A visually impressive, big-budget attempt to create a new action-hero franchise for Hong Kong-based Jet Li, “Black Mask” will appeal to genre buffs and should prove a smart video item in the West. But wider breakout looks unlikely because, as with so much of Li’s work, the thesp’s cool personality militates against much emotional involvement.
Though the fight sequences (handled by veteran Yuen Woo-ping) are up to snuff, the pic is less successful overall than other recent Li vehicles, especially Cory Yuen’s superb 1994 actioner “The Bodyguard From Beijing,” which put his icy qualities to positive (and often very funny) dramatic use. Though Li is in active discussions with several companies Stateside, his potential as an English-language action figure looks problematic.
Li plays the head of an elite combat team, Squad 701, developed by “a northern country” but then marked for elimination when the project was deemed a failure. He’s now hiding out in H.K., as a geeky librarian, but is lured back into combat when other survivors of the squad, now led by long-haired psycho Hung, start offing the colony’s drug lords to take over their business.
Based on a comic-strip character, but with a new storyline, the franchise was the idea of Tsui Hark, who handed directing chores to Daniel Lee, previously noted for “What Price Survival” (1994). Like that movie, “Black Mask” is basically a costume swordplay pic in modern dress, often recalling the popular 1970s adaptations of Ku Lung’s novels of roving killers and warring clans.
From pic’s high-octane main title onward, the pacing is suitably fast, slowed only by comedy scenes involving local singer-actress Karen Mok as a ditzy, lovesick colleague of Li who gets drawn into the plot. Aside from a memorable smaller role by Francoise Yip as a Squad 701 killer gone bad, rest of the cast is solidly male, with former H.K. director Patrick Lung Kang terrific as the nutty Hung, Lau Ching-wan (more often cast in light comedy roles) OK as Li’s cop buddy, and Anthony Wong contributing another of his patented sickos as a sleazy drug lord who asks for police protection.
Li’s character is a meld of Batman (in its double-life aspect) and ABC’s mid-’60s TV character “The Green Hornet” (with his mask and fedora). Ending leaves things wide open for a sequel, though the movie’s so-so B.O. fortunes late last year leave a question mark there, given its reputed HK$60 million ($8 million) budget. Chinese title translates as “Hero in Black.”