Weekly Wire
Austin Chronicle Black Mask

By Marc Savlov

MAY 24, 1999: 

D: Daniel Lee; with Jet Li, Lau Ching Wan, Karen Mok, Françoise Yip. (R, 102 min.)

This 1996 Hong Kong actioner (which has been decently dubbed into English for American release) posits the crushingly handsome Li as Simon, a biologically "modified" superman who has since broken ranks with his government-run collective of super-soldiers in favor of spending his remaining days shelving books at the local library. While this may at first appear to be an odd career choice for a man able to punch through other people's sternums like a hot knife zipping through a wad of I Can't Believe It's Not Butter, Simon's voiceover quickly reveals that both he and the other surviving members of the genetically enhanced "701 Squad" have been targeted for liquidation by their creators. In that light a pleasant civic job at the local book depository doesn't really seem so odd after all. When Simon's chess buddy and local tough-guy police officer Rock (Lau) becomes embroiled in a gangland war of attrition against the local mob by what appears to be the rest of the surviving 701 Squad, Simon dons the titular eyewear and leaps into the fray, seeking to locate his past love Michelle (Mok) -- now one of the 701 killers -- and his new love as well, a mousy, lovestruck young woman who works alongside him at the library. Like so many other HK action pieces, Black Mask thrums along at an almost super-human pace, mirroring the actions of its comic-book characterizations with snap, crackle, popcorn editing, and enough spent shell casings to give John Woo a run for his money. Produced by UT alumnus Tsui Hark, the film is drenched in Hark's trademark neo-psychedelics, from the mind-blowing shots of Li, Yip, and Mok battling it out high atop some sort of radio antenna to Li's final knock-down, drag-out brawl with his former 701 mastermind, Black Mask is superlative HK action. Of course, it's not hurting things that the film's director of action is the legendary Yuen Woo Ping, the man behind not only Jackie Chan's explosive Drunken Master series but also Keanu Reeves' recent (and highly impressive) theatrics in The Matrix -- many of the fight scenes in the film are precursors to those in The Matrix, although the bloodshed quotient is considerably higher (more noses are savagely broken, with streams of gore flying across the screen each time, than in any other film I've seen). At its heart, Black Mask recalls a sci-fi take on such HK standards as Zu: Warriors of the Magic Mountain or even the live-action Wicked City. It's a bloodily exhilarating piece of hyper-kinetic filmmaking (and one with a sense of humor, thankfully) that ricochets across the screen like a wayward rocket. No wonder we call this guy "Jet."
3.0 stars

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