HONG KONG — Ringo Lam, a Hong Kong film director best known for gritty crime thrillers like the 1987 classic “City on Fire,” died on Saturday at his home in Hong Kong. He was 63.
The police confirmed Mr. Lam’s death. The cause was unknown but the police said they found no reason to suspect foul play. Local news media said Mr. Lam had recently come down with a cold and that his wife had found him unresponsive in his bed.
Following the unexpected success of his fourth feature film, the action-comedy “Aces Go Places IV,” in 1986, Mr. Lam was offered a rare opportunity: a chance to write and shoot any film he wanted to make so long as the budget was under 4 million Hong Kong dollars, the equivalent of about $1.1 million today.
“I was puzzled, and at first I didn’t know what to film,” said Mr. Lam in a 2015 interview. “Eventually I decided that I enjoyed the realistic aspects of ‘The French Connection’” — the 1971 American production directed by William Friedkin — “and that I wanted to create a film containing similar grit.”
The result was the 1987 film “City on Fire,” starring Chow Yun-fat as an undercover police officer who penetrates a gang of thieves, becomes chummy with one of the robbers (played by Danny Lee) and gets caught up when a planned heist of a jewelry store goes wrong.
The film, which plays heavily on the themes of brotherhood and honor among thieves, became an instant hit, earning Mr. Lam the title of best director at the Hong Kong Film Awards in 1988. Today, it is widely regarded as a pillar of Hong Kong’s well-known gangster film genre, along with other classics like John Woo’s “A Better Tomorrow” (1986) and Johnnie To’s “The Mission” (1999).
Riding on the success of “City on Fire,” Mr. Lam quickly churned out two more films in the “Fire” series, “Prison on Fire” (1987) and “School on Fire” (1988).
“His tales of weary policemen and jumpy criminals have a depth, and a romanticism, that come from characterization and attention to quotidian detail rather than sheer visual polish,” Mike Hale, a critic for The New York Times, wrote in 2015.
“City on Fire” was famously a major source of inspiration for Quentin Tarantino, whose cult feature “Reservoir Dogs” (1992) so closely resembled Mr. Lam’s movie in certain plot points and staging elements that it raised questions about plagiarism.
“It’s a really cool movie,” Mr. Tarantino told the Baltimore Sun in 1995, referring to “City on Fire.” “It influenced me a lot. I got some stuff from it.”
The question of what Mr. Lam thought about suggestions that Mr. Tarantino plagiarized his work followed the Hong Kong filmmaker throughout his own career as well.
“I have been asked this question so many times,” Lam told an interviewer in 1996. “I don’t think about it.”
Ringo Lam was born Lam Ling-tung on December 8, 1955, in Hong Kong, then a British crown colony. After graduating from St. Peter’s Secondary School in Hong Kong in 1973, he enrolled in performing arts classes organized by the local broadcaster TVB.
After studying and working at TVB, Mr. Lam moved to Toronto, Canada, where he studied filmmaking at York University. In 1982, he returned to Hong Kong where, with the help of the Hong Kong director Tsui Hark, he got a job at Cinema City production company, which later backed “City on Fire.”
From 1983 to 2003, Mr. Lam made films at a rapid-fire pace, releasing a movie nearly every year — sometimes two in one year — including several direct-to-DVD collaborations with the action star Jean-Claude Van Damme.
In 1996, Mr. Lam made his directorial debut in the United States with “Maximum Risk,” an action thriller starring Van Damme. The next year, “Full Alert,” a blood-spattered Hong Kong action movie directed and co-written by Mr. Lam, won critical acclaim.
“I believed that I had killed too many people onscreen in my previous films, and when I looked back at all the violence, it sometimes made me shudder,” Mr. Lam said in 2015, referring to “Full Alert.” “Yet because reality is brutal and full of violence, I felt compelled to show it.”
The names of his survivors were not immediately available.
In his later life, Mr. Lam stepped back from filmmaking, with a few exceptions, citing a desire to focus on his personal life. At the time of his death, Mr. Lam was said to have been working with other Hong Kong luminaries like Johnnie To, Ann Hui and John Woo on a film called “Eight and a Half,” a long-planned project billed as a film in eight parts exploring Hong Kong’s history from the 1940s to the present day.
“I am at an age where I have something to say about life,” he told the South China Morning Post in a 2016 interview about “Sky on Fire,” a movie that he began shooting after his mother’s death.
“What is life? There’s nothing that I can do to decide when it ends. I am powerless and I am very angry, so I put that all onto the screen.”