Review for Heroes and Villains: Three Films starring Jet Li
Jet Li is so understated an actor off-screen; I haven’t seen too many interviews with him, or press junkets, that he often slips my mind when I think of martial arts movie stars. Yet Jet Li was to the nineties what the three dragons were to the eighties, cinematically ubiquitous, and one of the biggest action stars on the planet, maybe even the first Eastern star to crossover to Hollywood, ahead of even Jackie Chan. I need that constant reminder that of all of the Hong Kong action movie stars, Jet Li has the most in the way of acting chops to sell his movie roles. Thankfully Eureka Entertainment are there with that reminder, sending me three check discs from the Heroes and Villains collection; three movies that showcase Jet Li in his prime, The Enforcer, Dr Wai in the Scripture With No Words, and Hitman. The Enforcer is uncut in the UK for the first time.
Introduction: The Enforcer
Gong Wei does his best to raise his son Gu, instilling a sense of honour and strength. His wife may be frail and ill, but their family is strong; which given that Wei is a petty criminal makes little sense. When he’s finally arrested, the ostracism the family faces is to be expected.
The thing is that Wei is actually an undercover cop in mainland China and he has to follow orders, no matter how much he wants to quit for the sake of his family. But now he’s got his chance, one final mission to make friends with an inmate, help him escape, and make their way to Hong Kong to infiltrate his gang and bust open a smuggling ring. But then his cover is blown, and his family is put into peril.
The Disc: The Enforcer
The Enforcer gets 1.85:1 widescreen 1080p transfer with the choice between PCM 2.0 Mono Cantonese (and Mandarin) and English dub, with optional translated English subtitles. The Enforcer dates from 1995; that era when film stocks were soft and subdued when it comes to colour. With that proviso, The Enforcer looks good on this Blu-ray, clear and pretty sharp, offering good detail and a solid colour palette. The contrast is good, and there is no sign of visible compression, and the action comes across without issue. The audio is fine, the dialogue is clear, and the subtitles are accurately timed and free of typos. The action is properly represented in the audio, and it has the appropriate depth, impact and clarity, despite the mono format.
Extras: The Enforcer
The disc boots to a static menu where you’ll find the audio options and extras listed as follows.
Audio commentary with Arne Venema & Mike Leeder
Crowd Pleaser: An Interview with Wong Jing [archival] (17:36)
Like Father Like Son: An Interview with Tse Mui [archival] (16:22)
Born to be Bad: An Interview with Ken Lo [archival] (20:11)
Deleted Scene (1:54)
Hong Kong Trailer (4:05)
Conclusion: The Enforcer
The Enforcer is a stark reminder that there are cultural and historical differences when it comes to cinema of different nations. If you’re at all squeamish about children in peril, then you might want to think twice. Gong Wei’s son may be almost as adept as his father in martial arts, but seeing him fighting villains alongside his dad might give pause. I mean, a ten year old kid gets his face pushed through a glass table. And believe me; if you’re a dog lover, this film is probably not for you.
The story isn’t exactly an original one. There have been plenty of films where cops go undercover in organised crime, and not only risk having their cover blown, but also having to walk that fine line between pretending to be a criminal, and becoming a criminal for real. It isn’t unknown for families to be put in peril when covers are blown, and for our heroes to have to fight to save what’s most important. The Enforcer changes things up by making Wei’s son Gu such an integral part of the story that he winds up being a big part of the action too. You might be thinking of Stop, Or My Mom Will Shoot at this point, but The Enforcer avoids that pitfall by making Gu just as much of a martial artist as his dad, and those moments of peril that I mentioned are offset by some rather obvious foreshadowing early on.
The villains are reprehensible, the mainland police are draconian in how they use their officers, while the Hong Kong police are corrupt and vainglorious. So the story becomes more about the mini-family that forms. There is Wei and his son obviously. The man Wei helps escape, to use as his cover in Hong Kong is that rare crook with a heart of gold that sympathises with Wei and Gu. Early on, Inspector Fong of the Hong Kong police heads to the mainland to investigate Wei, and winds up meeting Gu and his mother; learning that Wei isn’t who he appears to be. The four wind up being the good guys in the film, doing the right thing to defeat the criminals against chilling odds, and having to deal with their own respective bureaucracies.
It should go without saying that The Enforcer really delivers when it comes to action, and insane stunts. That is the whole point of films like this after all. But no one sells action and character like Jet Li. Personally, I’m not all that comfortable with The Enforcer. OFCOM have trained me too well to deal with brutal kid-versus-villain fight sequences, and the uncertainty of tone in the film (occasionally it wants to be a kids movie), makes for an uneven experience.
