February 19, 2001 -- "Black Mask" (Hak hap) is an all-out non-stop Hong Kong action film that is better than most films of the martial arts genre. Released in 1996, it predates big action films like "The Matrix," and "Romeo Must Die," yet has a similar action style.
The problem with most Hong Kong martial arts films is bad dubbing and incomprehensible plots. "Black Mask" has a plot that is fairly easy to follow and the English dubbing is strange, but not bad. It is strange in that all the dubbed voices are soft and calm, sort of matter-of-fact. It is a distinct departure from the hysterical shouting and grunting found on most martial arts soundtracks. I'd still rather have subtitles.
The plot has Jet Li of "Romeo Must Die," an artificially-enhanced warrior, escaping execution when he and his super secret 701 squad comrades are slated for elimination. He also allows most of the rest of the superhuman squad to escape. He takes an assumed name (he's called Tsui in the Chinese version and Michael in the dubbed version) and hides out as a meek librarian. He becomes friends with a cop named Rock (the character's name is Inspector Sheck in the original version, played by Ching Wan Lau).
Rock is in danger when the rest of the surviving 701 squad goes bad and starts knocking off the local drug lords in an elaborate espionage scheme. Michael disguises himself in a mask and does battle with the 701 squad to protect his friend. Rock does not approve of Michael's vigilante tactics, but the two are forced to work together because Michael is the only one who can stop the super warriors.
There is a high level of violence in the film with a large number of graphic killings, mutilations, etc., as there are in many martial arts films. The action sequences, staged by Yuen Woo ping ("Drunken Master II," "The Matrix" "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon") are spectacular. Jet Li is a martial arts master and he shows off his great skills. This is what you hope for in a martial arts film. You seldom get it at this level of artistry, however. Most of these films have fights where the motion is jerky. You can see one fighter waiting for the punch or kick that he knows is coming, then the other fighter waits, as the fight jerks along. The martial arts sequences in this film are fluid. In a way, martial arts films are just a violent counterpart to the old MGM dance musicals made 50 to 60 years ago. Martial arts is lot like acrobatic dancing. The plot is secondary to the dancing. The plot in "Black Mask" is better than most, but it isn't strong. There is also virtually no character development in the film. The only martial arts film I've seen that really has all of these things, a strong story, great martial arts and special effects, character development and high production values is "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon."
Director Daniel Lee does a good job with the various levels of "Black Mask." Although the story is thin, it holds together well enough as an action vehicle. The film gives a tip of the hat to the old TV show "The Green Hornet" which introduced America to Bruce Lee for the first time. Lee, who played Kato, wore a mask very similar to the one worn by Jet Li in this film. There are also some nice special effects in the film, including "rail gun" effects just like those in the movie "Eraser." The film doesn't explain this weapon at all. You just see those "Eraser" special effects and see the projectiles going through steel walls. This movie is a lot like a science fiction film. The effects, the sets, and the cinematography indicate this is not as cheaply made as most martial arts films. I read that the film cost $10 million to make, a high budget, indeed, for a Hong Kong action film.
I saw this film on DVD. There was no option to hear the film in its original language, and no subtitle option. I suspect that some of the tough street talk and the hip hop and rap music were added for American audiences. The music seemed to work fine with all the action. There may have been something in the original Chinese dialogue that might have explained things like the rail gun and some of the other science fiction stuff in the film. That's one of the problems with dubbing. The DVD did have some production and cast notes, a variety of trailers and some action scenes from the film and the usual index of scenes. There are no extras besides that on the DVD. This film rates a B.
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