Black Mask (1996)

Directed by: Daniel Lee
Written by: Tsui Hark, Teddy Chan, Koan Hui & Joe Ma
Producer: Tsui Hark
Starring: Jet Li, Lau Ching Wan, Karen Mok, Francoise Yip, Patrick Lung & Anthony Wong

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NOTE: This review replaces the Mei Ah (Old Version) vs. Thundermedia comparison previously on the site.

Nominations at the Hong Kong Film Awards 1997:
Best Action Choreography (Yuen Woo-Ping)
Best Art Direction (Eddie Ma & Bill Lui)
Best Costume & Make Up Design (William Fung & Mabel Kwan)

Finally Kato gets his own movie in the form of Black Mask! Ok, Jet Li only resembles the character played by Bruce Lee in the TV-series Green Hornet and that was the final Bruce Lee reference in this review. Onto this movie...

Squad 701 consisted of a number of engineered supersoldiers with no ability to feel pain. In order to achieve that, their nerves were removed, something which in the long run caused problems and the project was terminated along with the team of soldiers. There were a few subjects however who managed to escape. One of them is Tsui (Jet Li). He keeps a low profile working as a librarian but is forced into action when it is discovered that the other remaining members of Squad 701 are killing off drug dealers in order to conquer that market themselves...

Daniel Lee (director of What Price Survival & Till Death Do Us Part) takes the live action comic-concept and manages in more than a few aspects to deliver an entertaining ride. Firstly we have four credited screenwriters which makes no sense since one writer easily could've come up with this thin scenario. It's not very original and verges on the brink of silly at times but I do feel it's fitting for this comicbook adaptation that Black Mask is. Lee's direction works reasonably well most of the time with just a few negative things worth mentioning. A big plus is that the the running time fly by quite fast and Yuen Woo-Ping's action directing gives the film a good energy. Seeing as the movie is rather amped in its camera language for most of the running time, Daniel does take parts of the movie down to a calm level. As we'll discuss, though, he is very much guilty of being extremely frenetic overall.

The script doesn't give us hugely developed characters but the little that is there is is serviceable and performed on par with the genre requirements (no real commitment but no laziness either). The big flaw and annoyance in Lee's work is his persistence to employ shaky cam, in particular during the action. It's a style of his that worked tremendously well for the drama Till Death Do Us Part because it was part of one characters chaotic life and mind. In Black Mask, the result of this direction primarily hurts Yuen Woo-Ping's action since it becomes way too obscure than it ought to be. Still, there's enough quality actually visible and the camera language ultimately doesn't sink the film completely.

Cinematographer Tony Cheung (Drunken Master II) takes Daniel's ideas and brings them to the screen in a stylish fashion. The approach leans more towards natural and seems to feature a surprisingly small amount of strong colours (a staple of the genre, mostly in a negative way), at least during the first half. The slight, sometimes subtle production design does suggest that we're a little bit into a high technological future even if the film never proclaims it's set in the year 5000 or anything. There's decent atmosphere here and this world is portrayed as dark and pessimistic even. All this adds up to a capably lensed film but the MTV influence coming from director Lee again takes the cinematography down a few notches also.

Black Mask comes with basically 75-80% action and that is its main strength as it turns out. Yuen Woo-Ping's martial arts choreography was nominated but action and gunplay is more emphasized rather than martial arts itself. When Jet, in his hero outfit during the credits sequence, begins his escape, we get a nice taste of what to expect later of this movie. The stunts are good and the creativity on display is definitely of acceptable standard. Hong Kong movies have always given us that little extra in terms of action and I think Black Mask is a good movie to showcase that. In terms of martial arts we don't get anything spectacular though. When ground based we mostly see some basic punching and kicking, except one sequence with Jet vs. a Westerner that has a brief skirmish showcasing good timing. The gunplay aspects remain more true to the frantic approach by the filmmakers but when applied, works unexpectedly well with the camera. The wirework, working very much in dark settings (easier to hide the wires is a big advantage here) are exciting while they last, which aren't very long. On the other hand, the various action filled scenes doesn't end after such a fight and all in all are still fairly lengthy.

Black Mask is not an acting movie per say but it contains a number of moviestars to elevate the project. Jet Li needs no presentation but always worth referencing is his terrific role as Wong Fei-Hung in the Once Upon A Time In China-series. His character Tsui Chik has the most ''depth'' but not extremely much so compared to the other lifeless gallery of characters. Jet seems confident in the role but in reality, it's not much of a fine acting turn. What matters most because this is a Jet Li vehicle is his action performing. Jet's mostly aided by the wires but gets to show off his actual skill and timing in some instances (including parts of the climax).

