Lifeline (HK 1996)

Rating: ****
Review Date: 4/8/01
Director: Johnnie To
Cast: Lau Ching Wan, Alex Fong, Ruby Wong, Carmen Lee, cameo by Damien Lau

A Hong Kong variation of "Backdraft" (1991) with the action cranked up to maximum. Similar to "Backdraft", it's a slow starter that focuses exclusively on character development, but the stunning forty minute climax is more than enough to forgive the dramatic lapses in the first half of the film. (something that "Backdraft" couldn't pull off) The story revolves around a certain team of firefighters who are considered ill-fated and unlucky by their peers in the firefighting community. For the first hour of the film, we get to know all of the firefighters on a personal level as they deal with their personal problems and the pressures of work. Lau Ching Wan is a hot-headed and reckless firefighter (what a surprise) who values human life more than procedure, and is constantly in trouble with his superiors for taking "unnecessary risks". A strict and stone-cold Alex Fong is the newly transferred leader of the team, whose ex-wife suddenly wants him to raise his estranged daughter. An impressive Ruby Wong is the only woman on the team and she has to deal with marital problems as well, particularly the issue of how pregnancy will affect her job as a firefighter. And of course there's the young and ambitious rookie, who learns the ropes the hard way. The primary love interest in the story is the beautiful and bitchy Carmen Lee, a doctor who Lau has fallen for. Unfortunately, their antagonistic relationship goes nowhere, as Lau is forced to heed the call of duty in the explosive and heart-pounding finale. The climax of the film finds our ill-fated heroes trapped in a burning factory death trap and desperately trying to escape. The action scenes are amazingly filmed and spectacularly riveting, not to mention extremely dangerous! I have never seen anybody engulfed in flames like this before, and the cinematography is astonishing. Quite possibly the pinnacle of pyrotechnic filmmaking, this film must be seen to be believed. Truly awe-inspiring...

Interestingly, by the time the climax of the film is underway, you get so wrapped up in what's going on that you totally forget that there was even a story going on beforehand. And then you realize that there actually isn't a conventional story taking place at all. There are no bad guys, no unsolved mysteries, no psychotic arsonists on the loose, no extreme character conflicts, no heroics, and nothing to prove - it's just a team of firefighters doing their job. Director Johnnie To has cleverly manipulated you into caring for these people solely so he can put them in an extreme life threatening situation and make his audience squirm. The tension he creates is superb, and you find yourself constantly agonizing over their safety. Johnnie To has really pulled off something special with this film, and I never thought I would find an action film without guns, car chases, and kung fu to be so exciting.