Jet Li is one of the 701 squad, a group of experimental warriors who have all their nerves severed, so that they will not feel any pain. When the government realises that the group cannot be controlled the way they had intended they decided to cancel the experiment and each member of the group is to be killed. However, Li along with many others manage to escape. Now the rest of the escapees are plan to corner the drug market, and try to do so by killing all other drug dealers. Li, however, is on the side of good, and with his only friend Lau Ching Wan who is a cop, they have to stop the elite 701 squad. Comic style Hong Kong action.
Black Mask is a rather stylish Jet Li film which comes across very violent comic book in style and appearance, which is not that surprising considering it is based on a comic book. It appears to be set in the present time or at least near future, and it has Jet Li playing an elite fighter from a highly trained, and modified, unit called 701. All the members of this unit had their nerves killed so that they would feel no pain, meaning that they could fight on until the end unhindered. However the government realised after creating these fighters that they were unable to control them in the way that they had intended, and thus terminated the project - all fighters were to be terminated with it. They soon discovered that their newly created super fighters would not be that easy to kill, with many of them escaping in the battle.
Tsui Chik (Li) takes up a new life as a quiet, loner librarian, in an attempt to leave his past behind him and somehow rediscover his feelings. I'm not going to describe the plot, or give away the story, but I'll just leave it at: it features lost love, revenge, violence and lots of fighting.
So enough describing the film, was it actually any good? Well, yes it was, but there are some things which are below par. Good things first though. The fighting and action are well choreographed and very entertaining to watch, the story while not complex, is interesting enough to not have you thinking "boring...", but in a comic book violence film like this it is not the story which is the main thing on show! My main complaint about the film, that comes under this section - more complaints under the other sections! - is the camera work. It is far to jerky and erratic at times, and some of the scene angles leave a bit to be desired. In some of the fight scenes the camera really must have been right up there with the action, as it moves, shakes, jumps, jitters with the movement of the actors, at times making it difficult to see clearly what is going on. In my opinion cuts are too frequent in the action. Granted there is a lot of wire work involved in the fight scenes, but in some places the change of angles happen every second or couple of seconds, again making it very difficult to absorb what is being flashed infront of your eyes.
This is a shame as there was great potential for brilliant fight scenes. Granted Jet Li is pretty much invincible in most of the films he stars in, but to have him being almost invincible and feel no pain, and to be up against other not-quite-as-invincible-as-Li baddies who also feel no pain I would have thought would be a dream scenario for putting to film all sorts of bone-crunching, powerful and spectacular fight scenes. The ones that are in the film are good, but they could have been better. Still can't complain, Black Mask is a good 98 mins entertainment with yet another very cheesy ending! Oh, almost forgot, there is a nice and rather short appearance from the always good to watch Anthony Wong as an ill fated drug lord.
Audio & Subtitles
For the audio there are two options available Cantonese and Mandarin; I watched the film in Cantonese mode. I've got plus and minus points for this cantonese audio track. The minus points start of with the criticism that I've got for most Hong Kong released dvds - the lip synchronisation is not that great. I know with a lot of Hong Kong films the actual audio track is not recorded at the same time as the film due to the high noise levels in Hong Kong. Hong Kong Legends, however, have managed to get good lip synching on most of their dvds, and they've released no where near as many as Mei Ah, Universe or Mega Star, so why can't those companies get it better? Anyway, that is my firts minus point, the next is that the sound is not that great. The words the characters are speaking are clear most of the time, but quite often the background noises are a little muffled or kind of tinny sounding. I think this is just one of the side effects of an overall rather low production value, either on the part of Mei Ah with this dvd or the original film crew.
