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Director: Johnnie To

Stars: Lau Ching-Wan, Alex Fong, Carman Lee, Damian Lau, Ruby Wong, Raymond Wong, Lam Suet

This movie gets compared a lot to Backdraft. To me, that's a bit like comparing Hard-Boiled and Dirty Harry. Sure, both films share some similar themes and have the same basic plot, but they're quite different in both effort and execution. And that's the same case here. While both Backdraft and Lifeline focus on firefighters' trials both on and off the job, to me Lifeline seems much truer to life and thus the (much) more satisfying film. In fact, this is one of the best HK movies I have seen for quite some time.

The plot focuses on a squad of firefighters, of which Lau Ching-Wan is the old veteran, having been passed up many times for promotion for his unwillingness to work "by the numbers." The movie revolves around the squad going to calls, which often take on a documentary-like look and are quite realistic, and the downtime between calls, which seems to be more trying than the job itself. All of the members of the squad seem to have some kind of complication going on (Lau's relationship with doctor Carman Lee, for instance).

It's during these points that the movie stumbles a bit, delving a bit into melodrama (and introducing one of the most annyoing and untalented kid actors I have ever had the displeasure of seeing). However, even though the roles are mostly stock caricatures, all the actors do an excellent job of giving their characters dimensionality, especially Ruby Wong, who plays the squad's lone female member. She makes her character tough without being bitchy or overly macho and is a joy to watch throughout the movie.

And ultimately, that's what made Lifeline work so well for me. Even though I knew where the plot was headed (in this case, a big finale inside a burning factory), I wanted to see how the characters dealt with their particular situations. The usual Hong Kong "down" ending looming genuinely generated some suspense, unlike Hollywood movies like Backdraft, where you couldn't give a rip about what happens in the end because all of the people are cookie-cutter clones. When you combine this with some stunning action sequences (which put the actors into some very dangerous situations with real fire), you have the makings of a great movie, which Lifeline definitely is.

RATING: 8.75

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