Introduction: Dr Wai in “The Scripture With No Name”
Chow Si-Kit is the writer behind the popular Adventure King series starring swashbuckling adventurer Dr. Wai, although since his wife petitioned for divorce, he’s been suffering from writer’s block. His assistants in the office decide to help him with some new ideas, but all that manages to do is inspire his bitter disillusionment. And meanwhile, Dr Wai embarks on his strangest mission yet, seeking out the ‘scripture with no words’ in 1930s Manchuria.
The Disc: Dr Wai in “The Scripture With No Name”
Dr. Wai in the Scripture with No Words gets a 2.35:1 widescreen 1080p transfer on this disc, with the choice between DTS-HD MA 5.1 Surround Cantonese, PCM 2.0 Mono Cantonese, PCM 2.0 Mono English, and PCM 2.0 Mono Cantonese Unique Home Video Mix with optional English subtitles. It’s a good transfer of a vibrant and colourful film. Detail levels are good, and there is no sign of compression or print damage. Some of the effects don’t benefit from the clarity though, with unimpressive production values in some scenes, and some poor CGI. The surround audio is unexpected but welcome, a nice immersive track that throws the action around the soundstage as required. Having been pleasantly surprised by the Royal Tramp films, I tentatively tried the dub, but it’s back to normal service here.
Extras: Dr Wai in “The Scripture With No Name”
The big extra here is the International Version of the film, which removes the framing story set in the present day, and presents the film as a straightforward period action adventure in the Indiana Jones mode. Removing the framing story and replacing it with extended and deleted scenes actually leaves the runtime pretty much the same at 91:22. It comes with PCM 2.0 Mono Mandarin and English.
It is ostensibly the better version of the film, but Eureka have made an unwise choice in its presentation. They could only find an SD source for the different scenes; I assume the whole International Version was available as SD. It might have been better if the film had been presented in its entirety as SD, but the scenes the two versions have in common are here in restored HD form. The problem is that it is very jarring when the film switches between the two, not only a resolution change, but a slight aspect change as well. I found it very hard to watch.
The International version of the film does get an audio commentary from Frank Djeng.
The Hong Kong Version gets an audio commentary from Mike Leeder & Arne Venema.
The Smart and the Brave [Archival] (6:54)
Hong Kong Trailer (2:51)
Conclusion: Dr Wai in “The Scripture With No Name”
This should have worked. Think about it, a Hong Kong metafiction comedy from way back in 1996, years before metafiction actually became a thing. Dr. Wai was breaking ground that Hollywood was barely aware existed at that point. It’s only when you look at the extra features, particularly the disclaimer at the head of the International Version that you realise that Dr Wai wasn’t metafiction by design. When the sets were consumed by fire, the framing device of the writer in present day Hong Kong was added to complete the film. That the framing device actually works to the degree that it does is just serendipity, and it doesn’t work all that well.
You have a goofy Indiana Jones pastiche framed in a goofy romantic comedy. With that level of goof, you might expect the film to work together as a whole, but in practice, the two genres don’t sit well together, and you can’t get away from the sense of two disparate films just thrown together willy-nilly, with a misguided hope that it will work. Chow’s imminent divorce from his wife has got him in a funk, and his friends try to help by giving him ideas for the Adventure King story that he should be writing. The optimistic friends contrast with his fatalism, and the way that they influence the Dr Wai story that is unfolding within the frame is actually quite well done, especially when you understand how the film came about. It gets even more complicated when Chow’s wife Monica takes a crack at writing the story.
Maybe if the framing story had been given a more serious tone, the film might have worked better, but the milquetoast writer passive-aggressive-ing at his wife when she’s insistent on separating, only brought back together by the dumbest accidents I’ve seen in cinema, is impossible to take seriously. And with the Dr Wai storyline playing it completely for laughs, while still delivering when it comes to its action sequences, and Temple of Doom inspired moments of horror, you’re left with a film that seems to have been made for a bet. Dr Wai in the Scripture with No Words isn’t the first action movie that has put me to sleep, but it’s the loudest action movie to have done so.
As an assassin, Fu leaves a lot to be desired. The former soldier from the mainland is a budget hitman who is so soft-hearted that he winds up helping his targets rather than kill them. But he has dreams of becoming rich enough to help his mother back home, and all he wants is one, high paying job that doesn’t trouble his conscience. To get the high paying jobs, you need a reputation, which Fu doesn’t have, but he still gets his chance when a wealthy Japanese businessman named Tsukamoto is killed by an unconventional assassin known as the Blazing Angel, a killer who targets the guilty, and takes no money.
