Black Mask (1996)

Own it!

review by Scott Hamilton and Chris Holland
See also:

Zorro's Black Whip

Heroic Trio

Once Upon a Time in China

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Black Mask

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Our rating: three LAVA® motion lamps.

Black Mask
"I bet Bruce Lee never had to do
anything like this!"
After Jet Li turned out to be the best thing about Lethal Weapon 4, it was inevitable that some Hollywood studio would release a dubbed version of one of his earlier HK efforts for consumption by American audiences. Filling that need is Artisan, a studio which has dubbed a version of Jet Li's 1996 thriller Black Mask, a violent superhero story.

Jet plays a librarian named Simon who has a secret. Yes, you guessed it, he's actually a genetically enhanced soldier who was a member of a super secret military unit named 701, all of the members of which were supposed to have been killed by the government they were created to serve. Simon's best friend in his new life is a kick-ass police detective named Rock (Lau Ching Wan), and the two of them play board games and discuss the nature of pacifism in their spare time.

Before long, however, Simon realizes that not all the other members of 701 are dead, as he believed. It seems that an entire battalion of 701 soldiers survived, and, under the leadership of their Commander, they are making a violent play to take over the Hong Kong drug trade. Simon figures that Rock and the rest of the police department don't stand a chance against his former teammates, so he takes the next logical step: He makes himself a mask and goes off into the night to fight evil -- and immediately walks into a light pole, because that darn mask totally cuts off his peripheral vision.

Black Mask
"We are both so attractive --
I just can't stand it!"
Black Mask is not exactly the most interesting or logical superhero story ever created. For one thing, Simon is never given any motivation for wanting to wear his trade-mark mask. Batman dresses like a bat because of childhood trauma, and Superman goes around in his underoos because he wants to be a symbol. Frankly, it would make much more sense for Simon to just wear a ski-mask, because all he wants to do his hide his identity. Also, Simon as Black Mask resembles the Green Hornet's sidekick Kato -- even Simon's co-worker, Tracy, says so. Sure, Kato was played by Bruce Lee on the short-lived Green Hornet TV series, but he was a chauffeur for Pete's sake! Why would anyone who isn't a chauffeur want to dress like one? Chauffers don't strike terror into the hearts of evil doers, either. "Stop, or I will drive you to the opening of the newest Planet Hollywood, where Bruce Willis will be singing an interminable cover of a Muddy Waters tune!"

Like a lot of HK action films, the script to Black Mask is kind of weak. The editing job that Artisan inflicted on the film doesn't help. We haven't seen the original HK version of the film, but we can only assume that Artisan has removed large passages of exposition and scenes have been rearranged. Take, for instance, the early scene where, the day after Black Mask's first mission, Simon asks Rock if he can see a prisoner captured by the police the night before. That prisoner is Kae-Lin (the unbelievably hot Francoise Yip), one of the 701ers with whom Simon had a particularly close relationship. The only problem with that is that Kae-Lin clearly escaped from the police the night before. Much later in the film there is a scene where the police do seem to capture her, and she's wearing the same bad wig she wore in the film's earliest scenes. Why this shuffling was deemed necessary is not clear to us, but these scenes and the repeated use of voiced-over exposition point to a hatchet job.

Black Mask
"Paper, scissors, rock! Get it? Rock?
Hey Rock? Why are you looking at
me like that, Rock?"
We are also puzzled by one other editing choice made by the U.S. producers. The library where Simon works is found shot up at one point, and the dialogue indicates that none of Simon's co-workers were actually hurt. This seems unlikely to have been true in the original version, judging from the large blood splatters clearly visible all over the room. To make a point of allowing these ancillary characters survive seems arbitrary, seeing as how the movie has so much violence, some of it amazingly graphic. One example that comes to mind is when mobster King Kao (Anthony Wong, who seems to be on a career long mission to play increasingly bizarre and repulsive characters) explains to the cops that 701 sent him his daughter's legs. In a box. And he has that box with him.

Everything we've talked about so far deals with the movie's plot. Pshaw! This is a Jet Li film, we want to see the man kick some booty! A lot of the action scenes are built around automatic weapons, and that's a bit of shame because Jet Li is such a powerful martial artist. Watching Jet Li wield an uzi is akin to watching Chow Yun-Fat perform kung fu -- it's not just his forte.

Thankfully, there are three excellent martial arts scenes. In one, Black Mask and Kae-Lin duel in a maze of pipes that are high on top of a building. And then there's the final confrontation, where Black Mask must first put down a Caucasian 701er, and then he has to take on the Commander in one on one combat. The fight with the Commander is our favorite kind of HK fight, where the combatants use everything not nailed down as a weapon. At various times, the fight here involves a railgun that fires animated bullets, an airtight chamber, a gas mask and scuba tank system, big-ass power cables used like whips, and some razor-edged compact discs.

Black Mask
"I knew that Columbia House CD club
would come in handy eventually!"
An another positive note, Black Mask also takes a bit of time for some character development, not only on the romantic side (Tracy accidentally stumbles on his secret life and becomes a simultaneous prisoner and sidekick), but between Simon and Rock as well.

Simon: You think violence is the answer to everything!

Rock: So what, I should just let them kick your ass? Come here, I'll do it for them!

Hong Kong movies do this especially well -- they can stop the action without stopping the plot. It's an art that seems lost as of late in Hollywood films, even though the action scenes in those same Hollywood flicks rarely match the intensity of the fights found in their HK counterparts.

Black Mask is much more of a kung-fu flick than a superhero movie; its over-the-top spurts of blood and severed limbs aren't likely to score points with parents. But as with Replacement Killers, fans of Hong Kong action movies will probably enjoy the ride while sending a message to the movie studios: Asian stars like Jet Li are making great films and deserve to be seen here in the U.S.

Review date: 05/17/1999

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