Artisan // 1998 // 98 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Nicholas Sylvain (Retired) // August 9th, 2002
An army of one...for hire.
One of martial-arts champion Jet Li's many films, Contract Killer is a modest action flick with a dash of humor. While Jet Li plays against his usual cool "action machine" type, Contract Killer still packs a nice punch as a film. However, the lack of substantive extra content is disappointing.
Fu (Jet Li) is a strangely quiet, down and out soldier who is looking for work as a hit man, but with little luck. When he crosses path with smooth-talking funny man Norman Lu (Eric Tsang), he gets a sharp wardrobe of Italian suits and an invitation to a special revenge contract killing. As we soon learn, Mr. Tsukamoto, as head of his eponymous corporate (criminal?) empire, has been mysteriously murdered, thus activating a special revenge trust fund. Whoever finds and eliminates his killers gets a cool $100,000,000!
Complicating matters further are Lt. Chan, a dedicated police officer (Simon Yam) who is investigating the whole mess, and Eiji Tsukamoto (Keiji Sato), the murdered man's grandson who enters the fray on his own vicious mission of revenge (and for the $100,000,000 of course). Fu quickly learns that Lu is hiding his own secrets. If Fu doesn't act fast, then the army of hit men lusting after the millions may come after the two of them!
Released initially as The Hitman and now Contract Killer, this is a typical representative of the genre. Built around Jet Li (Lethal Weapon 4, Romeo Must Die, The One), the simple story fortunately avoids the distractions of character development or superfluous romance. Let's face it, this is a genre of films more interested in pleasing the audience than blowing them over intellectually or in wooing members of the Academy. If you stick to the basic ingredients of a hero we can root for, fists and feet flying with athletic grace, and dry humor to complement the action, you can't go wrong.
Though Contract Killer loses momentum about half-way through, it only muddles around for about ten to fifteen minutes before the action kicks back in for a series of impressive battles. Hopefully you will be so dazzled by the frenetic combat that you won't try and puzzle through the plot. The leaps in fact and logic twisted my brain in pretzel fashion, so in the end I'm not quite sure how Contract Killer gets from point A to B. Still, it's a fun ride even if the pieces seem increasingly rough hewn and super-glued together.
Other than Jet Li, audiences on this side of the Pacific Ocean probably have never heard of any of Contract Killer's cast. As a whole, these are a seasoned group of professionals who clearly have a lot of experience in front of the camera. They know their roles well, and execute their tasks with style and humor.
The anamorphic video is a mixed blessing. The picture is generally crisp and clear, with good color saturation, but the flow of flecks, blips, and assorted defects ranges from a heavy shower to a light drizzle. At one point in chapter 12, the print even has a pattern etched into the lower left quarter of the screen for about ten seconds.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 mix is more like a good 3.1 mix, as the rear surrounds are used only for faint filler sound. On the up side, the subwoofer is used early and often to add punch, and although the mix is weighted toward the center channel, Contract Killer has a pleasantly active front soundstage.
I suppose that any extra content is a good thing, but for Contract Killer there is little beyond a small pack of trailers. The widescreen trailer for Jet Li's The One is flashy with an aggressive 5.1 mix, while the trailers for Contract Killer, Meltdown, and Legend of the Red Dragon are of expected (i.e. lower) video and sound quality. The photo gallery is just ten pictures and the filmographies are far less enthralling than, oh, say a commentary track, or just about anything else! If this were all the content Columbia TriStar could muster, I'd rather have them leave it off and adjust the selling price ($25 list) to a palatable barebones level ($15-20).
Though the musical selections do fit the subject matter at hand, the dominant songs in Contract Killer are of the American "gangsta rap" variety. This presents a twofold problem. Mashing together these songs with a Hong Kong martial arts flick is a dissonant juxtaposition of cultures akin to fingers across a blackboard. This might be a relatively small problem, but the fundamental flaw is that these songs...suck. They don't have the verbal kung fu or production polish to make them palatable. Sorry, guys, try again.
Finally, when a film is created in a foreign language, the original sound with English subtitles and an English dub should be an absolute minimum requirement. I know that there are people who hate subtitled movies, but I suspect that few of these people are suddenly going to run out and pick up the same movie if it has an English dub. Since Contract Killer lacks the original Cantonese and Mandarin 5.1 tracks (available on the previous Hitman release by Tai Seng Video), judging (and enjoying) the performances of the cast is far harder when you have to look past the over-enthusiastic English dub. That's a shame.
An adequately entertaining martial-arts flick, Contract Killer is worth a rental for the average viewer. Genre fans and Jet Li groupies may consider a purchase, but I would caution against blind purchasing for less than devoted aficionados.
Contract Killer is released from custody, but Columbia TriStar is found in contempt and summoned back to my chambers for a friendly chat about proper DVD presentation.
Review content copyright © 2002 Nicholas Sylvain; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (Spanish)
Running Time: 98 Minutes
Release Year: 1998
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Photo Gallery
* Theatrical Trailers