Black Mask (1996) Movie Review

Movies like Jet Li’s Black Mask is the kind of film that gave Hong Kong its reputation as an industry unconcern with story but addicted to adrenaline-inducing action. The film, directed by Daniel Lee and written by an army of screenwriters, is a Chinese Superhero tale that like many other Hong Kong action films in the ’90s, is sometimes awkward when it goes for humor, but extremely confidant when it concentrates on its elaborate action sequences and massive bloodletting.

Black Mask stars Jet Li as Michael, a Chinese soldier who had his pain nerves removed, thus making him a supersoldier. (Huh? I know, but just go along with it.) Realizing that he no longer wants to be used by the government, Michael escapes with a group of other supersoldiers, including Cailyn (Françoise Yip), his lover. Years later, Michael is a shy librarian in Hong Kong, where he has a single friend and is the object of desire for Tracy (Karen Mok), a fellow librarian. Although he’s a shy librarian by day, Michael is a superhero called the Black Mask by night! (Who, oddly enough looks a lot like Kato, the Bruce Lee character from “The Green Hornet.”) Trouble arises when Michael’s old commander (Patrick Lung) resurfaces with the other supersoldiers, determined to slaughter their way through the criminal underworld and become top dog!

The one thing that Black Mask has going for it is that it’s a very fast-paced film, and it moves from one action setup to another without a lot of exposition. What little exposition there is are done in voiceovers, and once that’s accomplish, the movie immediately throws us into a series of bloody confrontations filled with elaborate action sequences and choreography. It is very safe to say that Black Mask will never be remembered for its story (if you can even begin to try to understand its every plot points), but for its incredible action. The film rarely sits still, and Jet Li gets to flex every single ounce of his martial arts ability here, rather he’s flying around on wires or battling gigantic foes in a rain-drenched rooftop. The word exhilarating comes to mind.

That isn’t to say Black Mask is trouble free. It’s heavy reliance on wires does get a little bothersome after a while. I saw the film in a theater, and with the large screen, you can see every single little wire holding the actors up. It gets a little embarrassing after a while, since the filmmakers doesn’t seem especially bothered with flaunting their inability to hide the wires better. Obviously Hong Kong action fans are used to seeing wires, but I’m not sure if any other movie is so blatant with their wirework that you can see every little string jerking to and fro.

Story wise, Black Mask is a mess. The evil supersoldiers are impossible to tell apart, and starts to look like each other after a while. All except for Françoise Yip and Patrick Lung, both of who stands out because Lung has the “evil bad guy” role and Yip has the “love interest” role. Karen Mok, as the love-struck Tracy, fares the worst, as she gets relegated to damsel-in-distress territory and never manages to get out. Ching Wan Lau shows up as Detective Rock, Michael’s only friend. Lau shows very nice acting chops, making me wonder what he’s doing here in the first place. The man should be doing some serious roles in more dramatic fare, and is wasting his talents with movies like this.

Director Daniel Lee obviously knows he’s not making Citizen Kane here. The film is brisk and moves at a breakneck speed. The action comes fast and heavy and relentless, with very few “down” scenes in-between. The last battle between Li and Lung in an underground basement is easily the movie’s highlight. The sequence is so elaborate that it must have taken them weeks to shoot. Good stuff.

Go into Black Mask for good, mindless action. Stay away if you want something more, because Black Mask doesn’t have it. Then again, it never pretended to.

Daniel Lee (director) / Tony Cheung, Tung Cheung Leung (screenplay)
CAST: Jet Li …. Michael
Ching Lau Wan …. Detective Rock
Karen Mok …. Tracy
Françoise Yip …. Cailyn


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