What I do have to say about the cantonese audio track which is a BIG plus point, this version of the film is the only one that I have so far come across which has a cantonese audio track on it, although the French HK Video release also does now. The first time I saw Black Mask was a UK VHS, which had an atrocious english dub. It really was awful. It was full of stereotypical chinese character dub voices, with american accents. The main bad guy Commander Hung (Patrick Lung) had the really cheesy deep voice like the one Mike Myers has dubbed over him in Waynes World 2. It was that bad. Even the american dvd release of this film had an english only soundtrack. Scandalous. But this... thankfully this has a cantonese track! For that alone, despite its shortcomings, it made me very happy!
With the not up-to-scratch quality of the audio track, I was not expecting a great deal from the subtitles, but while far from perfect, I was pleasantly surprised. They were burned onto the print in english and chinese, but what was most noticeable about these subs was that they were much bolder than usual for Mei Ah burned on subtitles. There was a very slight black boundry to the text so I could almost read what they said even on a white backlground! Wonders never cease! However, with the good comes the bad, albeit not that bad. The spelling is ropey in places. There are frequent spelling mistakes, which while not making any word unintelligible, are frequent enough to become a little annoying. The same actually applies for the grammar. No sentence makes absolutely no sense, but at times you have to rearrange the words a little too often! This is most annoying when one subtitle quickly flashes up on screen when you are only half way through reading/deciphering the previous one. Yes, at times they are a little too fast with the update. That being said, overall the subtitles are better than quite a few other Mei Ah dvds I've seen.
Oh dear. A big black spot for this one. It has to be said, the picture quality is really quite poor in Black Mask. There is graining over the screen, and little speckles flickering on screen on a frequent basis. In some places it is far worse than others, but if you pay attention to it, you can see it throughout the majority of the film. There is no crispness or sharpness at all to the image - most of the finer detail and background to the scenes are softened out, leaving what you do actually see on screen look more like a VHS print than anything else. It gets worse as well... There is a significant amount of artificing (I think that is what it is called), where the motion of a character on the screen leaves a short lived blur trail in their wake. For a technology like DVD which is supposed to offer amazing picture quality, none of this is acceptable at all. Finally, there is also a large amount of colour bleeding evident in quiet a number of the scenes, which combined with all the other shortcomings of the picture, give a smack-in-the-face impression of a very lousy production, or the film print was not looked after at all.
The colours also are not very vibrant. Everything looks as though its colour has been toned down so that it is less lively and bleaker. There is no warmth to any of the colours, it is all dark and grisly looking. I've got to say that this has to be one of the worst pictures I've seen on any dvd to date.
DVD & Extras
When I see that a DVD has been done by Mei Ah I quiver with fear, when it is one of their older releases. Their newer releases are generally excellent. They were notorious for their lack of encoding on their discs. They were quite often not chapter encoded or time encoded. Usually their discs had minimal extras as well, quite often there was the one "token" extra which is pretty lousy. On Black Mask, they surpass themselves in their height of laziness when it comes to the overall package of the dvd. There is absolutely nothing here. I really do mean nothing. NO extras, and not even a main menu screen with one single button saying Play Film or anything like that. There... Is... Nothing... Value for money is obviously not a phrase that translates well into Chinese as far as Mei Ah are concerned.
What you've got here is a film which I actually really like, despite all its downfalls. I found it highly enjoyable to watch, as it was slightly different to the usual Jet Li fare. This could be that it was gorier than any other Jet Li film I have seen so far. I've criticised the camera work which has made it difficult to see what is going on in places, but this would not be so bad if the picture was crisp, clear, and full of life, which this picture most definitely is not. The picture quality without a doubt has to be the worst thing about this dvd, if you forget about there being nothing but the film here that is. But I did still enjoy the film. It is mindless in places, but generally that is when action becomes the most fun. For a film it scores highly, everything else about it scores from the about average mark to much lower depths, but I am still going to recommend this version of Black Mask over any other that is available purely because this offers a cantonese audio track, and english subs. If a film is made in a particular language, then that is the language that it should be watched in. If english subs aren't an issue for you though, there is a French edition available/soon to be available, which will kick this versions arse in pretty much every department.