"Black Mask" is the latest Hong Kong action flick to be ported Stateside, spurred by the warm welcome that its star, Jet Li, received from his North American debut, "Lethal Weapon 4". Originally released in 1996, this $10 million US martial arts extravaganza is one of the most expensive productions in the former British colony, and it is quite evident in the film's lavish production values. Unfortunately, other than some impressive demonstrations of Li's martial arts prowess and some moody cinematography, there is very little in the "Black Mask" to hold viewer interest.
In some unspecified near future time, members of Commando Squad 701 are subjected to brain surgery in a scheme to build a better soldier. With their nerves severed, these super-soldiers are impervious to pain and lack the emotional responses that might compromise their judgement in the field. Unfortunately, one of the human guinea pigs becomes mentally unbalanced and goes on a killing spree, prompting the Hong Kong government to shut down the program and order all the test subjects killed.
However, one member of 701 (Li) escapes and assumes the identity of Tsui Chik, a mild-mannered librarian who spends his days reshelving books or playing Chinese chess with his only friend, a loner police inspector named Shek (Lau Ching-Wan of Ringo Lam's "Full Alert"). But at night, Tsui dons a disguise and roams the city of Hong Kong to fight crime as... the Black Mask!
Meanwhile, it seems that the Black Mask was not the only member of 701 to survive the government's nefarious plans. The other remaining members of the former elite fighting squad have banded together under the leadership of the crazed Hung (Patrick Lung Kang). Under his leadership, the former commandos begin muscling in on the Hong Kong drug trade by assassinating all the local crime bosses. With the help of his policeman friend, the Black Mask wages a clandestine war against his former colleagues, whose methods are brutal and moves are deadly. Unfortunately, his task is complicated by the presence of his former lover (Francoise Yip of "Rumble in the Bronx"), now a deadly assassin in the employ of Hung, and the meddling of a ditzy librarian (Karen Mok of "Fallen Angels"), who is enamored by the Black Mask's civilian alter ego. With surgically implanted explosive devices, machine gun-toting killers on roller blades, and the predictable romantic complications that normally ensue in these masked avenger flicks, the Black Mask certainly has his work cut out for him.
Producer Tsui Hark ("Knock Off") and director Daniel Lee ("What Price Survival") have created a very slick-looking homage to the 'masked avenger' genre, with some very obvious references to Bruce Lee's Kato character from "The Green Hornet". With some hyper-reality camerawork (à la Kirk Wong), well-choreographed fight sequences by veteran Yeun Woo-ping (who also choreographed the fights in "The Matrix"), and surprisingly high production values (for a Hong Kong film, that is), "Black Mask" certainly has the beginnings of a better-than-average popcorn movie.
Unfortunately, the other elements of the film sabotage an otherwise glossy production. First of all, the folks at Artisan Enertainment have decided to re-dub the dialogue into English. Though the voice actors have done an admirable job in synching up to the lip movements, the translated dialogue comes across cheesy, and it is difficult to keep a straight face through some of the atrocious lines that are uttered.
Second, though Jet Li may be a master in martial arts, his skills as a thespian leave much to be desired. Li's entire acting repertoire is generally limited to three facial expressions and can be summed up as MSG-- mad, sad, and glad. Though this fits with the rigors of Li's character, who is supposed to be aloof as a result of the experiment he was subjected to, it is very difficult to become emotionally involved with a protagonist who remains wooden and detached throughout the entire film. With such a bland demeanor to carry the film, "Black Mask" ends up being not much more than a ninety-minute whirlwind of noise and violence. This is most evident in the film's climax, which involves a ten-minute of bone crunching fight sequence. Instead of becoming engaged in the Black Mask's quest to right wrongs and protect the innocent, all the audience ends up seeing are two grown men trying to beat each other senseless, which quickly becomes boring after the first few minutes.
The story also leaves a lot to be desired, filching ideas and concepts from other films. The comic book plot elements of "Black Mask" are quite evident, with the simplistic character archetypes and stock situations that are commonplace in the 'masked avenger' genre. Unfortunately, these same elements have been better utilized in other films, such as "Batman" and "The Mask of Zorro", and in "Black Mask", the application of these elements to the plot mechanics are juvenile at best. Even more unwelcome are the painful attempts at comic relief, often involving Mok's character, which bring the film's otherwise snappy pacing to a complete standstill.
Finally, though "Black Mask" boasts some decent special effects and set design, I spotted a number of production gaffes that completely dispelled the suspension of disbelief required for such a film. The most notable was the clearly visible wirework evident in a number of scenes that allowed the actors to carry out the almost-impossible feats of acrobatics. Considering the years of cumulative experience between Tsui and Lee, it is difficult to believe that they would miss a detail such as this.
When "Black Mask" was released in Hong Kong back in 1996, Chinese audiences were cool to the concept, and the total box office take was far below expectations. With its North American release this week, it seems that history is about to repeat itself. Other than being a showcase for the latest Asian sensation Jet Li, "Black Mask" has little to offer moviegoers who are neither fans of it star or of martial arts in general.