Artisan // 1996 // 89 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Chief Justice Mike Jackson (Retired) // December 10th, 1999
The world's last hope is a hero no one has ever seen.
Black Mask isn't the greatest example of Hong Kong cinema, but it's different enough to distinguish itself from Hollywood action flicks.
This may sound a bit unusual. I love martial arts movies, but I never watch them. Oh, I've seen Enter The Dragon and most of Jackie Chan's American releases, but I've never taken the time to really delve into the genre. I've had tastes of Hong Kong action, but little more than John Woo's American work or the terrific style that the Wachowski Brothers to The Matrix. The Matrix was exhilarating and utterly rewatchable -- I paid to see it five times in the theatres over the summer. So needless to say, I jumped at the opportunity to review this movie.
Black Mask has a similar visual style to The Matrix but a very different vibe and premise. There's a reason for the similarities, for both films benefit from the expert fight choreography of Woo-ping Yuen. Woo-ping Yuen has worked on many Chinese martial arts films (including Jackie Chan's classic Drunken Master), and has worked with martial arts master Jet Li (Lethal Weapon 4) on at least four other films. The great thing about watching Jet Li or Bruce Lee or Jackie Chan is that you know that when the cameras stop rolling and they're not performing rehearsed moves, these guys really know how to fight.
Frankly, no one watches a movie such as Black Mask for the story, but here's a quick summary. Michael (Jet Li) was a part of a test group -- Project 701 -- to bioengineer super-soldiers. The project isn't entirely successful (but then, what sort of project like this in a movie IS successful?), and the government wants to destroy all traces of it. Michael escapes, settles into life as a librarian, and assumes the name Simon. A year later, Hong Kong drug lords begin to be brutally killed. Simon's cop buddy, Rock, is assigned to the case. When a bomb shows up that could only belong to members of the 701 Squad (I won't spoil WHERE it shows up -- it's creative), Simon decides that he needs to take up the fight against his former teammates, and dons a mask to become the Green Hornet's sidekick, Kato...err, I mean, dons a mask to become the Black Mask. Naturally, bloody mayhem ensues, fights break out at random, and the film crew finds new and creative ways of demonstrating how much abuse super-soldiers can withstand. This isn't deep, folks, but it's pretty entertaining if action flicks are your bag.
The DVD presentation of Black Mask is better than I would expect for a movie of this lineage and caliber. There's quite a bit of extra content to be had. A theatrical trailer is presented in 1.85:1 letterboxed, along with four TV spots and a three-minute commercial for the soundtrack (more on the content of the soundtrack in the next section). There's notes on wushu, Jet Li's martial arts style, and direct access to nine movie clips that demonstrate "wushu in action." Cast and crew bios and production notes are also included. The scene access menu is a bit bizarre, but a film clip represents each chapter. It's a little thing, but this is only the second DVD I've seen that has had the "text" feature that displays the name of the movie on the front LED readout on my player. The movie itself is presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen. It looked pretty good on my 20" television. Colors were overly saturated, but I think that's supposed to be the comic book style of Hong Kong movies. The film seemed a bit grainy throughout. Dialogue, music, and sound effects were nicely balanced -- the sound elements did not overpower one another.
On a DVD that otherwise seemed carefully prepared, there were two things that struck me. When I first inserted the movie and was greeted by the menus, I was unpleasantly surprised. My first impression was that they had been designed by someone whose sole graphics arts training was designing particularly garish Geocities homepages. The picture of Jet Li looks like it was scanned into Photoshop, posterized, then a bright red glow applied. It's just plain nasty. I'm glad the menus are static...I'd be truly scared by this designer's animation concepts. The other nasty thing is the MPEG compression. The 89-minute movie and the extra content are crammed onto one layer of one side of the disc. My wife interrupted my viewing about half-way through the movie, and while the movie was paused, I could not help but notice the extreme compression artifacts. I paused it several times after that, and noticed the same problem each time. I've never noticed that problem, at least this pronounced, on any other disc I've watched. It didn't disrupt my viewing of the movie, but those with higher-resolution sets will surely notice.
One last note about the movie itself. I've noticed a trend, starting with Supercop, of using urban techno and rap on the soundtracks of the American versions of Hong Kong flicks. Maybe the U.S. producers think such music matches the musical tastes of the target audience. Personally, I wish they'd stick with the original soundtracks, whatever flavor they may be. I get tired of third-tier rap acts.
Fans of frenetic action and martial arts will get a kick (pun intended) out of this movie. Those with more discerning viewing tastes or weak stomachs will not.
Our filmmaking friends across the Pacific are acquitted on all counts. Their Hollywood counterparts are sentenced to 200 hours of repeat viewings of Cool As Ice for inflicting the rap soundtrack upon an otherwise enjoyable film. Artisan is instructed to enroll their production department in Graphic Design 101.
Review content copyright © 1999 Mike Jackson; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 89 Minutes
Release Year: 1996
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Theatrical trailer
* Four TV spots
* Trivia game
* Cast and crew bios
* Production notes
* Official Jet Li Site
* Wushu Exchange