Made Overseas: Black Mask (1996)

I have a terrible confession to make: I am weirdly fascinated by Hong Kong movies superheroes. I guess you could make the argument that most wu xia films are superhero movies already — people with amazing, nearly supernatural powers that allow them to leap tall buildings in a single bound and throw punches that are more powerful than a locomotive. Hong Kong superhero movie films build on that wire-fu foundation and create an international chimera that’s half-American comic book, half-Japanese super sentai (or if you prefer, homegrown tokusatsu like Inframan), and half-John Woo action spectaculars. (Also… I know it’s kinda old, but I just might have to cover Super Inframan some day. It’s essential to understanding some of the gags in the new Mystery Science Theater.)

I previously covered Michelle Yeoh’s attempt at superheroics in my review of Silver Hawk. You know, the one that opens with a leap over the Great Wall of China to stop panda poachers. She was preceded, though, by another Hong Kong martial arts legend. Two years before his American debut, Jet Li donned a ribbed mask and punched out bad guys in 1996’s Black Mask … a movie that a young upstart named Nathan Rabin working on a fledgling pop culture site as “an exciting, lightning-fast introduction to one of Hong Kong’s biggest and most charismatic stars.”

Black Mask dials down on the supersentai a bit. This was the 90’s, and “grim and gritty” was the style at the time. It did not dial down the John Woo. Spoilers: a pigeon does fly across the screen at some point. I’m not going to say director Daniel Lee was excited to see Face/Off being released next year… but he was totally excited to see Face/Off next year. I haven’t seen much of Lee’s filmography. IMDB shows that lately it’s been mostly Chinese historical epics, but that’s pretty much par for the course for all Hong Kong directors these days. He had only directed one movie before he signed on to Black Mask, which was produced by Hong Kong powerhouse Tsui Hark.

The movie is an adaptation of a manhua (a term I just learned that refers to Chinese comics) by Li Chi-Tak, a comic book creator for whom I have zero familiarity with. The sample art on his site includes tattooed faces, tattered clothing, and a two-headed anthropomorphic man in a white tank top. His art strikes me as countercultural and indie, perhaps sold as prints at your local Urban Outfitters. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find much else on Li Chi-Tak outside of several reports on a French exhibition in 2016. His Wikipedia entry is unsatisfactorily sparse for a creator whose nickname is “the Godfather of Hong Kong independent comics.”

Several different versions of Black Mask exist, including a Cantonese version that takes out all the gore. The Hong Kong and Taiwanese version are tinted green, a visual touch that preceded The Matrix by three years.  Taiwan also got 100 seconds of extra footage, which are mostly even more gore and a weird-sounding sex scene where the villain King Kau (played by Infernal Affairs‘ Anthony Wong) suggestively shoots a water gun.

The American version, which I watched, is the most widely distributed one.  It keeps the gore from the Hong Kong version, which makes this bloodier than the typical PG-13 superhero movies. So much bright red tomato soup Hong Kong blood! There are some changes.  No green tint, for one.  There are several new non-violent scenes (mostly trying to establish a relationship between the titular hero and the police force) and, in a decision that will never let you forget that this was filmed in the 90’s, an all new and completely distracting hip-hop soundtrack. Thanks, BMG!  I’m sure that Black Mask OST sold gangbusters.

I typically don’t mention changes to international versions.  However, while watching Black Mask, I wondered if I’d missed out on some plot elements due to creative editing. I felt like I was watching the middle episodes of a TV series.

Was there a far more complete version that existed in other formats?  Were crucial plot elements spliced and cut, with only a few scenes surviving in flashback form.  Or maybe there’s a movie you had to see first before this one.  There’s a Black Mask 2, after all… was there a Black Mask 0 that filled in the gaps? Or was dropping you in media res a feature, not a bug? Wikipedia tell me that for the most part the American version was similar to the Hong Kong version, so the latter is probably the most likely.

