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Fistful Of Film Fury

‘Timecop’ is must-see Van Damme

Put succinctly, Timecop is not only Van Damme’s best film, but it is also a good film, period.

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JCVD Timecop 1994 Movie Review

In 1994, on the day Washington police detective Max Walker (Jean-Claude Van Damme) is about to accept a new position as a member of a secretive police squad that will employ time travel in order to stop criminals that have already set foot in the past to commit various illegal activities, his wife Melissa (Mia Sara) is brutally murdered by unknown thugs. Flash forward ten years later in 2004, and Walker is a seasoned member of the TEC, the Time Enforcement Commission, a police division managed by Eugene Matuzak (Bruce McGill). A mission to the early 1930s leads Max to believe that current presidential hopeful Senator Aaron McComb (Ron Silver) is using time travel to his own nefarious benefit, a plot that just might have even played a role in his wife’s demise.

Jean-Claude Van Damme is an action icon whose star rose very early in his career. (Bloodsport being the film that put him on the map). He is still very much involved in movie making, his most recent major role as the antagonist in the second Expendables film in 2012. Often derided for his wooden acting (and his accent, although that has never felt like a fair criticism), his movies have, for the majority, been hits, regardless of their dubious quality at times. Timecop represents something of a highlight in his filmography. Based on a Dark Horse comic series with a legitimately interesting premise, it is directed by Peter Hyams and is boosted by a solid script, notwithstanding the typical criticisms one can lambast at how most films deal with the nebulous concept of time travel. Hyams himself is not exactly a household name, but any director that is willing to take on the sequel to 2001: A Space Odyssey (2010, aka The Year We Made Contact) is a man willing to take risks and quite confident in his abilities to deliver the goods.

Put succinctly, Timecop is not only Van Damme’s best film, but it is also a good film, period. Yes, time travel is a slippery slope for screenwriters and directors to ride on and there are definitely a couple of moments in the movie that might have some viewers scratching and spark pertinent questions, yet it should be argued that dramatically, yes, dramatically, Hyams’ picture works rather well. Max Walker is a man condemned to live with the brutal question ‘what if?’. What if the past could be changed and his wife rescued from the clutches of the villains that mercilessly took her away from him? That is the riskiest of propositions, however, as it is revealed, not for the first time in film, that changing the past alters the course of the future, sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse. The movie plays on this notion very effectively, as every time Walker ventures into the past to continue his assignment, something history-altering occurs, thus awarding the slimy Senator McComb (played with devilish glee by Ron Silver) with the upper hand as he makes his way towards the presidency.

Timecop is Still the Apex of Van Damme’s Career

Timecop is also a great vehicle for Van Damme to flex his legendary muscles, to say nothing of the iconic moment when he evades a projectile in his kitchen by jumping and performing the split with his two feet resting on opposite counters. It is a great moment in a great action scene, firmly placing Van Damme in the upper echelon of action stars in the 1990s. Better still, the action is varied, with a nice mixture of intense gun fighting and impressive stunts, giving hungry audiences a little bit of everything. The hand-to-hand combats themselves refuse to hold back, the filmmakers ensuring that each blow looks and sounds as though it hurts like hell.

The biggest and most surprising compliment the film earns, however, is Van Damme’s decent performance. For the first time in his career, he looks comfortable leading a film not just with his fists, but with dialogue and character as well. Lest anyone gets carried away, this performance is by no means the stuff of legend, yet considering how terribly wooden, downright uncomfortable he looks in most of his films prior to Timecop, the man should get some credit where credit is due. He is, for all intents and purposes, believable as a charismatic cop haunted by the tragedy of a decade ago and determined to succeed in his mission to thwart the duplicitous Aaron McComb. With the arrival of the opportunity to actually visit the night that torments him still and change the outcome, the sense of genuine desperation comes through. Van Damme was not a very good actor before Timecop and rarely gave as good performance since, making Timecop an anomaly, albeit in the best possible sense.

When all is said and done, it is hard to argue that the movie does not represent the highpoint of its star’s career. From the story to the action and even the Belgian’s acting, Timecop commits few false moves, proving beyond merely competent, but actually quite good. It won’t be argued very often with respect to his filmography, but this is must-see Van Damme.

