Back in 1999, the star of martial arts action star Jet Li was rising. Following the lead of Jackie Chan ("The Tuxedo"), Li got his stateside debut by playing a villain in "Lethal Weapon 4". Hoping to cash in on Hollywood's 'next big thing', Artisan Entertainment took Li's 1996 actioner "Black Mask (Hak hap)", dubbed it into English, and let it loose on unsuspecting North American moviegoers. Though "Black Mask" only ended up raking in a paltry $12 million in admissions, that did not deter producer Tsui Hark ("The Legend of Zu") from starting work on a sequel, "Black Mask II: City of Masks (Hak Hap 2)", with himself at the helm this second time around. Unfortunately, not only does this seemingly unnecessary second instalment have no Jet Li, but it has no sense and offers no compelling reason for anyone in their right mind to even watch it, other than for some goofy subtitles.
Donning the chauffeur's outfit and mask this time around is newcomer Andy On who, as Black Mask, defends peace, liberty, and justice in the generically named 'B City'. Playing fast and loose with the mythology established in the first film, Black Mask gained his superpowers after being genetically engineered by a disembodied voice named Zeus, only to escape before being put into service as a corporate assassin-for-hire. However, Zeus has not forgotten about his wayward son, and he sends out another genetically engineered assassin with funky glasses named Lang (Scott Adkins of "The Accidental Spy") to capture him.
Meanwhile, an unscrupulous wrestling promoter named Moloch (Tobin Bell, who lent his voice to "The Road to Eldorado") is doing some genetic manipulation of his own by injecting animal and plant (and probably vegetable) DNA into his stable of wrestlers, which include Thorn (pro wrestler Tyler Mane, who played Sabretooth in "X-Men"), The Claw (Rob Van Dam, also a pro wrestler), Iguana (Andrew Bryniarski of "Pearl Harbor"), Snake (Robert Allen Mukes), Wolf (Oris Erhuero of "Highlander: Endgame"), and Chameleon (Traci Lords of "Blade").
However, such genetic reengineering comes at a hefty price. When Iguana actually turns into a big iguana and begins wantonly killing innocent bystanders during a match, Black Mask steps in to restore order and sets his sights on Moloch. But before he can bring Moloch down, Black Mask finds himself injected with tiger DNA, putting him on the same destructive path as Iguana and his fellow wrestlers. Thankfully, Black Mask finds help from genetic scientist Dr. Marco Leung (Teresa Herrera of "Gen-Y Cops"), who may be able to reverse the process, if she is able to overcome her paralysing phobia against men.
Tsui Hark has long been considered the 'Steven Spielberg of Hong Kong'. However, with perhaps the exception of 2000's "Time and Tide (Seunlau ngaklau)", the quality of his work in recent years has mirrored the overall decline in Hong Kong cinema, and he is quickly on his way to becoming the 'Roger Corman of Hong Kong' instead, with this latest cinematic atrocity being proof positive.
First of all, the script seems to have been built around trying to do the Chinese version of "X-Men" on a shoestring budget without any regard to logic or flow. Indeed, the Zeus/Lang storyline completely disappears from the film after the first fifteen minutes, only to be picked up as the story draws to a close, as though someone completely forgot about them. In addition, the film's attempts at comic relief, mostly through Dr. Leung's unnatural aversion to men, end up being feeble at best. And as if trying to cover all the bases, Tsui throws in an annoying kid (Sean Marquette of "Sweet Nothing") to tag along.
Even the film's action sequences also leave a lot to be desired. The film's martial arts are choreographed by Yuen Woo-ping, the man behind the action in "The Matrix" and "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon", though the artistry ends up being lost beneath the same overblown use of CGI that actually made the supernatural battles in "The Legend of Zu (Shu shan zheng zhuan)" boring.
Finally, in terms of performances, there is probably more cheese on display here than in your neighborhood deli. Newcomer On gives a hard-jawed but bland performance as the titular hero, while Herrera does her best within the confines of her underwritten and gimmicky character. The rest of the cast is mainly called on for their physical attributes, though former porn star Traci Lords ends up being substituted by computer animation for the bulk of her action sequences. Finally, audiences will probably recognize veteran Hong Kong character actor Blacky Ko of the "Young & Dangerous" film series as a police detective, Terrance Yin ("Gen-X Cops") as a co-worker of Dr. Leung who obviously missed out on sexual harassment training, and Jon Polito of "Homicide: Life on the Street" fame in the thankless role of Mr. King, the manager of the mutated wrestlers.
If there is one consolation in watching such a lousy film, it is that "Black Mask II: City of Masks" is unintentionally hilarious if you read the English subtitles (or flubtitles) that correspond to the Chinese language track on the Hong Kong-import VCD release. While some of the dialogue in the film is nearly identical between the English and Chinese language tracks, a lot of it diverges rather significantly. For example, while the film's opening sequence has no English dialogue, the Chinese language track has a pretentious voice-over about God creating the world in six days, echoing a similar monologue given by Nicholas Tse at the start of "Time and Tide".
However, as the film drags on, the subtitles become even more bizarre, as though whoever wrote the Chinese dialogue was on drugs. For example, when the mutant wrestler receive a motivation speech from Mr. King prior to a match, the Chinese dialogue translates to, "Remember when we lived in a timber house? Six people shared one can of lunchpork. All of us were nothing but skin and bones." And when the wrestlers and their respective superpowers are introduced with MTV-style sequences and no English dialogue, the Chinese dialogue offers choice commentary such as:
But wait, there's more. While raiding a port facility to score some iridium, the mutant wrestlers wander by a group of caged elephants, which inspires the brilliant comment, "It's so good to see an elephant!" And while the fight sequences are peppered with the usual grunts and groans on the English language track, the Chinese track randomly throws in phrases such as "I am just working!", "So funny he shoots his leg by himself!", and harking back to those badly dubbed chopsocky films from the Seventies, the old standard "Dare you beat my brother!"
"Black Mask II: City of Masks" was originally supposed to see a North American theatrical release, but after sitting in limbo for a year (for obvious reasons), it ended up going straight to video on these shores. The recent Hong Kong-import DVD and VCD releases have tried in vain to turn this sow's ear into a silk purse by using popular Hong Kong actors, such as Andy Lau ("Infernal Affairs") for the Cantonese dub, though it is still the same train wreck of a movie. If it was meant to be a comedy, I suppose "Black Mask II: City of Masks" sort of works with some of the best flubtitles seen in a recent Hong Kong film. Alas, unless you like watching bald overweight men in rubber suits beating each other senseless enhanced by CGI and wire work, "Black Mask II: City of Masks" should remain incognito.