Tsukamoto’s will leaves $100 million in US currency to find and kill those responsible for his demise. All Fu has to do is get into the meeting with the lawyers and register his intention to take on the contract. A bumpkin like him might not get past that simple hurdle, but on the way to the office, her runs into Ngok Lo, an agent looking for an assassin to represent, for a share of the bounty. Where Fu is more naive, Lo is more of a chancer with the gift of the gab. The two make an unlikely team, but there are more experienced and brutal assassins on the case, not least Tsukamoto’s own determined grandson, and the Blazing Angel mustn’t be discounted. If that isn’t enough, the police are onto this bounty, and are breathing down their necks.
The Disc: Hitman
Hitman gets a 1.85:1 widescreen 1080p transfer on the disc and the choice between DTS-HD MA 5.1 Surround Cantonese, PCM 2.0 Mono Cantonese and English, and a PCM 2.0 Stereo English Home Video Mix, with optional translated English subtitles and a screen text translation track. It’s a good transfer, clear and sharp with rich, consistent colours and effective contrast. There’s no sign of print damage or age. The Cantonese surround is immersive and effective, making the most of the action. The dialogue is clear and the subtitles are accurately timed and free of typos. You’ll hear in the commentaries that this is the one Hong Kong film where you’ll hear Jet Li’s own voice speaking Cantonese. And if I didn’t know any better, I’d say this film used the same elevator set that Speed used four years previously.
The disc boots to a static menu and you’ll find the following archival extras, beginning with the substantial International Version of the film, also known as Contract Killer.
The International Version runs to 99:18 (5 minutes shorter than the HK Cut), and is presented with DTS-HD MA 5.1 Surround and PCM 2.0 Mono English.
Audio Commentary on HK version with Mike Leeder & Arne Venema
Jet Li Interview (11:03)
Simon Yam Interview (8:09)
Keiji Sato Interview (13:54)
Opening Night Footage (11:20)
Hong Kong Trailer (2:37)
English Dubbed Trailer (2:34)
UK DVD Trailer (1:41)
“Contract Killer” Trailer (1:14)
There’s no need for any John Wick like antiheroes here. When your protagonist Fu is completely ineffective as a killer for hire, and with Blazing Angel an assassin that chooses his own targets, and then only the worst kind of villainy at that, there’s no moral ambiguity for the audience to contend with. About the most complex of the protagonists is Lo, the agent that latches onto Fu as a lucrative meal ticket, and even then, he’s about as threatening as Del-Boy from Only Fools and Horses. But having said all of that, Hitman is a blast, a delightfully well put together action comedy, and very much the best film in this collection.
Like most such Hong Kong films, Hitman doesn’t exactly find and stick to a tone during its runtime, but it’s nowhere near as challenging to Western sensibilities as The Enforcer, and it’s thankfully not as disjointed as Dr Wai. The film begins by introducing us to the reprehensible fascist target of Blazing Angel, the Japanese businessman Tsukamoto who is happy to boast of his evil, before the assassin shows up to deal out justice.
We then meet the hitman with a heart of gold, Fu, a man so frugal that he’ll chase a low denomination coin down the street, displaying serious acrobatic ability along the way. He has the kung fu, but he hasn’t the heart to do harm to the people he’s meant to deal with, breaking kneecaps of debtors and the like. Tsukamoto’s will offers the one hit that will sort out his money problems for the rest of his life, and given that Blazing Angel is a verified killer, he has fewer qualms about dealing violence to him. Trying to get the job is the big challenge, but when he runs into Ngok Lo, he gets an agent that can represent his interests, and what’s more educate him as to how a self-respecting assassin should present himself. It becomes an odd couple comedy featuring the two of them, with Fu the straight guy to Lo’s scheming conman, and it’s made complicated when Lo’s daughter Kiki enters the story, an aspiring lawyer who laments her father’s behaviour.
All this time, Inspector Kwon is leading a squad investigating organised crime, and the death of Tsukamoto and the rumoured contract. Naturally his attention turns to the identity of Blazing Angel, and how Fu and Lo are involved. Things gradually get more serious as the film heads to its conclusion, although with Eric Tsang as Lo, the film never loses its humorous edge. There are revelations, things come to a head, and it’s apparent that this story is a lot more considered and well put together than many other Hong Kong action movies.
Maybe it’s the time of year, but this collection of films puts me in mind of the video game collections that I used to get as a kid. Obviously there would be the titles that you’d be drawn to, the reasons why you’d buy the box to begin with, but the distributors would always put a stinker in to make up the numbers. That’s not a practice restricted to the video game companies, but I didn’t think that parallel would be as obvious as with Heroes and Villains. Why is Dr Wai in the Scripture With Mo Words part of this collection? All I can say is that once these films get their individual releases, it will still be cheaper to buy this boxset than it will be to buy The Enforcer and Hitman separately. Then again, you might actually be in the mood for a poor Indiana Jones pastiche.
The Heroes and Villains collection is available direct from Eureka, from Terracotta, and from mainstream retailers.