-Edgar Chaput

A native of Montréal, Québec, Edgar has been writing about film since 2008. At first relegated to a personal blog back when those things were all the rage, he eventually became a Sound on Sight staff member in late 2011, a site managed by non-other than Ricky D himself. Theatrical reviews, festival coverage, film noir and martial arts flicks columns, he even co-hosted a podcast for a couple of years from 2012 to 2014 with Ricky and Simon Howell. His true cinematic love however, his unshakable obsession, is the 007 franchise. In late 2017, together with another 00 agent stationed in Montreal, he helped create The James Bond Complex podcast (alas, not part of the Goombastomp network) in which they discuss the James Bond phenomenon, from Fleming to the films and everything in between. After all, nobody does it better.

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1 Comment

  1. Lewis

    April 26, 2020 at 4:25 am

    Why does the young van damme keep getting outsmarted by the big thug with the mullet and shin guards? this may be JCVD’s most successful film but it hurts me to see him get his ass kicked so much here.

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Fantasia Film Festival

John Carpenter’s ‘Vampires’ has enough for Carpenter Fans to Sink Their Teeth Into

John Carpenter Spotlight

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John Carpenter's Vampires

Vampires Sees Carpenter go for more Action than Scares

The name John Carpenter, much like Wes Craven, is synonymous with the horror genre. Few American filmmakers have a filmography so thoroughly steeped in horror that their names instantly come to mind of rabid fans of the genre whenever asked to list their favourite directors, or at least those that left an indelible mark on horror cinema. From all the way back in the late 1970s with films like Assault on Precinct 13 and Halloween to The Ward, Carpenter is one of the iconic directors having attained legendary status. If Assault, which is more thriller than horror, is any indication, he can also direct action scenes with relative aplomb. 1998 finally saw him meld horror and action with Vampires.

Opening in a sleepy New Mexican town, vampire exterminators Jack Crow (James Woods), Anthony Montoya (Daniel Baldwin) and their troop infiltrate a glum-looking house during the day. Equipped with pistols, shotguns, stakes and harpoon guns that relay back to their truck that can drag vampires outside and into the sunlight, Jack’s team successfully liquidates what they refer to as ‘goons’. The celebrations later that evening are short-lived, as a master vampire, Jan Valek (Thomas Ian Griffith) assaults their motel, killing most of Jack’s crew and the hookers they rented, save for Daniel and Katrina (Sheryl Lee). The Vatican, Jack’s employer, has its representative Cardinal Alba (Maximilian Schell) order that they take inexperienced Father Adam Guiteau (Tim Guinee) under their wing to form a new team and discover what Jav Valek is after. With Katrina falling under the vampire’s spell by the hour following a bite, Daniel falls in love with her, and a smart but nervous priest by their side, it’s up to no-nonsense Jack to muster up some gusto to face off against the most powerful vampire ever.

John Carpenter's 'Vampires'

Many argue that 1994’s In the Mouth of Madness was John Carpenter’s last great movie. Of course, discourse like that is always open to interpretation given how subjective the appreciation of film is, but is it noteworthy that since Madness, none of his pictures have garnered the acclaim many are always ready and willing to shower him with. Village of the DamnedEscape from L.A., VampiresGhosts of Mars and The Ward carried no clout at the box office and none were especially well-received critically, a couple of them proving to be full-on duds in fact. It appears, therefore, that 1998, when Vampires was released, was right around the time when John Carpenter’s limelight began to dim. It would be harsh to mindlessly lump Vampires in the same category as films such as Escape from L.A. and The Ward, however. The reality is that the picture is a decent romp, one that juggles obligatory vampire movie tropes with a more modern twist or two and some action scenes befitting of a western, incidentally a genre Carpenter himself is on record for being quite fond of.

