In this era of popular super-hero movies and the re-emergence of Chinese Wuxia films, it would be easy to predict that one day a filmmaker would try to mesh one with the other. This is what director Gordon Chan appears poised to do with “The Four”. Based on a series of novels in the 1970’s by writer Wen Ruian, the premise gets an update featuring a solid Hong Kong and Mainland cast, with some decent action. I like zombies, I love martial arts, and I definitely love super-heroes, so why was I almost put to sleep with this latest fantasy flick from Gordon Chan? Let me elaborate in a few….
The Divine Constabulary is a group made up of four super-powered constables (serious!) led by Zhu Zhengwo (Anthony Wong, Exiled) who answer directly to the crown itself. Their unmatched set of skills have brought them into a rivalry with another law enforcement group, the “Sheriff King” Liu’s (Cheng Tai-Sheng) Department Six who plans to bring about the Constabulary’s fall from grace in the eyes of the crown. The two groups try to out do the other, while a slimy, super-powered villain An Shigeng (Wu Xiu-Bo) is throwing around counterfeit money to encourage unrest within the peasant community. Oh, Shigeng is also gearing up to unleash an army of white-chalked zombies to unseat the prince (Waise Lee). Can the two factions set aside their differences to foil Shigeng’s plans?
Ok, those who are familiar with “Wuxia” can correlate the term with “mysticism” or “magic”. I would’ve loved to see a Wuxia fantasy built around the many legends of martial arts as the novels were based on (according to my research). But here, Gordon Chan tries to go into the Marvel comics route. One look at the “Divine Constable” and one can easily see that the group is another spin-off of several X-Men characters most notably “Emotionless” Sheng Yayu (played by Crystal Liu Yi-Fei, Forbidden Kingdom) who is a telepath-telekinetic who is on a wheelchair armed with some cool toys (Professor Xavier anyone?). Leng Lingui (Deng Chao) is an almost beast-like, ala-Wolverine berserker Hulk-like fighter who needs to keep his anger in check. Oh yes, the two also has a romantic, sexual-tension-like subplot much like Jean Grey and Wolverine. Life Snatcher and Iron Hands (Ronald Cheng and Collin Chou respectively) also have some cool powers (however a little undefined) and the two make up for some of the film’s more amusing moments.
Rather than going for an approach that could possibly define “powers” in the martial arts sense through mysticism, Chan goes forward into making the powers appear natural and never gives his viewer an understanding as to how they worked. I am not certain what really gave him the idea for its script, it seems to capitalize on more mainstream tastes, but it just fails to take the central focus on its more interesting elements, potentially developing a more intricate screenplay. Chan seemed more interested in developing the dull devices he had injected as subplots such as the tension between Leng and Yayu, on Iron Hands and Butterfly while pitching in a seductive femme fatale in the person of Yaohua (Jiang Yiyan) to connect things with the main premise. The development of the plot fails to engage, it lacked any definition of the stakes and therefore, results in a script that cannot generate any sense of intrigue.
I am not going to go into further details of its muddled screenplay, but let’s just say that it moves like a cheap TV soap opera, and does not develop the potentially more interesting areas of its plot. I mean, it is all about “he likes me” rather than going through the details of the rivalry and the why and how the villain went into this scheme of his. Transitional issues abound that hurt its pace, that the storytelling barely had a feeling of cohesion. The acting was alright I suppose. Ronald Cheng relied on his comedic charisma while Collin Chou added a needed flavor to balance the brooding going on between Liu Yi-Fei and Deng Chao. Anthony Wong plays a character that may be terrible, but he plays his role with a sense of calm that helped it along. Jiang Yiyang is a good conflicted femme fatale, but I have reservations about Wi Xia-Bo who just appears to be having fun with his role. Sure, the story may be flat with all the dull devices and lack of imagination in its development, but the cast was decent for what they were trying to do.
Round up everything under the cover of some wire-fu and super-powered kung fu action, then Gordon Chan appears to have made a commercial film. I have to say, that the visual effects were decent, the set designs and costumes were good, and the action sequences were competent. Don't get me wrong, it does have some decent moments of action, but it just did not have any emotional content behind them. It is a pretty handsome film, but all seems to be superficial as the fights lacked emotional content because of the messy plot development. The build ups to the final confrontation just did not have anything behind them, that when you saw the fight scenes, you could barely care just what they were fighting for. “The Four” is a commercial film that requires minimal use of the brain. It‘s amazing how an action movie junkie like me can see such a film as....well, a bit tedious. It is a wonder that this movie is being expanded into a trilogy....
I’ve been covering foreign cinema for some time now (heck, I’ve probably been watching and/or reviewing it for two decades). One of the things I’ve noticed is that Asian cinema tends to fall into one of two brackets: either it’s very highbrow with artsy camera work and deep meaning OR it’s largely matinee-style action features. Granted, there are varying qualities wrapped up in either case, but, more often than not, it’s pretty rare for … more