Monday May 17, 1999
You know you're living in a global village when a martial arts movie from Hong Kong comes laced with gangsta rap and when every other gloomily lit, elliptically cut shot reminds you of a) a mainstream Hollywood action flick, b) an American superhero comic book, c) bad '60s TV or d) an incomprehensible if stunning-to-watch rock video.
The motion picture in question, the frenetic "Black Mask," stars Jet Li, the Chinese wushu (martial arts) star who made his American debut as the bantamweight heavy in "Lethal Weapon 4." First released in Hong Kong in 1996, "Black Mask" opened here Friday without previews, which is just as well because this is a critic-proof movie if there ever was one.
The reason it's similar to American action movies, of course, is that so many Hollywood films these days are themselves the result of cultural miscegenation, borrowing liberally from a Hong Kong cinema that has long excelled at this sort of "B" action picture.
"Black Mask" is sprinkled with references to "The Green Hornet" and "Batman," yet it feels unadulterated. Excess plot and texture have been burned away. What's left may not be pure, but even the impurities have been stripped to their essence.
These kinds of movies don't exactly aspire to the Aristotelian ideal. What counts is the frequency and audaciousness of the stunts, the inventiveness with which people get maimed or killed. (This is not the movie to show Congress given the current anti-movie-violence mood).
The whoa! quotient of "Black Mask" is very high and at times it's quite funny. And like those aforementioned rock videos, it has its share of evocative shots (a flying white dove here, a visual quote from Sergie Eisenstein there) that look cool but signify nothing.
That said, be aware that much of "Black Mask's" plot and a good deal of its rapidly cut action sequences are mystifying. Characters show up without cause or plausibility whenever the screenwriters need them. People behave illogically, which perhaps is a given, but even the movie's own internal logic is peculiar. If you think about what you're watching, you'll find yourself asking over and over why did this character do this or how does that one know that?
The secret, of course, is not to think. Just go with it. Either you can hang or you can't. If you can't, well, you shouldn't be here.
The plot, such as it is: Li is a former member of an elite military force, now leading the peaceful life of a librarian. The squad was abandoned by the government after it learned that the chemicals that gave members their super powers would eventually kill them. But the remnants of the squad turn up and disrupt Li's quiet routine. They're murdering the drug lords of Hong Kong and taking over their business. World domination is their aim.
Li was All-Around National Wushu Champion in China for four years running before becoming a popular action star. He is a magnetic presence--and his balletic stunts are amazing. Lau Ching Wan is equally powerful as Rock, a hardheaded police detective who thinks he's invincible. And Francoise Yip, as a kung fu-fighting femme fatale, could teach Carrie-Anne Moss from "The Matrix" a thing or two about high kicking. (She will be familiar to American audiences as Jackie Chan's co-star in "Rumble in the Bronx.")
Most of the humor is supplied by Karen Mok, who plays the equivalent of Lois Lane. She's new to U.S. audiences but whenever she's on screen, her rubbery face and comic timing give the movie the familiar feel of an American TV sitcom.
Black Mask, 1999. Rated R for strong violence including martial arts combat, some sexual content and language. An Artisan Entertainment Production. Director Daniel Lee. Producer Tsui Hark. Administrative producer Tiffany Chen. Associate producer Teddy Chen. Martial arts director Yuen Wo Ping. Screenplay Tsui Hark, Teddy Chan and Joe Ma. Cinematographer Cheung Tung Leung. Editor Cheung Ka Tai. Music Supervisor Teddy Robin, Ben Vaughn. Running time: 1 hour, 42 minutes. Jet Li as Tsui. Karen Mok as Tracy. Lau Ching Wan as Rock. Francoise Yip as Yeuk-lan.