It should be pointed out that Vampires does not feature a barrage of crazy action sequences. Rather, the guns go blazing and the stakes are viciously thrust  mostly during the opening scene and the climax, with the middle portion reserved for character development and advancement of the plot. What high-octane delights that are featured are presented with a fun sense of joie de vivre as is typical of Carpenter’s films. They aren’t the most sophisticated set pieces, with several visual cues hinting that everything is being pulled off with relatively modest means. With the exception of the Escape sequel, Carpenter was never one to produce films that cost exuberant amounts, the result of which are movies that not only feel a bit more grounded, but force the production teams to pull out all the stops to make the best monsters and action scenes they can, using every last penny. In that respect, the action in Vampires falls very much in line with the director’s vision. In an age when digital enhancements were becoming all the craze, there is something decidedly old school about the physicality the vampires possess as well as the fisticuffs the actors get into. Better still, the climax is staged exactly like a siege sequence one would find just as easily in a western. It’s fun to watch and looks as though the filmmakers themselves were having barrels of fun while making it.

John Carpenter's 'Vampires'

Anchoring the picture is the incomparable James Woods. The actor never shied away from playing either creeps or anti-heroes, and the role of Jack Crow suits him perfectly. Haunted by a tragic past in which vampirism played a role, Jack is tough as nails, foul-mouthed, gun-toting, stake-wielding vampire killer that doesn’t beat around the bush when it comes to slaughtering his mortal enemies. There is a fiery passion when Jack kills vampires, an anger that can barely be controlled. Woods brings out this gusto with relish, delighting in the possibility of insulting just about anyone that disagrees with him and yelling obscenities with jubilation when a vampire’s eyes finally roll back its head or is savagely burned by sunlight. Daniel Baldwin is not as accomplished an actor as Woods, and in no shape or form is he as magnetic as his more popular Vampires co-star, but whatever limited acting chops he has are put to decent use by Carpenter. They play off each other reasonably well, two macho guys that respect and even like each other, but will demonstrate said appreciation for one another with a cuss word rather than anything gentile. Tim Guinee, whose role grows more important as the plot moves along, is also a lot of fun as the initially queasy Father that eventually gets down and dirty with Jack in their slaying quest.

What it comes down to when judging Vampires is that it has to get by on its aforementioned strengths because there is not much else worthy of recommendation. Sheryl Lee is devoid of any charisma as Katrina, which might come off as a harsh criticism considering the role she is playing (essentially a comatose soon-to-be vampire), but a good actress would bring something to the role, anything at all. Worse still is Thomas Ian Griffith, arguably the least interesting villain of any Carpenter film, which is saying something seeing as Michael Myers spends the entire Halloween film speechless and behind a mask. Jan Valek’s presence is built up a lot by how other characters talk about his evil exploits, but it requires an actor to bring about that sort of terror onto the screen. Thomas Ian Griffith is no such performer, thus making Jan a blander than bland ultimate baddie. There is also the matter of the plot, which is extremely convoluted and long-winded for something that could be explained in a few sentences in order to keep a good pace. Jan Valek basically wishes to walk by day, thus making him and his minions an even greater threat to humanity than they already are. The screenplay, from scribe Don Jakoby, goes to extraneous lengths to explain Valek’s past, what the Vatican has done to subdue him, something about a black cross, a reverse exorcism of sorts, etc. It goes on and on and on and, frankly, the exposition feels interminable at some points. Neat and to the point is something Vampires most certainly is not.

John Carpenter's 'Vampires'

Ultimately, Carpenter’s film makes for an odd viewing experience. For a director that knows how to cut to the chase of his plots, it is rather surprising to see Vampires slow down to a crawl during its middle section. Woods and Guinee are exciting enough to get the viewer through to the climax, but only just. That said, the movie opens with a bang, ends terrifically, and offers some hilariously macho exchanges between Woods and Baldwin. It isn’t the most glowing recommend, but there is enough here for Carpenter completists to sink their teeth into.

-Edgar Chaput

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Fistful Of Film Fury

10 Years Later: ‘Kick-Ass’ is as Impressive, Shocking, and Stupendously Fun

Kick-Ass walks a very fine line and while thematically it fails to pay dividends on its original premise, it still ends up being a fantastic romp.

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Kick-Ass Movie Review

There are some films studios love to make and one of those particular genres is the superhero/comic book movie. Another thing studios love to put into their films is plenty of action, with epic battles pitting valiant heroes against nefarious and deadly villains. A slick, polished look, as well as clever editing to heighten the experience, funny dialogue, memorable supporting characters, all of these, are equally staples of what Hollywood enjoys churning out, especially when producing films based on superheroes. Most, if not all of these elements are ready and present in Matthew Vaughn’s Kick-Ass. However, the search for financial support within the studio system proved a bit more challenging than usual, the reason being that Kick-Ass, for all its tantalizing strengths, is vastly different from the many comic book-inspired movies the movie-going public has been accustomed to over the past decade and a half.

