The action films of Hong Kong director Ringo Lam are gritty, cynical, and full of moments of brutality more punishing than most anything to come out of Hollywood. No wonder Quentin Tarantino—whose Reservoir Dogs borrows themes and imagery from Lam’s breakthrough film, City on Fire (1987)—is a fan. Lam isn’t as well known as his fellow Hong Kong New Wave directors John Woo (A Better Tomorrow, Bullet in the Head) and Tsui Hark (Peking Opera Blues, Once Upon a Time in China), but he nonetheless directed a couple of major hits that helped redefine the national action cinema: City and its immediate follow-up Prison on Fire (1987). Wild City, currently playing at the River East 21, is his first feature in 12 years (though he codirected 2007’s Triangle with Hark and Johnnie To). That’s relatively big news for fans of Hong Kong auteur movies—and who knew there were so many of them in Chicago? When I went to see it in the early afternoon on Saturday, the next two shows were already sold out.

Why is Lam’s return to filmmaking worth celebrating? For one thing, his movies don’t feel like anything being made in America right now. When Lam’s at his best—in Prison, Full Alert (1997), and the good parts of Wild City—the American filmmaker he reminds me of the most is Samuel Fuller (The Steel Helmet, Underworld U.S.A.). Like Fuller, Lam mixes topical subject matter, pulp narratives, blunt moralizing, and gruesome action. He’s also capable of the sort of brute poetry that Hong Kong action movies do especially well, not to mention the superior stunt work that made the 80s and 90s New Wave films so groundbreaking. The violence in Lam’s films always looks like it really hurts. (I consider myself a pretty desensitized viewer after watching so many action and horror films on a regular basis, and yet I consistently gasp at Lam’s violence.) This is due not only to the tremendous stunt work, but also to the stark worldview that frames nearly everything as a life-or-death situation.

In a recent Film Comment interview with screenwriter Hiroshi Fukazawa, Lam said that he stepped away from filmmaking to focus on being a father, and the despairing tone of Wild City suggests that of a concerned parent who’s sick to death about his children’s future. It’s not at all subtle in its condemnation of contemporary society—it opens with the hero delivering a monologue about how everything is for sale in contemporary Hong Kong (“. . . even your innocence”), and one of the climactic images is of a statue of Justice being shot to bits in a gunfight. Lam even undercuts the happy ending by having the hero tell us that no good news will stop the rich from getting richer and the poor from getting poorer. Wild City basically associates wealth with brutality—the main characters spend most of the film running for their lives because one of them has a suitcase filled with bribe money.

The woman who comes into the possession of the money isn’t even greedy or corrupt. (As in Johnnie To’s recent Life Without Principle, a Hong Kong thriller that doubled as a critique of the investment banking industry, capitalism is presented as being as random as it is brutal.) Yan is the girlfriend of a lawyer who asks her to deliver the bribe on behalf of a mainland Chinese hotelier he represents. When the intended payee says he expects to have sex with Yan as part of the deal, she flees, taking the money with her. This leads her boyfriend to call on five toughs from Taiwan to get the money back from her, attacking anyone who tries to stop them. When the film introduces Yan, she’s hiding out at a bar, which happens to be run by T-Man (Louis Koo, a frequent leading man in Johnnie To’s films), a disgraced former cop. T-Man takes Yan to his stepmom’s place to sleep after she passes out. The next morning, he and his ne’er-do-well stepbrother Chung start to drive her back to her car, only for the toughs to show up. Next thing they know they’re Yan’s protectors, running all over town with her as she flees criminals and T-Man’s former colleagues on the police force.

The conflict of Wild City—which finds Taiwanese and Hong Kong characters in a desperate struggle for mainland Chinese money—suggests an allegory about getting by in Hong Kong in the era of China’s ascendancy as an economic powerhouse. “Most experienced [Hong Kong] filmmakers and crew members have moved and work in mainland China now—they’re out of Hong Kong,” Lam told Fukazawa, noting that Hong Kong movies are having a harder time competing with those from mainland China. This despair comes through in a scene of Wild City when one of the Taiwanese hoods laments that he’s been so busy tracing people all over Asia that he hasn’t been able to return to Taiwan in years—one of his colleagues retorts that working people have no choice but to go where the money leads them. And so, the film shows the characters doing exactly that, losing their humanity as they run and fight for survival.

“What bothers me the most is the decline of action stuntmen in Hong Kong,” Lam lamented in the interview, adding that

due to the common accessibility of CGI in recent years, no one does real action or real stunts like we used to film back in the Eighties . . . In Hong Kong film’s heyday, we made a brand name for our authentic, cutting-edge action sequences: we were selling the sense of realism and the feeling of genuine danger, not computer graphics.

In its intense stunt work (most of it done without CGI), Wild City feels like a throwback to the heyday Lam describes. But the immediacy of the stunts also serves to heighten the film’s suspense. Typical of Lam’s films, the characters seem driven to violence out of sheer desperation. You’re never certain of what they’re capable of doing, nor, does it seem, do they. People regularly flail at each other in Lam’s action sequences, as if they’re stalling for time before they come up with a better plan of attack. In one scene of Wild City, for instance, Chung attempts to evade some of the villains by hiding under a parked truck. One of the villains instinctively takes out a knife and slashes the tires, so that the sinking vehicle might crush him to death unless he comes out to face them. Lam shows the truck sinking for long enough to give the moment genuine weight—for a few seconds, a palpable fear of death pervades the film.