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Case Number 02248

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The Master

Dimension Films // 1989 // 88 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Michael Rankins (Retired) // September 27th, 2002

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All Rise...

Editor's Note

Our review of The Master (2012) (Blu-ray), published February 20th, 2013, is also available.

The Charge

Loyalty. Honor. Vengeance.

Opening Statement

Every family has a Naked Baby Picture.

You know what a Naked Baby Picture is. Sometimes it's literally that—a photograph of you, when you were a baby, stark naked, that your parents love to drag out and pass around when company—especially your date—stops in for a visit. For no other purpose than to reduce your self-esteem to the size of a cocktail frank from sheer embarrassment.

You don't have to be naked in a Naked Baby Picture. Maybe it's a snapshot from your second birthday party, when you impulsively plunged your whole face into the cake, or that hideous junior prom portrait with you wearing the lime-green tuxedo and the troglodyte on your arm. It doesn't even have to be a picture. Maybe your Naked Baby Picture is a recording of your first tuba recital, or a home video of that elementary-school production of The Sound of Music in which you pranced around in lederhosen. Any object whose public display shames you is a Naked Baby Picture.

At Jet Li's parents' house, the Naked Baby Picture is this DVD of The Master.

Facts of the Case

Fresh-faced young Jet (Jet Li, Romeo Must Die, The One) arrives in sun-drenched Los Angeles via transatlantic airliner from Hong Kong in search of his venerable martial arts master, "Uncle" Tak (long-time Hong Kong action choreographer and star Wah Yuen). Uncle Tak has largely retired from hand-to-hand combat during his stay on American shores, earning his living as a humble herbal medicine practitioner.

Jet finds Uncle Tak's Chinese pharmacy in shambles and the old man missing. The newcomer meets May (Crystal Kwok, Police Story 2), who is as desperate as Jet to find Uncle Tak, since she works for the financial outfit that bankrolled the pharmacy. Jet and May's search for the aged kung fu guru runs them afoul of Johnny (Jerry Trimble, Full Contact, One Man Army), the renegade American sifu with the Camaro cut who's responsible for the destruction of Uncle Tak's shop.

As it turns out, Uncle Tak has been holed up with a young American friend named Anna (Anne Rickets). But even though his master's life has been spared, Jet determines to make Johnny and his crew of trailer-trash Chuck Norris wannabes pay for their assault on the old man. (Say it with me…"You have offended my family, and you have offended the Shaolin temple." Except there's no family, just a wizened old herb huckster, and the temple's a ginseng and gingko dispensary in L.A. Chinatown.)

You can bet that fists, feet, elbows, and knees will fly in the City of Angels before this one's over.

The Evidence

What a disappointment.

Anyone familiar with the classic collaborations of star Jet Li and director Hark Tsui in the Once Upon a Time in China trilogy will be left slack-jawed and stupefied by this lackluster, amateurish production. The Master, Li and Hark's first film together, is sadly devoid of the style and substance that would characterizes the duo's subsequent pairings.

The script here is juvenile, the pacing spasmodic, the production values abysmal, the acting chops virtually nonexistent, and the one element you'd expect to be able to rely on—the martial arts mastery of Jet Li—flashes onto the screen only in frustrating, poorly choreographed fits and starts. One would almost guess that Hark figured all he needed to do to appeal to audiences on both rims of the Pacific was shoot exteriors in the U.S. and throw a few Anglo faces in front of the camera.

Li looks completely at sea here. A dozen years after The Master he's still not much of an actor, but in the midst of this slapdash muddle he doesn't even look like much of a fighter. In the absence of the high-flying wire-assisted stunts of his later pictures, and with all the screen presence of a tuna salad sandwich with Miracle Whip, Li looks pitifully immature, even mortal. The rest of the cast is no help, because none of them can act or fight a lick, either. The great Wah Yuen has little to do except play the hapless victim, with the exception of a couple of brief sequences showcasing his once-legendary artistry. As the villain, Jerry Trimble attempts a ridiculous parody of the Martin Kove character in The Karate Kid, but come on, Jerry—whoever heard of a kung fu master sporting a mullet? Even Kwai Chang Caine, that fraud, knew better.

As if the film weren't already painful enough to watch, we're saddled with a brutally dubbed audio track that manages to make Iron Chef sound like Gosford Park. Even the American actors—all of whom, I presume, spoke English—are looped with wretchedly mismatched substitute voices. Dimension would have better served the worldwide DVD audience by restoring the film's original dialogue track (assuming it still exists) and offering English subtitles over the Chinese speaking parts. Instead, the viewer gets this Hobson's choice: either torturous dubbing or no sound at all.

Speaking of Dimension, we have the low-budget arm of the House of Mouse to thank for this shoddy barebones presentation. Despite a source print riddled with scratches, speckles, and other damage, Dimension decided not to invest a few paltry Disney dollars in restoring the film to some reasonable semblance of quality. The color palette, especially in the brighter scenes, is so badly faded as to appear almost bleached, and the constant assault of flyspeck flybys gets tiresome quickly. And, on my screener copy at least, the English captions completely break up into digital confetti at least twice.

The audio—gruesome dubbing aside—contributes no joy to the viewing experience. It's billed as a 5.1 Dolby Surround mix, but if you find much surround going on here, even in the combat sequences, your ears are sharper than mine. We're talking about a very basic, front-and-center balance with only an occasional half-hearted spark from the rear speakers. You'll have no trouble making out the dialogue, but seriously…do you want to?

The only supplemental content included on this disc amounts to free advertising: six trailers for other martial arts flicks available from Dimension, including the immeasurably superior Iron Monkey. If any of the rest are of the dubious value of The Master, I'd take a pass.

The Rebuttal Witnesses

Hey, isn't that the Tae-Bo guy in one scene? And are you sure that's not Martin Kove? What's with the skinny Mary Stuart Masterson clone who's shacked up with gnarly old Uncle Tak? (He must have a wicked stash of yak loin in the back of the herb shop.) And this business with the trio of Latino sycophants who trail Jet Li around for most of the film, groveling and fawning before him like toadies—did somebody actually think they were amusing?

Closing Statement

The Master offers nary a glimpse of what Jet Li and Hark Tsui would unleash on Hong Kong cinema two years later, with the first installment of Once Upon a Time in China. Unless you absolutely insist upon completing the Jet Li oeuvre on your DVD shelf, banish this loser to the cut bin at your local video rental outlet.

The Verdict

Jet Li: guilty of not hiding this Naked Baby Picture from the world. Hark Tsui: guilty of being capable of great craft and not delivering. Jerry Trimble: guilty of perpetrating hockey hair on an unsuspecting Los Angeles. Dimension Home Video: guilty of picking the pockets of martial arts fans eager for Hong Kong product. Hack voiceover talent: guilty, guilty, guilty. Bailiff, lock everybody up—I'll sort 'em out later.

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Scales of Justice

Video: 59
Audio: 60
Extras: 5
Acting: 56
Story: 58
Judgment: 58

Perp Profile

Studio: Dimension Films
Video Formats:
• 1.85:1 Anamorphic
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English, badly dubbed)
• None
Running Time: 88 Minutes
Release Year: 1989
MPAA Rating: Rated R
• Martial Arts

Distinguishing Marks

• Six Theatrical Trailers: The Legend 2, Twin Warriors, The Enforcer, The Defender, Fist of Legend, Iron Monkey


• IMDb
• Got Mullet?

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