Updated: Apr 27, 2019
It’s common knowledge among cinephiles that Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs is, in fact, a complete ripoff of Ringo Lam’s City on Fire, despite being lauded for its creativity and originality. Except, like many Hollywood urban legends, that simply isn’t true; indeed, I doubt that the bitter contrarians that initially spread the rumor had even seen the earlier Hong Kong action thriller. Granted, the two films do share a few plot threads in common—an undercover cop infiltrates a gang of jewel thieves, a meticulously-planned robbery goes south, our hero is wounded, loyalties are tested—but the stories are presented in entirely different ways.
Lam, for example, follows a strictly linear narrative structure; Reservoir Dogs’ widely-praised use of anachronic order was Tarantino’s invention. City on Fire also depicts the botched heist in full detail, a benefit of its higher budget—though Tarantino uses his relative lack of financing to his advantage, turning an ellipsis into a tantalizing mystery. Ironically, Lam is also less interested in exploring the relationship between our protagonist and the criminals he’s deceiving (despite this being a major motivating factor in his character arc), instead emphasizing how his dangerous work puts a strain on his romantic life.
Obviously, I personally prefer Tarantino’s take on the material, though Lam’s version certainly has its moments. For one thing, City on Fire does a better job of delving into the psychology of exactly why a cop might grow to sympathize with a robber; most of the police officers we encounter are a dangerous mix or arrogant and incompetent, if not outright corrupt, and their shortsighted decisions pose a greater risk to the general public than any burglaries they manage to thwart. Ultimately, however, it feels unfair to compare the two movies so directly; they’re different beasts altogether.