Before 'Reservoir Dogs,'there was 'City on Fire'

April 14, 1995|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

Kids, here's a bit of sage advice for the future: Sometimes the worst career move you can make is to have a career.

That seems to be so in the case of Quentin Tarantino, who made a brilliant film called "Reservoir Dogs," which elevated him to cult hero status. Then he issued "Pulp Fiction," which made him not only famous but powerful as well, and the inevitable backlash set in.

The backlash mainly settled on the issue of plagiarism: Was "Reservoir Dogs," which seemed so powerful, so original, so shockingly new, stolen from a 1987 Chinese gangster film called "City on Fire," directed by heist specialist Ringo Lam?

The charge has been hard to verify, as only a few video copies of "City on Fire" were in circulation; after much finagling, I finally came across one several months ago. Now the Baltimore Film Festival has brought the Lam film in for closer examination, with screenings tonight at 9:30 and 11:30 at the Baltimore Art Museum as part of the festival.

When I asked Tarantino about this issue in a phone interview some months back, his answer was straightforward. He said: "It's a really cool movie. It influenced me a lot. I got some stuff from it."

He was right. It is a cool movie, it did influence him a lot, and he did get some stuff from it. But is it plagiarism? That's a tough call and depends more on your attitude toward Tarantino than anything else.

In my case, I saw far more that was different than similar, although on at least four occasions there are images that are clearly lifted nearly intact from the Lam film (not that films such as "The Wild Bunch" haven't had whole sequences re-created in other films).

The largest difference is quite large indeed: It's the very conception of the movie. "City on Fire" is actually set on the streets, in the center of seething, bustling Hong Kong. Although no documentary, it nevertheless has the feel of realism and takes its power from its rootedness in the natural world. The robberies that are its subject are dramatized in exceedingly powerful action sequences; there's never a sense of claustrophobia.

"Reservoir Dogs," by contrast, is a highly theatricalized piece of work. It takes place largely in a warehouse, which serves literally as a stage, and characters come off and on. Its dialogue is equally theatrical, incantations of profanity in near-lyric bursts that are powerfully artificial. The action -- the robbery -- is never dramatized. Its very theatricality is part of what makes it so terrific; it feels highly ritualized, like Mamet with guns.

There are huge cultural difference as well. "City on Fire," however westernized it is with car wrecks, huge amounts of gunfire and cool gangsters smoking cigarettes, is Chinese, and issues of family and loyalty are paramount. For example, what drives Chow Yun-Fat (who plays the undercover cop who penetrates an armed robbery crew) isn't ambition or whatever it was that drove Tim Roth (his equivalent character in "Dogs"), but family. His uncle is the officer in charge of the case and is being threatened by a younger man, and so the reluctant Chow must find the gang to save Uncle's job. We never, ever knew what drove Roth.

The last 20 minutes of "City" do in fact unspool in a warehouse, but it's clear that Tarantino took the situation and not the actual events. As "City" plays out, it follows another track, and it doesn't end in that burst of phony-pop nihilism that makes "Dogs" so memorable. I will not spell out the differences, to allow viewers to discover them for themselves.

I counted four actual image thefts:

* When the crew heads into an early job, four men in black suits move slowly through the crowd. It calls up almost exactly Tarantino's shot of his Dogs as they come out of the restaurant in the early going.

* Danny Lee, using two guns, shoots two cops through a windshield, which explodes into fractures. Tarantino has re-created this shot almost perfectly.

* There's a gun triangle in which the big shot, the crewman and the undercover cop point guns at each other in a tense standoff. It doesn't, however, quite have the formal elegance of the far more famous Tarantino shot.

* Robber (Lee) and cop- betrayer (Chow) acknowledge each LTC other much in the same way that Harvey Keitel and Tim Roth did at the end of "Dogs," though the postures and the outcome are different.

"City on Fire"

Starring Chow Yun-Fat and Danny Lee

Directed by Ringo Lam

Golden Harvest

Unrated

***

Hear Hunter's reviews

To hear Stephen Hunter's reviews of current films, call Sundial, The Sun's telephone information service, at (410) 783-1800. Using a touch-tone phone, punch in the four-digit code 6250 after you hear the greeting.

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