Things start off quickly, with an immediate hint at the tone the film will adopt for the next 117minutes: a little of irony and self-referential humour mixed with some unabashed violence. The plot, ostensibly an amalgamation of the printed miniseries, revolves around teenager Dave Lizewski, a very average, geeky young man with not much to show for himself until the day he inexplicably decides to purchase a scuba diving suit online in order to dress up as a hero and protect the innocent at night. Inspired by the many comic books he and his friends have read over the years and somehow puzzled as to why not a soul has ever chosen to adorn an outfit to stalk the villains of his native Manhattan, he chooses to become that very precedent as his new alter ego Kick-Ass. His athleticism is at best limited, his planning for such a scheme is a tad leaky, but what he does possess is a lot of courage and heart. Unbeknownst to him however is the existence of Big Daddy (Nicolas Cage) and his young daughter Hit-Girl (Chloe Moretz) who are after revenge against the terrible crime lord Frank D’Amico (Mark Strong). Events will force Kick-Ass and the father-daughter duo to band together and take on D’Amico as well as the latter’s son Red Mist (Christopher Mintz-Plasse).

Kick-Ass Movie Review

Unquestionably one of the principal elements that put fear into a studio at the thought of financing Kick-Ass was the level of unfiltered violence featured throughout. Witnessing bullets ripping through flesh is nothing new for anyone who has paid attention to recent action films, and experiencing the slicing and dicing of body limbs with a shiny sword should sound familiar to those who have seen the Kill Bill films, but it is the way the violence is handled at times in Kick-Ass that differentiates it from many other movies of the same ilk. Certainly in the early going of the film, there is a brutal realism to the violence depicted on screen which produced a very visceral reaction. Kick-Ass the character is nothing but a scrawny chump who is in far over his head. Ill-equipped for the task he has willfully burdened himself with, Dave’s early outings frequently end in great physical pain, even though his vigilante persona is earning popularity via YouTube. The injuries aren’t of the comical variety either. They are serious and life-threatening. It must be said that the first half of the movie certainly goes for something different. Aaron-Taylor Johnson, while not breaking any new grounds in the acting department, does a fine job portraying this eternally average Joe vying for something really quite extraordinary. Bubbling with enthusiasm yet constantly speaking with a nervous voice when confronting gangsters, Johnson embodies the exact sort of character Dave is supposed to: a courageous idiot.

Kick-Ass Lacks Thematic Consistency but Packs in a Lot of Guilty Fun

The pacing and tone of the film take a different turn near the halfway mark once Kick-Ass unites with Big Daddy and Hit-Girl. Not a turn for the worse, thankfully, but the film’s overall feel diverges from where the story began. Once Hit-Girl makes her presence known to the audience, the portrayal of the characters and especially of the violence changes. Dave, in an attempt at assisting a fellow classmate he has the hots for, dresses as Kick-Ass, and arrives at a dingy apartment where some hoodlums live. These villains have been causing some trouble for Dave’s would-be girlfriend and when his half-assed attempt at intimidating the thugs fails him, the ever heroic and deadly Hit-Girl bails the protagonist out by stabbing and cutting the gang members into bite-sized barbecue cubes with her stunning arsenal of martial arts weaponry. At that moment Kick-Ass’ reaction mirrors the viewer’s: what the hell is going on?

Aaron Taylor-Johnson

It is at this stage when Kick-Ass transforms itself from an oddball wannabe superhero film into a true blue action-adventure, complete with bone-crunching, flesh slicing fight sequences. The turn is sharp, which may cause some to question the filmmakers’ intent. Is this a story about a regular teenager foolhardily trying something extraordinary or is this a film more along the lines of action films movie crowds adore? There is an argument to be made about the fact that, ultimately, Kick-Ass might not know what it wants to be exactly.  Even so, as an adrenaline rush, what action scenes erupt in the second half are extremely well-devised and shot. Director Matthew Vaughn had not made a name for himself with audacious popcorn action films (audacious British gangster films, rather) but he adapts himself extremely well to the task at hand, as does his cast. The action is impressive, shocking, and stupendously fun all rolled into one little profanity-riddled package. The deaths look gruesome and discomforting yet Vaughn has a knack to cause laughter as unhinged violence explodes onscreen.

