Jet Li becomes a superpowered one-man army in this 90’s sci-fi/martial arts hybrid that holds quite well even today.
Tsui Chik was once part of an experiment that made him lose all the pain nerves in his body. He became an elite member of a government assassination group known as the 701 Squad. However, grown tired of killing, Tsui makes his escape and has hidden for over a year. Now living a quiet life as a library worker, Tsui’s life changes forever when he learns that his former comrades have gone rogue, killing various gang leaders in an effort to steal information from the police themselves.
When Tsui discovers what is going on, he soon puts on a black mask and begins using his skills once again to take on his old rivals. This causes conflict with local detective Shek Wai-Ho, Tsui’s entrusted friend, who soon learns the identity of the “black mask”. Things go from bad to worse when Yeuk Laan, a current member of the 701 Squad recognizes the “black mask” as well and informs the leader of the team, Commander Hung. With the help of co-worker Tracy, Tsui Chik plans to take down his old team before it’s too late.
Since his debut as a 19-year old in The Shaolin Temple, it was clear that Jet Li was destined for superstardom and that was solidified with his breakout performance as the real life folk hero Wong Fei-Hung in Once Upon a Time in China. Li reunites with that film’s director, Tsui Hark, who serves as co-writer and producer of this modern day sci-fi/action film that takes a somewhat clichéd idea and adds the sci-fi twist of our hero being superpowered due to an experiment.
Jet Li truly has that charisma that works with an action role. Clearly having the skills, Li also possesses some pretty good action skills as someone who has a range of emotions. When we first see him as the library worker Tsui, he has that happy go lucky vibe that should being smiles to viewers. Of course, when it comes to action, viewers want Li to deliver and deliver he does. Despite the action filled prologue that fills the opening credits, a fun quick brawl has Li taking on some potential robbers in a restroom shortly after Sean Lau’s detective beats them up and walks out.
As for Lau, his character of Detective Shek is both a hard-boiled type and somewhat understanding for the most part when it comes to why Tsui doesn’t want to fight. However, when Shek learns Tsui’s secret, he realizes he may be dealing with a vigilante and while Tsui wants to help, some decisions our hero make doesn’t bode well with Shek and thus, leads to an all-out brawl in a cemetery. Many today don’t see Lau as an action type, but he handles himself pretty well, relegating to using a Western boxing style of fighting as opposed to Li’s frenetic martial arts style.
Pop star turned actress Karen Mok may seem to play a damsel in distress type in library worker Tracy but soon finds herself to be a vital asset and partner to our hero. Canadian-born model and actress Françoise Yip, fresh off her role in Rumble in the Bronx, gets a more action-orientated role in Yeuk Laan, a member of the 701 Squad who finds herself conflicted. She remains loyal to our lead villain Commander Hung (played with a crazy long-haired Patrick Lung Kong) and yet she feels somewhat indebted to our hero from an incident that is flashed back a few times throughout the film.
As for Yuen Woo-Ping’s action, they are a pretty good mix of wirework and grounded martial arts. Of course, the mere fact that the hero and villains are superpowered thanks to a government experiment, it is clear that wirework is necessary to show the enhancements of those characters. Li’s frenetic martial arts skills are well worth seeing, especially when he dons the Black Mask to face the likes of Winston Ellis and a short but stellar fight against British kicker Mike Lambert in a warm-up before the long-awaited showdown between Li and Lung.
Black Mask is a fun adventure that meshes sci-fi and martial arts with a dash of the superhero genre. Ultimately a fun film in Jet Li’s filmography. The film would get a U.S. release via Distant Horizon in 1999 after Li’s successful Hollywood debut in Lethal Weapon 4.
WFG RATING: B
A Win’s Entertainment Ltd./Film Workshop Production. Director: Daniel Lee. Producer: Tsui Hark. Writers: Koan Hui, Teddy Chen, Joe Ma, and Tsui Hark. Cinematography: Tony Cheung and Venus Keung. Editing: Cheung Ka-Fai and Ettie Feldman.
Cast: Jet Li, Sean Lau, Karen Mok, Françoise Yip, Patrick Lung Kong, Anthony Wong, Xiong Xin-Xin, Henry Fong, Sze Mei-Yee, Roy Szeto, Chan Suk-Yee, Ken Lok, Dion Lam, Russ Price, Moses Chan, Mike Lambert, Winston Ellis.