Stars: Deng Chao, Liu Yi Fei, Ronald Cheng, Collin Chou and Anthony Wong
|This film was an official selection at the 9th annual International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival in Phoenix in 2013. Here's an index to my reviews of 2013 films.|
While we see most of the characters during this opening sequence, we have to wait until the first action scene to be introduced to what they do, albeit so quickly that it's tough to keep track. They all head over to the Drunken Moon, a rather delightful inn, to watch Jia San try to sell a fake coin cast that presumably ties to the rampant forgery going on in the town. A debt collector known as Life Snatcher meets him, but when he realises that their wine is poisoned, all hell breaks loose. Life Snatcher battles another martial arts master, while others use wilder talents to stop Jia San escaping with use of body duplication magic. One young lady in a wheelchair hurls things around telekinetically. Her boss uses qigong power to pull people towards him like a tractor beam. We watch this all unfold at lightning speed until they all end up outside, trapped by the constabulary known as Department Six, who descended en masse on the inn and aim to arrest everyone. Only now do we get to the point, that we have a clash of authorities going on.
Department Six are the standard police force around here and they scare most people silly because they exude brutal and militaristic power. They're fond of intimidation tactics and shows of force, which lead to overkill shows like what we've just seen. Their uniforms are dark and fetishistic, as are their headquarters which are vast, echoing and arrogant in their overt worship of power. Their commandant is Lord Liu who runs Department Six through a standard chain of command with four supreme constables. It took me a long while to realise that these characters, who were introduced much earlier than this, are not the Four of the title. Then again, this is an origin story, so we're watching how the Four come together and where they fit in the grand scheme of things. At this point, one them works for Department Six; he's Cold Blood, the master who fought Life Snatcher at the Drunken Moon, but he's about to be publicly fired but secretly tasked by Lord Liu with infiltrating the Divine Constabulary, the secret organisation we've just met.
Having saved Life Snatcher from arrest by Department Six, Zhuge invites him to stay, to become one of them. He wants to leave, but is suckered into staying through flattery and wine. Lots of wine. Aunt Poise from the Drunken Moon brings good wine and they drink for free. With Life Snatcher under their roof, the Divine Constabulary now have three of the Four within their organisation, the other two being Iron Hands and Emotionless. Emotionless is the more obvious; she's the telekinetic girl in the wheelchair, who sees into people's thoughts and quantifies the strength of their qigong power. To go where she can't, she also has a bird, a pigeon called Skywings who led us on that merry dance through the sky to show us the key players during the opening credits. Iron Hands is their blacksmith and carpenter, who can forge glorious devices for the group, including a wonderful wheelchair/Segway for Emotionless to power with her mind. Presumably he built the secret doors and awesome steampunk library too. I want.
There are many others, but those are the major players because they're ranked among the Four, even if that doesn't seem to be official nomenclature. They're colourfully named, of course: Big Wolf, Dingdong, Guts and Bell, who in the form of Tina Xiang may just be the cutest creature I've ever seen. And into their ranks comes Cold Blood to shake everything up. He isn't merely a Department Six constable undercover, he's also some sort of moody beast man who was raised by wolves and he quite obviously has the hots for Emotionless. Other key players include Ji Yaohua, the leader of the ladies hired into Department Six at the beginning of the film, on the orders of the Prince, and Lord An Shigeng, the God of Wealth, who she's really working for and who's clearly highlighted as the villain of the piece very soon into the picture. Lord An has the coolest moves yet: the ability to freeze people or burn them alive at a single touch. Stopping a martial arts master from killing you with his sword by catching it in your teeth is a pretty neat trick too.
Ronald Cheng is the most engaging of the Four as Life Snatcher. He's a prolific actor who always provides good entertainment and he works well as the will he/won't he outsider who is always going to join in the end. Collin Chou has promise as Iron Hands and absolutely looks the part. He's the least used of the Four, so it's the writing that lets the character down rather than the actor. The moody stylings of Liu Yi Fei and Deng Chao as Emotionless and Cold Blood respectively might endear them to a particular demographic but I found them less interesting because they're a notably emo couple. Above the Four is Anthony Wong as Zhuge Zhengwo. He's by far the most experienced member of the cast, typecast for years as notably outrageous villains, not least in his first Hong Kong Film Award winning role as the serial killer who baked his victims into meat pies in The Untold Story. He steals every scene he's in here by being the opposite of outrageous, making us very aware that he has immense power but keeping it constantly in check.
On the side of the villains, Wu Xiu Bo is delightfully cocky as Lord An, at his best when he's commanding an army of reanimated corpses. Jiang Yi Yan is more vanilla as Ji Yaohua, not particularly memorable until her fight with Emotionless, which is highly entertaining. As an origin story, there's less attention given to the villains though and far more to those little dynamics between the characters that will no doubt work as ongoing subplots throughout the sequels. Lord An is more apparent here than, say, the villains in the Guardians of the Galaxy movie, another origin story with an ensemble cast of characters, but he and his minions clearly don't get the attention that the ongoing heroes do. The biggest problem the script has is in its attempt to cram so much in, because we'd appreciate so much of this all the more if we didn't miss it by blinking. It's fine for us to miss little background details, because that sort of thing will draw us back to watch again, but losing introductions and key plot points like explaining the title is unforgiveable.
Put simply, while this is a Chinese wuxia movie whose trappings couldn't be mistaken as being from any other culture, it's notably reminiscent of western superhero movies. The fact that I much prefer the look and feel of pictures like this to anything I've seen in a Marvel superhero movie doesn't mean that it isn't acutely derivative. In what is becoming a sad trend, this is a Hollywood action movie in Chinese clothes, for all that the source material was penned by a Malaysian Chinese novelist who studied in Taiwan and lives in Hong Kong. It's formulaic stuff which tries to cloak its unoriginality in its blistering pace but fails because the more interested we become in the characters, the more we realise that their powers aren't traditionally Chinese, they're just mutant powers from X-Men and its like translated into vaguely Chinese characteristics. Zhuge is Professor X, the Divine Constabulary is his school for mutants, Emotionless is a Rogue/Phoenix hybrid and so on. If you can get past that, this is fun action fluff. After enough viewings.