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BLACK MASK

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Jet Li, Karen Mok, Lau Ching Wan, Francoise Yip
Director:  Danny Lee
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1
Video:  Widescreen 1.85:1 Anamorphic Transfer
Studio:  Artisan
Features:  See Review
Length:  102 Minutes
Release Date:  November 30, 1999

Film ***1/2

Black Mask is as fast and furious as they come.  If you want action, action, and more action, you’ve come to right place.  There’s probably more action in the first 30 minutes of this film than many other movies in the genre have in their entire running length.  And each sequence is explosive and powerful enough to be any other picture’s climactic sequence.  By the time this movie reaches its climax, you have a feeling you’re in for something spectacular.  And you’d be right.

This is an action film that mixes comic book superhero mentality with almost non stop, gruesome violence.  It’s kind of like The Phantom meets Quentin Tarantino.  It stars Asian martial arts legend Jet Li as Michael, a member of an experimental group of trained warriors known as Squad 701.  These are men and women who have been physically altered via a serum to the cerebral cortex.  They possess incredible strength, speed, stamina and durability.  They feel virtually no pain or fear.  But when they grow out of control, the government decides to end the experiment and destroy them.  Michael escapes (in the opening credits sequence, which is as exhilarating as anything I’ve seen in action), and later assumes a new identity as Simon, a quiet, peaceful librarian.  He has no idea if any of his old cohorts survived or not.

As he learns from his cop friend, Rock (Wan), a strange war has erupted in Hong Kong between the drug lords.  They seem to be killing each other off in rather brutal ways.  But when a kingpin is found with a digital time bomb sewed into his chest cavity, Simon recognizes the work of his old mates.  It’s a particularly grisly sequence, by the way, whereby the doctors supposedly can’t tell the wires from the arteries as they try to remove the bomb.

Knowing the 701 is seeking revenge against the government that created, then tried to destroy them, Simon must return to the violent past he put behind him.  He dons the black mask, and as a one man death machine, goes after his one time friends who are now out to see him dead.

Most American audiences got their first glimpse of Jet Li as the villain in Lethal Weapon 4.  In Hong Kong, he’s a major star, and for good reason.  He may be the fastest human being alive.  To watch him fight, climb, jump, and fly, is as much poetry in motion as Fred Astaire’s dancing.  He is an absolute action marvel, and a vibrant screen presence.

As mentioned, the film is almost all action.  It rarely slows for any kind of exposition, and when it does, those moments are satisfying…particularly the relationship between Simon and Rock.  Rock is a hard nosed, edgy detective who’s seen a little too much in his day and is always ready, almost eager even, to use his fists.  Simon is the quiet peaceful type, and the irony that Rock’s soft spoken friend is the deadly Black Mask is a nice touch in their chemistry.

The film boasts an occasional laugh, but without the constant wisecracking of most American action films.  My favorite is when Rock cuffs one of the 701 members to a rail.  Feeling no pain, the crazed assassin pulls out a big knife, and whacks off his own hand to free it from the cuff.  Rock stares at him blankly and remarks, “I have a key.”  Or the humorous play between Simon and Tracy (Mok), a fellow librarian who stumbles blindly into the mayhem.  Thankfully, the film doesn’t indulge itself in a real romantic angle as other such movies would do.  Nothing throws the action off track.

And the climax…well, you’ve never seen the like.  A long, brutal, bloody battle between Simon and his former commander in the underground hideout of the 701.  One particular segment involves the use of live electrical cables as weapons.  Given their genetically altered nature, you know neither man will go down easily. 

But I can’t stress enough…Black Mask is a lot more gruesome than most Asian martial arts pictures.  The violence is harsh, and there’s a lot of blood, guts, severed limbs and more.  Not even John Woo’s signature style of picture comes close to the sheer, unabashed and audacious violence this film has to offer.  This is not like a Jackie Chan movie, in other words.

If that prospect doesn’t bother you, and you love good action, then this is one of the most explosive, over the top, and jaw dropping spectacles that will cross your screen.  You can do better story wise, but not much better for pure, adrenaline pumping energy.

Video ****

This is a quality anamorphic offering from Artisan…of their best, in fact, in terms of transfer.  This is possibly the best looking Asian film I’ve seen on disc.  Images are sharp, and colors are natural, well defined, and contained, with excellent detail throughout.  I noticed no grain, nicks, or scratches, which doesn’t happen a lot with often poorly preserved Asian pictures…although this particular one is only three years old. 

Audio ****

The 5.1 soundtrack is dynamic and explosive!  One of the best moments is the aforementioned battle with electrical wires, as the sparking cables explode and sizzle against everything they came in contact with.  The sounds race from channel to channel in all directions smoothly and with plenty of sharpness.  The .1 channel also delivers nicely during some of the intense action scenes.  This is also easily the best dubbing job I’ve ever seen for an Asian film…never distracting, and often so perfectly matched that you completely forget about it.  Though as usual, I could have done without the Americanized touches of rap and rock music in the soundtrack.

Features ***

The disc contains a trailer and numerous TV spots, cast and crew info, a music video,  production notes, information on Li’s fighting style, and an uninspired trivia game.

Summary:

Jet Li looks to take his place amongst other popular Asian stars who have made names for themselves in the United States, like Sammo Hung, Jackie Chan, Chow Yun Fat and Michelle Yeoh.  With an explosive physical style and a great screen presence, there’s reason to look forward to much more from him.  In the meantime, action fans shouldn’t pass up the chance to see him at his best, in this fast, furious, relentless thrill spectacle now featured on a quality DVD.