Jackie Chan and Andy Lau characters, both of who upon entering the prison are involved in a fight and then forgotten about for lengthy periods of time. The reasons for these absences are most likely down to contractual obligations but we should never need to know this prior to watching the film as the storyline should be developed in such a way to incorporate these stories into one cohesive whole.
The films saving grace comes in the form of the individual stars pulling power, all of who are endlessly watchable. The undoubted star of the show is Sammo Hung who gets to stretch his comedic muscles, and even demonstrates his now legendary cooking skills and although his dramatic role is under-developed Sammo still comes out strong in the end. Tony Leung Ka-Fai (as Andy) has the most screen-time and fortunately he makes great use of it although again the lack of direction to his characters story never really helps things. The relationship between Andy and his cellmate is however well portrayed and used well for the films final prison sequence. Of course we all know Jackie has the power to entertain and entertain he does, even if it is for a ridiculously short period of time, but at least he gets to flex his action muscles in a brief martial arts based sequence while we are also treated to a demonstration of his Pool skills! Andy Lau has the least screen-time of all the major players but still comes out with his head held high, and even gets to perform one of the most impressive moves in the films explosive John Woo style finale which somehow manages to believably (well, to a certain extent) bring the characters together and conclude their individual storylines in what is undeniably the easy way out, but satisfying none-the-less.
Director Chu Yen Ping probably felt blessed with the cast of his career when he was putting Island of Fire together but ultimately while the film is enjoyable it fails to live up to the expectations set by the cast and proves to be more of a disappointment than a success making this one for the die-hard fans only.
Unlike most future Hong Kong Legends releases that are Region 2 and 4 encoded this DVD is Region 2 encoded only.
As we have come to expect Island of Fire is presented at its original Aspect Ratio of 1:85:1 with Anamorphic Enhancement. The print sourced has been restored and remastered to a pleasing degree with only some minor damage in the form of dirt on the print and the occasional larger blemishes being noticeable just a handful of times throughout the movie. Detail is never exceptional but always at an acceptable level, although the occasionally soft picture and consistent mid-levels of grain do play their part in the average detail on show. Fortunately the colour reproduction on this disc is often superb with black levels in particular handled with care, leaving us with a very pleasing result.
While there is no Cantonese Audio option Hong Kong Legends have provided us with both Mandarin and English Dub tracks for this film. The Mandarin track will be the preferable choice for fans although in terms of technical quality both tracks offer the same Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo format that again, in both cases offers a good, if not outstanding audio experience. The main thing you need to know is that there is no audible hiss present throughout the tracks, although the often-overzealous soundtrack can come off sounding harsher than it should.
The optional English subtitles are presented to a typically high standard.
The main extra content made available on this DVD is that of Deleted/Extended scenes taken from the Korean Print of the movie. Nine sections make up a total of 27-minutes of extra footage. Each section has a text based intro explaining where in the movie what you are about to view would be seen on the Korean print while the footage itself is of a reasonable quality and is presented in the widescreen format adopted for most foreign VHS widescreen releases where the widescreen image frame is shifted vertically to the top of the screen leaving the bottom section free to display the subtitles. The actual content is of much interest to fans of the film and shows directions the plot could have taken and reveals sub-plots that help flesh out certain characters. This is a welcome inclusion to the disc although it is a shame HKL could not offer the ability to view these scenes within the movie itself so we could gain a better idea of how the Korean print weighs up against the Hong Kong version featured on this disc.
The other section of particular interest on this disc is an interview gallery consisting of 3 separate interviews, all of which are presented in the 4:3 Aspect Ratio. The first interviewee is Sammo Hung who talks for 6-minutes from the set of a film in his native Cantonese language (English subtitles are of course provided). Discussing a variety of topics including his early beginnings in the industry, the wide range of new talent he has introduced and his thoughts on filmmaking Sammo is his usual charming and engaging self making this an enjoyable and educational watch. Next up is Hong Kong Cinema veteran Jimmy Wong Yu who speaks for 8-minutes in English and in that time discusses his prolific career including the highly acclaimed film One Armed Swordsman and a very interesting unfinished project he was a part of with the great Japanese actor Toshiro Mifune, all of which makes this another interesting segment. Wrapping up the interview gallery is director Chu Yen Ping who speaks for 6-minutes. An introduction screen warns us about the low video quality of this segment, I however thought it looked fine but it is thoughtful of HKL to include this warning which also states they included this interview in the hope that Yen Ping's candid comments would entertain - they do!
Completing the extra features is a 35-minute Jackie Chan animated biography that is both informative and entertaining (but the same as that featured on all subsequent Jackie discs) and split into 6 chapters for easy browsing while both the Original Theatrical Trailer and the HKL Music Promo Trailers are present in Anamorphic Widescreen.
Heralded as an Action Movie Island of Fire is actually best classed as a Prison Drama, and if you are looking for a truly great Hong Kong Prison Drama movie then you would do best to skip this title by and head straight for the Ringo Lam/Chow Yun Fat masterpiece, Prison on Fire. If however you are looking for a film to add to your burgeoning Hong Kong movie collection then Island of Fire is certainly worth a look if only for the talent on board, and this Hong Kong Legends DVD is the best way to do just that.