Ringo Lam has died. A veteran of the Hong Kong film scene, Lam exploded into the world of action and crime films with his 1987 feature City On Fire—still held up as both a codifying film in the “bad men with guns and honor” sub-genre of crime pictures, and the unofficial inspiration for Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs. Although his later films—including multiple American movies with Jean-Claude Van Damme, many of them weirdly obsessed with duplicates and doubles—failed to capture that same initial burst of style or creative energy, Lam’s influence on the modern action picture is impossible to discount.
As with many names that would eventually rise to the top of the Hong Kong scene, Lam got his start in the world of comedy, doing journeyman work on the cheap for established producer Karl Maka. After their fourth movie together (also, coincidentally, the fourth film in Maka’s Aces Go Places series of action comedies) became a hit in their home market, Maka gave Lam license to write and direct the kind of movie he wanted to make. City On Fire was the result.
Consciously following in the footsteps of John Woo’s genre-defining A Better Tomorrow—including casting that film’s breakout star, Chow Yun-fat, as the conflicted undercover cop at its center—City Of Fire is exactly the kind of tense, grittily violent tale of divided loyalties that various American directors would spend the next 20 years occasionally copying, to varying degrees of success. Trading heavily on Chow’s angsty charisma (and Lam’s years of building up his action choreography chops), the film helped cement a whole universe of movies about bad men holding desperately to codes of honor that are increasingly out of line with their violent work.
The film was also, happily, a moderate success at the box office, making Lam’s name as a producer, and allowing him to spend the next decade bouncing between comedies and crime pictures (often with the words “On Fire” in the title, and with a similarly dismal view of Hong Kong society). At the same time, he began flirting more actively with the idea of trying to reach Western audiences; although he wouldn’t formally make the move to Hollywood until 1996—courtesy of his first Van Damme picture, Maximum Risk—movies like 1990's Undeclared War cast a number of non-Asian actors (including Olivia Hussey) in key roles. Hong Kong audiences were generally unimpressed, although films like the closer-to-home Prison On Fire II continued to be strong box office draws.
But despite his reputation (and status as a source of “inspiration” for budding directors like Tarantino), Lam never settled comfortably into the Hollywood world, failing to find even the modest success that greeted his contemporary, Woo. Part of it can probably be chalked-up to hitching his star to Van Damme; trapped in the long years between his Bloodsport prime and his later attempts at reinvention as a winking self-parody, the Belgian martial artist simply didn’t have the acting skills to give films like Risk, Replicant, or their final collaboration, the nasty 2003 prison thriller In Hell, the human touch that Chow so easily imbued in Lam’s earlier movies. The director himself isn’t off the hook either, though; his movies in the late ’90s and early 2000s betray the sense of a man growing increasingly bored with violence and crime, turning in workman-like efforts often damned with faint praise phrases like “not even Ringo Lam can save this one.” Although they were more varied in scope, Lam’s Hong Kong projects faltered in a similar fashion, leading him to take what would end up being a near-decade-long hiatus from making movies in the mid-2000s. Even then, his final two films, 2015's Wild City, and 2016's science-fiction-themed Sky On Fire, were both dubbed failures by critics.
Ringo Lam’s career, on reflection, is one haunted by a single, overriding ghost: The earlier career of Hong Kong director Ringo Lam. Every filmmaker, to some degree or another, is doomed to live in comparison with their past works. But Lam’s later films suggest a man who felt he was trapped in a particular genre—at least in part because he’d helped invent it—but who could never quite evolve past its most basic beats. At the same time, he played a pivotal, undeniable role in shaping the face of action cinema in the 20th and 21st centuries, taking a risk on movies that married stark violence with an often depressingly open and emotional look at the ways modern society chews up the people trapped inside it. His flops will likely fade quickly from memory, consumed by a legacy that was already in the process of devouring so much of his later work.. But the human moments of connection that he captured, often in the midst of gunfire, betrayal, and tough-guy misery, will live on.
Lam was 63.