The ‘1-4 star’ rating system doesn’t easily apply to the sci-fi martial arts import Black Mask. It’s easy to forget that for a brief period Jet Li was a viable cross-over action star. He seemed to be the heir apparent to the niche crowds that attended every Jackie Chan release and for those that sought out bootleg dubs of Li’s early work in his native home of China. After the success of The Matrix distributors began trotting out foreign products heavy on the wire-work action that would gain mainstream acceptance with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Black Mask was actually shot and released in abroad 1996 but was only given a wide-release in the States to capitalize on Li’s popularity, coming off of his villainous turn in Lethal Weapon 4, and to tap into audiences sudden desire to consume eastern-style action.
Black Mask is a Hong Kong superhero movie with an alternately humorous and sadistic tone. The filmmakers may have been gunning to create an Asian version of Batman but this film most closely resembles The Crow in bleakness and violence. Simon (Jet Li) is a quiet lowly librarian content with his boring life. His often heartbroken co-worker (Karen Mok) has set her sights on the mysterious Simon. But in actuality, he’s not a meek book clerk. No. Simon is an enhanced superhuman, who escaped from his secret commando unit known as Squad 701. So, Simon assumes the identity of ‘Black Mask’ when his life of normalcy is shaken after a murderous rampage against all of Hong Kong’s drug dealers is linked to Squad 701.
As Jackie Chan began his immersion in the Hollywood studio system there was a vacuum that the flicks of Jet Li occupied for the better part of ten years. Eventually, Jet Li would also find himself in better star vehicles with bigger budgets and sleeker production values but there is a certain unpredictable quality to stylish action flicks from across seas. Black Mask suffers from a gonzo plot that is either incomplete or trimmed to fit this U.S. version but benefits from great use of camera placement during fight sequences, and a number of interesting choices in the lighting design of a few scenes. It’s taken me two decades to finally watch Black Mask and I’m not disappointed about either.
Director: Daniel Lee
Stars: Jet Li, Sean Lau, Karen Mok