Jet Li stars as Simon, a former supersoldier. He opens the movie by freeing his fellow supersoldiers (called the 701s) from control of the government.  His powers include heightened human abilities like Captain America, as well as an inability to feel pain. In order to stay inconspicuous, Simon takes a job as a mild-mannered librarian.  You know, Superman and Spider-Man took jobs in reporting to help stay abreast of crimes.  What advantage does working in a library afford you? Research opportunities and the vast wealth of printed knowledge is the obvious advantage a library affords, but we never see Simon do anything other than stack books.

What it does gain him is a kooky cast of librarians.  These poindexters are constantly trying to set him up on a date with Tracy (pop star Karen Mok), who rather successfully portrays a mousy girl Friday… far more convincingly than Michelle Pfeiffer playing Selina Kyle as a weird, disheveled nerd. I rather wish we got more scenes of Tracy and her odd quirks (among them, learning how to play video games with her hands tied behind her back). Simon also had plenty of time to play chess with Inspector Shek (Sean Lau), who keeps him up to date on the city’s troubles.  Simon says that he is a pacifist, and the life of a lawman is not one for him.  Of course, on the occasion he’s threatened by the local street toughs… you gotta remember, he is played by Jet Li.

Well, it turns out that maybe keeping these supersoldiers under military oversight wasn’t such a bad idea after all.  Now free, the majority of the 701s have reformed as a terrorist organization.  Simon vows to put an end to their criminal activities and dons a black suit, a fedora, and a black mask.  The costume is an homage to The Green Hornet‘s Kato, famously played by legendary Hong Kong martial artist Bruce Lee.

The settings are full of 90’s superhero goodness, specifically the ones that arose after the success of Tim Burton’s Batman.  Forget any attempt to portray the world as realistic.  Everything has to be industrial and black, or a dramatically lit gothic setting that should be used as a backdrop for a Meatloaf music video.  Simon makes his base in an abandoned warehouse generously furnished with a kitchen and a video game console.  Atop this hideout is a complicated trellis that seems to serve no purpose beyond providing Jet Li a jungle gym for stunts. “The coolest hideout ever!” immediately declare nineties kids raised on Darkman, The Crow, and Blade.  This tangle of pipes and corrugated siding is the setting for a showdown with a red-haired female assassin (Françoise Yip) who seems to have a romantic history with Simon.

Again, a tidbit that feels like you would have caught in previous episodes if this was a TV series.

The real romance, though, seems to be between Simon and Inspector Shek. There’s an unfortunate gay panic joke not uncommon for its era where the librarians mistake the two as a couple.  This causes Tracy to fly in a fit of jealous rage. But are they wrong? The two are pretty inseparable. Simon saves his life. Shek covers for the Black Mask, even claiming to be the alter ego at some point. They even have a heart-to-heart as they look out over the sunset. In the end, it’s even Shek who gets to play the damsel in distress.

You never stood a chance, Tracy.

Black Mask is a fairly inessential entry in Jet Li’s voluminous filmography. You’ll get more trademark Jet Li goodness with Fist of Legend and Tai-Chi Master. Black Mask‘s plot can be quite disjointed. That red-haired lady assassin? Her appearance and her exist are both equally abrupt, and outside of the punches her presence registers zero impact. Most of the bad guys are less than one-dimensional and the heroes being barely above that. The darkly-lit environs sometimes work against it, since you can’t clearly see the fantastic stunts sometimes. However, if you have seen every other Jet Li movie and want to watch a perviously unseen one when he was still close to his athletic prime, Black Mask is not a bad way to spend your day. It moves fast, it’s got a masked supersoldier, and it’ll make you miss the 90’s.

NOTE: Jet Li did not return for Black Mask 2: City of Masks. His role was filled by Andy On. However, the movie was directed by Tsui Hark and has Tobin Bell, Jon Polito, Scott Adkins and ECW/WWE wrestler Rob Van Dam? Despite having an unpromising 3.6 rating on IMDB, I may have to check this out sometime.

Black Mask is available to stream on Xfinity Streampix.

Next: we go to the land of ice and snow to check out Norway’s Trollhunter.