Nicholas Cage as Big Daddy gives one of his solid performances of his career and is awarded at least one scene in which his Batman-like character gets to eviscerate a hoard of lowly thugs. Channeling Adam West whenever wearing the cape and cowl and showing a twisted heartwarming personality when simply training or hanging out with his daughter, Cage, believe or not, is actually quite good here. That said, there is no beating around the bush regarding what most people remember when leaving the film, that being Chloë Grace Moretz as Mindy, aka Hit-Girl. A relative newcomer to the movie scene when Kick-Ass was released theatrically (some may have noticed her in a supporting role in 2009’s (500) Days of Summer), for all intents and purposes, Moretz steals the show and with good reason. Although she was about 12 years old when filming, physically she looks a lot younger. Having a character who is a petite girl spout the most appalling vulgarities before either hacking away the limbs of opponents or blowing their brains out with firearms is asking for controversy. One’s response to the character of Hit-Girl will rest on what they are willing to accept as acceptable cinema. There is a bevy of reasons why Hit-Girl is an abomination. However, if one is willing to go along with the movie’s preposterousness, Chloe Grace Moretz is far and away the best thing about the movie.

Vaughn and company keep pushing the limits of plausibility right up until the climax, which sees the involvement of a missile-equipped jet pack attacking the antagonist’s Manhattan condo. Even the score, surprisingly the result of the efforts of four (!) different composers, grows more traditionally bombastic near the end. For some, the shift in tone will disappoint while others will certainly laud the movie for finally giving them what they were expecting to see in the first place. The movie walks a very fine line and while thematically it fails to pay dividends on its original premise, it still ends up being a fantastic romp.

  • Edgar Chaput
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Fistful Of Film Fury

‘Black Mask’ Stars Jet Li as a Superhero

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Black Mask Jet Li 1996

As Black Mask opens, a series of distorted images edited together in rapid-fire MTV music video style is accompanied by a narrator explaining that a short while ago the Chinese government invested heavily in the creation of a squad of super-soldiers named the 701st. The experiment proved disastrous however as it ended up producing super thugs rather than superheroes for the most part. Tsui Chik (Jet Li) was one such bio-engineered soldier who made it out alive when the state opted to liquidate its failed crop. Tsui keeps to himself mostly, working as a librarian and playing chess with his only friend, police inspector Shek Wai-Ho (Ching Wan Lau). When Hong Kong’s mob leaders are murdered in increasingly gruesome fashion in a series of elaborate attacks, Tsui finds himself thrust into action as his superhero alter ego Black Mask to get to the bottom of the serial murders. It soon becomes apparent that the remnants of the 701st, including Tsui’s former flame Yeuk Laan (Françoise Yip) are behind the plot, but why?

In the interest of full disclosure, it should be noted that the copy of Black Mask procured is the blu-ray included in the Vivafilm Alliance Atlantis Jet Li collection released in the summer of 2012. The disc itself is one of the earlier blu-rays released on the Canadian market and only includes the American English and French language dubs. Additionally, the version of the film found on the disc is that with the soundtrack remixed to appeal to North American audiences filled to the brim with hip-hop beats. This was un unexpected turn of events upon starting the film, but one makes due with what one has. Notwithstanding a substantial difference between the soundtracks of the U.S. and the original Hong Kong version, it seems doubtful the original language track would have made that large a difference in quality.

Jet Li’s output of vehicles rivals that of his equally famous contemporary Jackie Chan. Where the latter showed off inspiring acrobatic technique while softening the blows with comedy, the former is just as mercilessly proficient as far as the martial arts are concerned but demonstrates it via more serious-minded, tonally darker films overall. Fists of Legend and Tai Chi Master, two films from the early 1990s, further cemented Li’s status as a viable leading man in kung fu movies. Daniel Lee’s Black Mask follows a similar pattern while adopting the template of superhero films in a similar vein as the Tim Burton Batman films.  Tsui, or Black Mask, is gifted with abilities that ordinary people can only dream of, helped in most part by physical strength and stamina that far surpass those of regular humans. With the help of inspector Shek, Tsui must piece together a modicum of information (just as Batman is a detective in addition to being a crime fighter) although the movie puts in very little effort to demonstrate this aspect, preferring to concentrate on the barrage of fights director Lee is only sometimes capable making heads or tails of.

