Black Mask (1996)
Reviewed by: ewaffle on 2007-02-26
“Black Mask” has a dream cast led by Jet Li as a reluctant hero, imbued with super powers that would rather not use and including Lau Ching-Wan as the tough cop who is his only friend, Anthony Wong as an insanely maniacal (even by his very high standards) criminal, Francoise Yip as the S&M loving former platonic friend of Li’s character and Karen Mok as the scared but plucky potential love interest. That it is merely good and not something more noble is due largely to the hyperactively moving camera of Daniel Lee and the misuse of Jet Li by (one assumes) Yuen Wo-Ping who is one of three action directors listed.

The characters and their relationships are introduced early on and with laudable economy. Jet Li works in a library—he seems to be the only member of the staff who does any work while the rest of them gossip and plan their evenings. He doesn’t gamble, drink or smoke, spends almost no money and enjoys being surrounded by books. He is also an escapee from Unit 701, a super-secret military unit made up of highly trained soldiers who have been altered so as not to feel pain. He and others of his group escape when he realizes that their creators have decided to shut down the unit and kill everyone in it. The approach of “Black Mask” on this issue is interesting—generally a story like this, which is something of a standard in science fiction, is told from the point of view of the creators of the barely human killing machines, their realization that their handiwork has developed consciousness, emotions or self-awareness and now threatens those who constructed them. In this case the super warriors come to the realization that because their makers forgot to build in proper controls that Unit 701 is slated for destruction. A lot of them escape but Jet Li is the only one who is willing to accept his fate –a human form that can feel neither pain nor emotion and has a very short life expectancy. The others, led by the Commander, are determined to find a cure for their unique aliment. While it isn’t made clear, it seems as if, like vampires, the members of Unit 701 must have their blood replenished occasionally in order to stay alive. Karen Mok as Tracy has developed an intuitive understanding of this—when Black Mask is injured she breaks into a hospital blood bank and steals several units of blood for him.

The commander of Unit 701 devises a plan to raise the money needed for the medical treatment to reverse the havoc done to their bodies. He first kills all the drug dealers in Hong Kong, the last one in a very creative and spectacular fashion that also wipes out an entire floor of a hospital. Having gotten the attention of the drug producers in the world—he has especially piqued the Columbians by destroying a significant part of their market—he then offers them a deal. He will supply the identities of all the undercover anti-drug agents who have infiltrated the cartels in exchange for an enormous amount of money. The drug lords agree, various police agencies around the world are convinced to send their most secret data to the Hong Kong police and the Commander starts downloading it.

This creates a useful structure—Lau Ching Wan and the Black Mask have to stop the transmission of the data to Hong Kong before the bad guys can get it. That there is only a certain amount of time to do this is underlined by occasional shots of computer systems with tape drives whirring and digital clocks counting down. Neither the police commissioner nor his very large IT staff has any idea they are being tapped. In the hoary tradition of narratives that pit one man against the unfeeling power structure only Inspector Shek knows the real story.

Jet Li as Chui Chik isn’t given much to do, unfortunately. He is effective and affecting in his initial guise as a mild mannered librarian who simply wants to immerse himself in the daily minutiae of his job. He isn’t given a chance to do what he does best—jaw-dropping martial arts moves—but is often suspended on a wire or simply firing a gun. Karen Mok is quite winning as the woman in peril. When she saves Jet Li from falling from a towering industrial structure it proves to be an epiphany of sorts for another character and leads to an important turn in the plot. We are first introduced to Francoise Yip Fong-Wa while she is trussed in a very uncomfortable looking S&M harness and hung from the ceiling by Anthony Wong, the last surviving drug dealer in Hong Kong. Since she shares superhuman powers with the other Unit 701 personnel she doesn’t stay there for long. Anthony Wong is a drug dealer who keeps the bodies of his family in what looks like suit bags on hangers. When we first encounter his King Kau he has just received a present—the legs of his daughter, nicely boxed. This is quite a role, essentially an extended cameo, and Wong is note perfect in his insanity. Lau Ching-Wan is Chui Chik’s only friend. A gruff police officer nicknamed “the Rock” because he is so dark and hard, he is concerned that Chui is too naive, too nice a guy, for the ways of the world and tries unsuccessfully to toughen him up. Their relationship is close enough that Tracy and her fellow employees in the library think that he and Chik are a gay couple.

The only failure, but it is a significant one, in “Black Mask” is that the action is much too frenetic—the camera is never still so that it is impossible for the audience to really see what is happening. Huge machines smash through walls, explosions rock entire neighborhoods, bombs show up from nowhere. It is all a bit too much. There are some
excellent grisly touches—when Inspector Shek tries to disarm a criminal armed with an automatic weapon and who is riding in the scoop of a huge front loader, he does so literally. Leaping onto the moving piece of construction equipment he smashes the gunman from behind a couple of times and then handcuffs one of his wrists to the machine. Without missing a beat the gunman, clearly now a member of Unit 701, frees himself by chopping off his own wrist and hand and continuing his murderous spree. Lau Ching-Wan’s expression when this happens is priceless but no more than we have come to expect from this exemplary actor.

It is only at the very end of the movie when Black Mask finally faces off against the Commander that we see him in his wonderfully iconic moves, stances and looks. Not every movie that stars Jet Li has to be an action extravaganza but using him simply to drive cars, shoot guns and fly on wires is a waste.

Recommended but not very highly due to the missed opportunities
Reviewer Score: 6