The heat is on... and off
Exciting fiery hazards rescue this lightweight disaster flick from being a humdrum melodrama.
DON’T you just love those old Irwin Allen disaster movies like The Towering Inferno and The Poseidon Adventure where the characters would be put through one stressful, hazardous situation after another?
Like, they’d swim through a submerged room to get to some outlet tunnel, emerge from the other side after one or two of them almost drown, and then find the way ahead blocked by jets of steam escaping from a broken pipe, with the shut-off valve about 20m straight up?
Not only is it thrilling to watch, it also gives actors like Gene Hackman a chance to engage in some watchable, memorable rants against the higher power that keeps putting them through the wringer.
Well, the Pang Brothers have done Mr Allen one better, by having the hazards come at the survivors of their burning-building melodrama simultaneously!
Just so, you know, the audience doesn’t start pointing fingers at this or that character accusing him or her of just standing around while the principal actors (i.e. the heroes) do all the work.
So when the main characters are busy saving people from fallen debris and office fixtures, expect others to be dealing with life-or-death situations of their own, like emergency tracheotomies. Really. And they’ve got to do it all before the CGI crew removes the very floor they’re standing on, without so much as a by-your-leave.
Inferno is a disaster movie, make no mistake. It’s about the perils faced by a motley group of survivors trapped in a Guangzhou commercial highrise after some wild coincidences bring the main characters there.
It’s also about two estranged brothers, Keung (Louis Koo) and Tai-kwan (Sean Lau). Aren’t those rather dissimilar sibling names? Kind of like Danny and Oxide, perhaps. But I digress.
They are both firefighters, but after an incident in the recent past drove a wedge between them (don’t ask ... let the flashbacks do their job), Keung went his own way.
Instead of saving a few people at a time, he decided to go into the business of selling fire prevention equipment and systems, while Tai-kwan stayed on with the fire department.
On the day of the movie’s titular disaster, Tai-kwan drops his pregnant wife Sin Lok (Lee Sinje) off for her checkup at the maternity clinic which happens to be in the very same building in which Keung’s new company is located.
Some maintenance guy’s carelessly dropped cigarette starts a fire in the basement and, well, it just gets worse from there. Server-room problems cause Keung’s sophisticated fire prevention system to go wonky, the fire rages out of control, and to make matters worse, some idiot tenant has stored volatile chemicals in bulk inside the building, hidden within mineral water cartons.
Of course, Tai-kwan is part of the team called to the scene – and all this on the day he decides to resign from the department so he can be a more attentive husband (and father, when the time comes).
There’s really not much else to it. The usual disaster-movie suspects troop past the camera: the family (including Malaysian lass Crystal Lee) that’s setting up a new office in the building, the overworked jeweller’s assistant who sees an opportunity to grab some diamonds for himself, the father-and-son security guard team, the cocky doctor who turns from rooster to chicken but later gets a shot at redeeming himself ... you get the idea.
Inferno is not short on life-threatening situations, some explosive, some really edge-of-the-seat, and these actually rescue the movie. Because really, the story is so flimsy and awkwardly slapped together that the merest warm draft (let alone a backdraft!) would be enough to scatter it to the four winds.
There’s hardly any examination of the characters, except maybe Tai-kwan, with Lau giving some quiet, measured introspection to the scenes where he is considering his future.
Keung, played by the ubiquitous Koo, is all flash and written with not much substance; really, all he seems to be there for (when he’s not going through one of those nailbiting rescues) is to look sullen and scowl at his brother, as if this was The Glowering Inferno.
As for the supporting characters, well, just about the only decently realised one is Chen Si Cheng’s very human doctor, whose moments of indecision, weakness and redemption are actually better – though that’s not saying much – than any of the drama involving the two brothers.
And the less said of the pouting, whining Sin Lok, the better. Seriously, this character is so expendable she should be in a movie with Sylvester Stallone and Jason Statham.
It doesn’t look like Inferno is getting a 3D release here, which is a pity; from the way many scenes are set up, I got the feeling that the sense of depth – as one character after another dangles over chasms, lift shafts and other sharp drops – would have been really impressive and immersive, like in Dredd last year.
In 2D, Inferno is a decent diversion if fiery thrills and suspense are all you’re after; just forget about any kind of depth, and I don’t mean just the absence of 3D.