Black Mask is hampered by clumsy direction

Jet Li will never be recognized as a great actor. Conveying complex, layered emotions is not where his strengths lie. Kicking ass with a deadly serious face is. That said, looking at his filmography he has been cast in a number of roles for which a bit of emotive demonstration is required such as Fearless and Tai Chi Master. It is less that he cannot emote, more that his ability is painfully limited. He is essentially the Chinese version of Jason Statham in that he can fulfill the minimum requirements but not much beyond that. This makes it challenging for a movie to tap into the depth of a story about a man trying to escape his past and start anew but finds himself sucked into a vortex of familiar danger and confronted by a former lover. That storyline carries with it serious potential for compelling character explorations, something not entirely foreign to movies like Black Mask. Li is not entirely up to the task in building a character through performance nor does he flounder completely, finding his typical oddly calibrated middle ground. His co-stars give far livelier performances, especially Ching Wan Lau as the hard-ass cop prone to using his fists rather than diplomacy to settles confrontations. Karen Mok as fellow librarian Tracy Lee who gets caught up in Tsui’s wild entanglements despite herself is a ball of energy from the moment she appears on screen. Word of caution, Mok plays the character in a very manic fashion seen quite often in Hong Kong films fishing for comedic relief, a style those unfamiliar with Hong Kong cinema might find off-putting.

In the case of Black Mask it is next to impossible to discuss the fight choreography quality in a vacuum without considering the shot set-ups and editing style. If anyone has seen a Jet Li film or two, save a few exceptions, there is little doubt concerning his abilities as a martial artist. What’s more, several of his co-stars, including Ching Wan Lau, seem quite capable of holding their own in a fight. Director Daniel Lee’s shooting style is however not conducive to allowing the battles to take center stage and permit the viewer to admire them fully. Describing his direction is a strange task. Knowing the period when the film was made, the best way to illustrate it is by arguing that it looks like a hyperactive 1990s MTV music video, hence the jab in the above plot synopsis. Camera angles frequently feel off, with shots employing poorly calibrated Dutch angles that add little else than visual confusion. The movie is replete with decidedly ugly frames that are too close to actor’s faces or that are not properly centered, resulting in the viewer seeing half an arm,  a chest, and half a face when a character jumps for example. Appreciating the special moments of action scenes is often extremely difficult in Black Mask, with the brunt of the blame laying squarely at Lee’s feet. Not everything is lost in the botched editing and cinematography processes. The cemetery spar between Tsui and Inspector Ching is impressive and communicates each character’s agility smoothly enough with a wiser decision taken as to where to set the camera. Credit where credit is due, the final confrontation between Tsui and the leader of the renegade 701st is inventive (whipping electric cords and a gas chamber!), exciting and the best looking contest in the entire movie. At least the filmmakers have the decency to save the best for last.

A bit more credit should go to the set designers who worked on the underground base of operations utilized by the 701st and the costume designers who worked on its leader’s impressionable outfit and Black Mask’s Kato-style uniform. The 701st’s cavernous hub of activity is located in the dingy Hong Kong sewers, resembling a cross between a sophisticated computer lab and a middle-age dungeon. By no means the greatest center of operations the antagonists could have used, it works primarily for its utilitarian set-up (although the purpose of the gas chamber is never explained…). The chief baddie himself sports a look Matrix fans will immediately recognize, what with his long leather overcoat and sunglasses.

Great cinema Black Mask is not, nor an achievement in martial arts filmmaking, too frequently hampered by shoddy mise en scène and editing. The story is not much to write home about either, potential eschewing the love triangle between Tsui Karen and Yeuk Laan with the most anticlimactic death scene possible…with still half an hour to go. For what it be worth, Ching Wan Lau is a lot of fun to watch, Black Mask’s costume is aces and a few action scenes survive the director’s misguided tactics. In the grander scheme of things, Black Mask is not essential viewing for martial arts or Jet Li fans.

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