Lau Ching Wan (from Big Bullet and most Milkyway productions ever made) plays the cop Shek and Tsui's only friend. He doesn't know about his other side though and lectures him all the time about taking care of himself in these violent times. That part is basically the only trait out of the ordinary hard boiled cop role. Lau Ching Wan's character is a tough cop, that's it, but even the most cliché filled character can be made watchable when it's played by someone like Lau Ching Wan. He actually performs in the action choreography and Yuen Woo-Ping does what he can with the actor but obviously gets someone to double him for the more difficult stuff. The result isn't seamless but I have to give kudos to Lau Ching Wan for showing dedication to this aspect of the film.

The female part of the casting consists of Karen Mok (God Of Cookery, So Close) and Francoise Yip (Rumble In The Bronx). Karen plays the typical happy and joyful and completely unnecessary female sidekick but since she has a smattering of comic talent, the performance doesn't become as irritating as it could've been. She could've easily been written out of the film though but then the makers wouldn't have had enough material for a feature film.

Francoise Yip however fares better as the former student of Tsui Chik's, now turned baaaaad. There's both evil and goodness inside of her, which result in some entertaining, over the top, acting by Yip, but also some very, very little warmth creeping through when confronted with the past. Not a classic performance but Francoise takes this role and runs with it, which is a good compliment. Finally I must mention Anthony Wong's supporting role and let's just say that nothing surprises me nowadays regarding Tony. He's game for anything and it's funny too see his 'I don't give a crap how sleazy this role is'-attidtude projected on screen.

Daniel Lee, even today, can't seem to make his particular visual style work for him on a constant basis. Despite that misstep once again, Black Mask still proves to be good entertainment, Hong Kong style.

The DVD:

A 1.78:1 framed print with anamorphic enhancement has been newly struck by Mei Ah and it's an impressive view. Obviously it doesn't take much to beat their old letterboxed dvd but the detail, colours and sharpness all register high. The print is near spotless also. One of the best Mei Ah remasters I've seen so far.

Note that this print is censored, although it's an edit that should match what played in Hong Kong cinemas. There are various snippets of gory violence removed from most action scenes, such as impact hits and general bloodflow, that perhaps would've propelled this Jet Li vehicle up to the Cat III rating. In all we're talking about 40-50 seconds ''missing'' but the censored parts remain present in the Taiwan version and the various International versions, all working from an uncensored print. The cuts are not very noticeable overall if you don't know of them but the scene involving the severed hand is a jarring cut if I ever saw one.

I never looked through the old Mei Ah dvd but that did not have the neck bloodspurt during the beginning. That is now reinstated here along with the text crawl from the Taiwanese print that goes more into detail why the experiments went wrong. The Taiwan edit also adds a few more moments of gore plus slight extended dialogue, primarily with the men at the library. Thundermedia released that edit and the transfer is average, subtitles are burned onto the print and only a Mandarin dub is available. If you're like me, you'd want that version also, just to know what's supposed to be in there when watching the Mei Ah remaster.

Mei Ah offers a rich selection of sound and with me only on a Pro Logic setup, the Cantonese Dolby Digital 2.0 option was choosen here. It's a lively mix mainly in the front channels, dialogue seems well balanced with music and effects but it does come off as a bit manufactured. With that I mean that it's a bit noticeable where effects have been foleyed in during post-production. This I don't believe is a remix issue, I think it's the original surround mix that came out like this. There's two brief sound dropouts on this track. First occurring at 48 minutes and 23 seconds, the other at the 64 minute, 26 second mark. They're especially noticeable since, in both cases, we're in the middle of an action scene. This dropout is only present on the Cantonese 2.0 track. Other audio options are Cantonese Dolby Digital 5.1 (this track seemed to be mixed higher in volume, even if it's downconverted for my setup), Cantonese DTS 5.1 and Mandarin Dolby Digital 2.0.

Mei Ah upgrades the subtitle situation by providing optional English ones as opposed to their old release that had the burned in English/Chinese subtitles. Looking at the scene where Tsui Chik and Shek are playing chess, the optional subs offer a straight copy of the original burned in subtitles but I can't say if same is true for the rest of the film. That doesn't present much of a problem though in terms of errors in grammar and structure though as the subs are pretty consistent throughout.. Whether or not they offer a good translation I can't say. Traditional and simplified Chinese subtitles are also available.

Under Special Features we find the theatrical trailer (with the black & white segments from the movie now in colour), a trailer for the much maligned Black Mask 2 (dubbed into Cantonese), Jet Li's filmography and the usual worthless Mei Ah Databank with plot synopsis plus cast & crew listing.

reviewed by Kenneth Brorsson