Features Live Action Movies

Black Mask
(Hak Hap,

Director – Daniel Lee – 1996 – Hong Kong – Cert. 18 – 99m


An experimentally created supersoldier without feelings revolts against his creators, even as they attempt to take control of Hong Kong’s drugs trade – on Blu-ray from Monday, April 22nd in the UK and Tuesday, April 23rd in the US and Canada

Removing the ability of human beings to feel produce an elite force of warriors known as the 701 Squad has gone horribly wrong, and the members of 701 are to be shut down. Their leader, adopting the name Tsui Chik (Jet Li), escapes to live undercover working in a library where he learns all he can by reading books. His unlucky in love co-worker Tracy (Karen Mok) is convinced by other staff members to date him.

However, Tsui is more interested in hanging out with his best friend, the policeman Inspector Shek (Lau Ching Wan) who is tracking the elimination of all the major Hong Kong drugs dealers. The reason, unbeknown to him, is that the other surviving members of the 701 Squad, under the leadership of the Commander (Patrick Lung), are trying to wipe out the gangs including the last surviving gang leader King Kau (Anthony Wong) and take control of the drugs trade themselves to gain financial security.

Tsui, in his secret identity as the Black Mask, intends to stop them. And, if he can, rescue his former 701 student Yeuk Laan (Françoise Yip) in the process. She, meanwhile, is invoked in a bizarre S&M relationship with King Kau – we first meet her strung up and gagged with a metal bar between her teeth in his warehouse, where it turns out she’s a willing participant in his heavily fetishised sex games.

Not that this production ever really gets into sex film mode: its main interests lie in Jet Li (1) bonding with his best mate who happens to be a cop, (2) rescuing former student Yeuk Laan from the influence of the despotic Commander, even though she appears to have willingly aligned herself with the latter’s nefarious schemes and (3) stopping any harm befalling the hapless Tracy, who fails to recognise that her nerdy co-worker and the heroic Black Mask are one and the same, even though it’s glaringly obvious to the audience.

When Li appears as the Black Mask, he wears a domino mask and chauffeur’s cap similar to that worn by Bruce Lee as Kato in The Green Hornet TV series (1966-67) in an echo of one of Hong Kong cinema’s greatest and most widely recognisable screen icons. As the film progresses, Tracy morphs from hapless lovelorn female into Black Mask’s sidekick, wearing black sunglasses and reverse baseball cap to echo his mask and cap.

The film has just the right amount of knockabout Hong Kong humour to leaven the action scenes, which make much use of wire work as fighting characters fly through the air at one another, shot MTV style with lots of mobile camerawork and edited with quick cuts. Thus, the action comes thick and fast and is as entertaining as any heyday Hong Kong movie or Tsui Hark outing (he didn’t direct, but produced the film under the banner of his Film Workshop production company, and it feels very much like a Tsui Hark film).

Tsui had already made Li the star of his Once Upon a Time in China period action franchise (1991-97), and although the current cops, gangs and costumed hero caper is very different, it has an ending which similarly relies on fight sequences on a series of walkways much as the first OUATIC film culminated in a series of fights on moving, often horizontally placed ladders. Black Mask additionally has the wit, in its final minutes – SPOILER ALERT OF THE ENDING – to stop the Commander’s computer system downloading all the data from the police’s computer system onto a CD and killing off the Commander himself by throwing another CD at him to slit his throat – SPOILER ALERT ENDS.

The music, with its twangy guitar riffs, recalls the James Bond theme (even if it’s not quite as outstanding and accomplished as that) and similarly creates a feeling of suspense and an expectation of action, something on which the film absolutely delivers.

As author Leon Hunt points out in his 20-minute talk on the disc, the science fiction feel coupled with kung fu choreography almost certainly helped stunt co-ordinator Yuen Wo Ping get the same job on The Matrix (Larry and Andy Wachowski, 1999), for which the action sequences here could be seen as a dry run. Yuen and Jet Li previously worked together on Fist of Legend (1995).

This review was written after watching the 2K restoration of the Hong Kong Cantonese cut of the film on Eureka’s Blu-ray, a terrific two-disc package featuring several different cuts of the film, including the longer Taiwanese version, a couple of commentaries and numerous other extras.

Black Mask is out on Blu-ray in the UK on Monday, April 22nd and Tuesday, April 23rd in the US and Canada.


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