Black Mask is a Manga style action movie starring Jet Li and directed by Daniel Lee, which blends high production values and clever effects with thrilling martial arts and dark comedy.
Our hero, Tsui (Jet Li) has been brainwashed and surgically altered by the military to feel nothing as a member of China´s elite 701 Squad. He tells his student Mei Lin (Francoise Yip ) that he is going to fight his way out, and that they should follow him. When none of them contacts him on the outside he assumes they are all dead, or captured. Escaping to Hong Kong, he creates a new identity taking a job in a library, and rejecting violence of any kind. He develops friendships with his colleagues at the library, particularly Tracy (Karen Mok), and tries to learn to feel again. He also strikes up a friendship with a policeman - Inspector "Rock" Shek (Ching Wan Lau). Tsui and Rock have a long running debate on the use of violence in which Tsui expresses his belief in pacifism and pretends he has no skills in fighting.
However, Rock begins investigating a series of gangland murders, bearing the hallmarks of the 701 Squad, and Tsui has to get involved. He knows that only he can stop the 701 squad, and save his friend Rock. Even worse, he knows that his student Mei Lin is still among their numbers. To maintain his anonymity and protect his friends Rock and Tracy he becomes Black Mask - crime-fighting superhero - and takes on the gang single handed.
The leader of 701 squad, Commander Hung (Kong Lung) has the typically ambitious plan of dominating the world´s drugs trade by stealing the files of law enforcement agencies across the world. When he realises that Black Mask must be Tsui, he decides to use Mei Lin to get him to join them, or die. Tsui still cares for Mei Lin, and believes that he can save her from the 701, and that they can learn to be human again.
The opening scene tears straight into the action (and has been seriously ripped off by Hollywood movies like Blade), with Tsui slaughtering an army of anonymous baddies while flying across the roof in a spinning metal box on a chain, then jumping through moving laser beams - James Bond eat your heart out. This really sets the pace for the movie - one minute of plot development, and ten minutes of seriously good action. The 701 squad are all immune to pain, like Tsui, and so they easily slaughter the regular policemen. Of course, Rock is cooler than most, but even he cannot cope with these almost unstoppable killers. In one scene, a member of the 701 is severely beaten by Tsui, and skewered on some metal pipes protruding from the ground. The bloke doesn´t seem bothered by this, and slowly pulls himself up forcing the pipes back through his body before fighting again.
The plot of the movie is very silly - of course. But, that never matters in a good martial arts film. The characters are pretty one-dimensional, but Tsui and Rock are both very cool, and the film is excellent where it counts. The action scenes were masterfully created by Yuen Woo-Ping, who choreographed the action in the Matrix. For Black Mask, he has the talents of one of the finest martial artists, Jet Li (who has won the Li Wushu World championship several times), and he doesn´t waste him. There are almost too many good set pieces to mention, and all are too good to adequately describe them. The fight in the grave yard is excellent, as is one in the warehouse. The whole end sequence in the baddies lair is beautifully put together, and very satisfying.
Director Daniel Lee keeps the pace throughout, and the film deserved its nomination for Best Art Direction and Best Costume & Make-Up Design, and Best Action Choreography in the 1997 Hong Kong Film Awards. The only thing I would criticise is the crappy looking mask they made Jet wear. It looks like corrugated paper painted black - and was perhaps constructed by the Directors kid?
The story and the look of the piece owes much to Manga, and this gives everything a kind of comic book cool that really works with someone of Jet´s ability. He is believable in the role in a way that many action "heroes" just couldn´t be. Perhaps Jet's slight form contributes to the fact that his fighting always looks graceful and artistic, and therefore more entertaining than brute force and muscles. The film does follow a formula, and there is no Oscar winning material here, but for Hong Kong film fans and Manga fans, it is a "must see".