Black Mask

Black Mask (1996)
Artisan Entertainment
Cast: Jet Li, Ching Wan Lau, Anthony Wong
Extras: TV Spots, Trailers, Trivia Game

In the wake of Jet Li’s recent recognition among American moviegoers, it is hardly surprising that some of his films that predate his appearance in "Lethal Weapon 4" are slowly trickling into the US mainstream. Artisan Entertainment has just released the 1996 martial arts extravaganza "Black Mask", also known under its original title "Hak Hap", on DVD that prominently features the acclaimed Hong Kong superstar in the movie’s titular role.

"Black Mask" is a comic-like superhero in this film, played by Jet Li. He has been mutated and manipulated in his past to become part of a secret, superhuman commando unit that is known as Squad 701. After years on the front lines and constant battle, he staged his own death and disappeared from Squad 701 into a reclusive and regular life as a librarian and goes by the name of Simon. Entirely at peace with himself and the world, he is enjoying his life, when suddenly his past is crashing back in on him.

Hong Kong’s drug lords are killed, one by one in a rather savage manner. Simon’s friend Rock, a police officer, tells him about the incidents and Simon recognizes a pattern. When Rock and other members of the police are almost killed by a bomb, Simon knows that members of the Squad 701 are behind the rampage. Obviously they have been corrupted and turned evil. Someone is using their near superhuman abilities to shake up the social and political balance of Hong Kong.

Putting on a black mask, Simon leaves his normal life behind to find out who is driving the members of Squad 701 to these bloody campaign, but facing his past brings back memories and foes he can hardly face.

Produced by Hong Kong movie legend Tsui Hark, "Black Mask" marks the directorial debut of Daniel Lee, and if this movie is any indication of what is to come, I am eagerly looking forward to his future films. Woo-ping Yuen, who also recently lent his hand to "The Matrix" was in charge of "Black Mask’s" action sequences, and it shows. The legendary action and stunt specialist choreographs a never-ending series of fiery and furious one-on-one battles between his stars that is breathtaking. You will notice more than one or two scenes from "Black Mask" that have been taken over to "The Matrix" in their entirety but predate Warner’s movie by three years.

"Black Mask" is not only perfectly choreographed, the acting itself is also top-notch. Jet Li is putting in a powerful performance as the movie’s hero-against-his-own-will and in both the emotional and the physical respects, his energy is grandiose.

He is perfectly complemented by Ching Wan Lau (Heroic Trio 2: The Executioners), another highly acclaimed Hong Kong martial arts star. No serious Hong Kong action film would be complete without Anthony Wong, and once again the talented actor is throwing in perhaps the most memorable performance of the entire movie as a drug lord in jeopardy, despite his very limited on-screen time. Karen Mok and Françoise Yip (Rumble In The Bronx) bring in the necessary trace of romantic interest and break up some of the tension the movie builds to give viewers a chance to breathe between the truly spectacular fighting sequences.

If "Black Mask" has one problem, it is the story, which somewhat takes the backseat to everything else in the movie. It mostly serves to establish and show off the action-packed encounters in the story and helps making them more cohesive. Comic relief is an element found in almost every Hong Kong film, no matter how serious the subject matter, and in "Black Mask" the humor is presented sparingly and cleverly, never distracting from the plot at hand. "Black Mask" offers a series absolutely mesmerizing arranged martial arts scenes, a wide variety of interesting characters, lots of gunplay and explosions and some beautifully lit production settings, "Black Mask" makes a very entertaining high octane thrill ride.

Artisan Entertainment’s release of "Black Mask" is coming in a brand new <$16x9,16x9 enhanced> <$PS,widescreen> transfer in the film’s 1.85:1 aspect ratio. The image is clean without notable defects in the film print, other than the occasional speckle. The transfer presented on this DVD is bold and colorful, just the way you want to experience Hong Kong movies. All the film’s atmospheric shades and hues are nicely reproduced on this disc with deep and solid blacks and well-balanced highlights. The disc contains an exceptional level of detail, finely delineating every bit of detail found in the film print. Noise and film grain is held at a minimum, and there are no compression artifacts evident in the transfer, resulting in a truly stunning presentation of this movie. Even the technically taxing dimly lit interior scenes the disc perfectly renders the images without signs of <$chroma,chroma noise> and again without any compression artifacts.

The disc sadly contains only an English dubbed audio track. Since most fans of Hong Kong movies prefer to watch their films in the original language with subtitles, this is definitely an oversight on Artisans behalf that should have been addressed. Sadly the entire movie has been domesticized. As a result also the movie’s entire music track has been replaced by unbearable urban "Gangsta (C)rap". The annoying music and the erratic scratching noises that now bleed through almost every scene of the film, make it hard to stay focussed on the actual film sometimes, making you wish there were a way to turn off the misguided cacophony.

If only studios would leave the integrity of movies intact when bringing them to new territories. If you feel the movie is not appealing to audiences the way it originally is, just don’t release it at all and leave the rights to studios who respect the film’s original intent. The constant violation of foreign movies in the US market is embarrassing and painful to those who truly love the films for their own sakes.

On the technical side, the audio track is very well transferred to the DVD with a deep low end and a good, transparent high end. Presented as a <$5.1,5.1 channel> <$DD,Dolby Digital> soundtrack, the split surrounds are used quite aggressively throughout the movie, creating a good and enveloping experience from all directions. The low end gives the action plenty of punch, throwing you right into the explosive action.

The disc also contains a series of theatrical trailers and TV spots and a music video. A small segment about the Wushu school of Martial Arts and the ability to directly jump to specific fighting scenes in the movie is also supplied, as well as a small "Black Mask" trivia game. The DVD is rounded up by some production notes and a few brief cast & crew biographies.

The presentation of "Black Mask" on this DVD is quite spectacular, which makes the lack of the original audio and music tracks even more painful. The movie is a furious and modern martial arts spectacle that is heavily focused on those martial arts scenes. If you do not mind the new music and the fact that 10 minutes of the film have been cut compared to the original, "Black Mask" is still a truly stunning release of a Hong Kong movie. It shows off the best of the genre and will have you sitting on the edge of your seat in disbelief over those amazing skills shows on screen and the gripping action.