Island of Fire (1990)
Reviewed by: ewaffle on 2006-01-17
Summary: Dreadfully derivative and dull
There are several ways to avoid going to prison. Most of us chose the easy way—don’t commit crimes. Others, who make their living as criminals, try to avoid it by not getting caught—or if they do get caught, testifying against accomplices or other ways to make deals. In “Island of Fire”, however, both Andy Lau and Tony Leung Ka-Fai want to get into prison. Both succeed in perfectly parallel ways. Leung is a police officer who beats up a bunch of criminals and waits to be arrested. Lau is a criminal who beats up a police officer.

Once in prison the inmates, including Sammo Hung and Jackie Chan are overwhelmed with conventions and cliches that have been mined from the rich vein of jail movies and dropped, in some cases almost without alteration, into this one. Chungking Cash mentioned the Sean Penn movie “Bad Boys”. In addition to the similarities he pointed out, the main indoor set is taken directly from “Bad Boys”—it could have been the same set. It is a two tiered jail, with cells on the bottom floor surrounding a large bullpen area, all enclosed by heavy chain link fencing, with more cells on a mezzanine overlooking the bullpen. Also like “Bad Boys” (and like a lot of other prison movies) new inmates have to walk a gauntlet of tough convicts when they are first brought onto the unit. Other scenes, including even the old-as-nitrate-film-stock searchlight on the prison wall, the armed guards circulating among the prisoners and the tough convict who actually ran things, have been seen in “I Was a Fugitive from a Chain Gang”, “Angels With Dirty Faces” and “White Heat”, among others. Many others. Somehow the script writers missed “Reform School Girls” and “Chained Heat”, but probably not by much.

The main source for “Island of Fire”, though, is “Cool Hand Luke”, to the extent that Strother Martin would not have seemed terribly out of place telling the newly arrived inmates that “any man loud talking spends a night in the box” and “any man caught smoking in bed spends a night in the box”. A scene in which the convicts on a chain gang doing road maintenance finish early is from the Newman picture, as is the appearance of a comely lass with car trouble, an attempted escape while “shaking that tree, boss” and the egg eating (here rice eating) ordeal, plus, I am sure, several more that I missed. Foo Laap, Yip Wan-Chiu and Chu Yen-Ping really liked “Cool Hand Luke”. One direct reference is to another prison movie, when Sammo Hung’s cellmate tells him “I’ve seen The Great Escape and you aren’t Steve McQueen”.

“Bonnie and Clyde” shows up when a car is riddled with bullets in slow motion and even “Gallipoli” takes a turn very late in the movie when Jackie Chan and Andy Lau are stopped (dead) in a freeze frame as bullets slam into them.

Finding references to other movies was the only way I was able to make watching “Island of Fire” entertaining or even endurable. The very able cast might as well be sleepwalking through their underwritten roles. Jackie Chan’s part was obviously tacked on—he had almost no interaction with the other characters other than a mega-gunfight at the end and a knife fight with Andy Lau earlier. Lau never connected with the movie—one of his strengths as an actor is his coolness, his ability to play a part while not completely inhabiting it. In this case he just showed up and said his lines. Sammo may not be capable of giving a truly bad performance—he was able to transcend the wretched triteness of this script. Jimmy Wang Yu took time off from producing the flick to be a properly repellent prison boss who also set up contract murders and ran drugs from Southeast Asia.

Reviewer Score: 1