Brow Beat

City on Fire Director Ringo Lam Dies at 63

Ringo Lam at Cannes in 2007.
Ringo Lam during a 2007 photocall for Triangle at the Cannes Film Festival, where it screened out of competition. Anne-Christine Poujoulat/Getty Images

Ringo Lam, the Hong Kong action director and producer whose work included City on Fire, Maximum Risk, and Replicant died Saturday at the age of 63, Variety reports. Lam was found unresponsive in bed by his wife.

Lam is best known in the United States for City on Fire, a 1986 film about an undercover cop (Chow Yun-Fat), a thief (Danny Lee), and a botched jewelry store heist, was a major influence on Quentin Tarantino, who incorporated plot elements and images from the film into his directorial debut Reservoir Dogs. Some of the shots Tarantino quoted can be seen in this rerelease trailer:

Lam, born in 1955, entered an actors’ training program run by the Hong Kong television network TVB in 1973. There, he met fellow student Chow Yun-Fat, who he would frequently direct later in his career. More enamored of being behind the camera than in front of it, he studied directing at York University in Toronto, Canada, before returning to Hong Kong in 1981. His break came when director Po-Chih Leong resigned from Esprit d’Amour after a fight with the producer.
Lam took over the film—about a third of it had been shot already—and received sole credit. Lam wasn’t in love with the movie’s supernatural love story, but, as he later explained, he had “no choice, I need food, so I do the best I can.” A few movies later, he landed the fourth film in the Aces Go Places series of James Bond spoofs (the aptly-titled Aces Go Places IV, released under the slightly less apt U.S. title Mad Mission 4: You Never Die Twice). It was a box-office hit, and earned Lam a blank check from producer Karl Maka, which he spent making City on Fire.

City on Fire won Lam the Best Director prize at the Hong Kong film festival, and followed the movie with two more gangster films, 1987’s Prison on Fire, 1988’s School on Fire, and 1991’s Prison on Fire II. In 1996, Lam came to America to direct Jean-Claude Van Damme and Natasha Henstridge in Maximum Risk for Columbia, a film in which, five years after Double Impact, Van Damme again played identical twins. Although the movie made money, it wasn’t a smash hit, and Lam returned to Hong Kong, where he made Full Alert.

Further adventures in international filmmaking followed: Lam directed Van Damme again in 2001’s Replicant and 2003’s In Hell. (Although it was initially announced that he would be directing the 1999 Dennis Rodman vehicle Simon Sez, he only ended up producing it, which was probably for the best, career-wise.) Van Damme mourned Lam on Twitter:

Lam’s output slowed in the new century—after In Hell, he directed only three more films, 2007’s anthology Triangle, for which he shared directorial duties with Johnnie To and Hark Tsui, 2015’s Wild City, and 2016’s Sky on Fire, which starred Daniel Wu. Wu posted his memories of the director on Facebook:

In a 2016 interview with the South China Morning Post, Lam talked about the way the death of his mother influenced his work on Sky on Fire:

I am at an age where I have something to say about life. What is life? There’s nothing I can do to decide when it ends. I am powerless and I am very angry, so I put all that onto the screen.