The Four (Cert 15)

1 Disc (Distributor: Universal Pictures UK) Running time: 114 minutes approx.

In Ancient China the state security division known as Department Six, fronted by Fourth Constable Han Long (Michael Tong) and supported by a group of female martial artists, are sent to investigate a coin cast stolen from the Imperial Mint. Also put on the case by the King (Waise Lee) is the Divine Constabulary, a group of detectives with supernatural powers. After the case, Department Six are entrusted with running the Mint but Han Long is killed, his position given to Ji Yaohua (Jiang Yiyan), who secretly works for evil shipping magnate Lord An Shigeng (Wu Xiubo), who also possesses special powers. In order to sabotage Divine Constabulary’s investigation a dangerous constable nicknamed Coldblood (Chao Deng) is sent to infiltrate their quarters.  

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To the uninitiated The Four may be considered a Chinese period equivalent of X-Men and while there are some superficial similarities, the source for this film are the novels of Woon Swee Oan which have already spawned many TV adaptations in China. Besides, China already had a crack at its own X-Men with 2010’s City Under Siege. On the surface this appears like a supernatural wu xia drama but if only it was that simple. With almost two hours to fill the plot is very uneven and ill-thought out flitting about between different ideas, so one isn’t sure if they are watching a fantasy, a comedy, a romance, a kung fu film, a horror, a crime tale or a period drama.

The first problem is that this film presupposes one is already familiar with the characters; on this side of the world that is very unlikely. We catch our first glimpse of the titular Four Constables as they are surreptitiously checking out the coin case deal at the Drunken Moon tavern. Lead by the inimitable Anthony Wong as Zhuge Zhenwo, the group includes Iron Hands (Collin Chou) and wheelchair bound mind reader Emotionless (Liu Yifei) (okay you can compare her to Dr X). Caught up in the sting was debt collector Life Catcher (Ronald Cheng), who – you guessed it – also has special powers and decides to join the Divine Constabulary for the free wine. Coldblood is accepted into the fold a little later on, hiding his true nature as a Wolfman, catching the attention of Emotionless. This may seem like an incidental development but it does have a minor effect later in the film.

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Things start to get a little complex as a number of developments are suddenly stuffed into the plot, causing it to veer off into different directions, providing little else than distraction from the main story, and sees the film start to lose its identity. It doesn’t help that many of the key players aren’t adequately established with so many looking very similar to one another; for example, Ji Yaohua is barely distinguishable from the other females in her squad while Lord Liu, An Shigeng and Han Long all look alike in their period garb. Because of trying to cram too much material into this one film, the pacing is awkward, following a hot opening with nearly forty minutes of bum numbing chat, character introductions, clumsy exposition and other often superfluous story developments before we get a snifter of more action.

The Four is nothing if not inventive. Emotionless’s wheelchair for example is more than anachronistic for the time period, it is a work of engineering genius. When he first one is destroyed, Iron Hands makes her a new one which has the ability to shift itself into an upright position, so Emotionless can use it as sequeway! She also has an arsenal of metal shooting stars hidden in it and crutches too which double as weapons! Awesome!

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Fortunately for us, along with the impressive sets, the action scenes are the most worthwhile part of the film and in the second half we are treated some nifty fight scenes, many of which involve plenty of flying about and special effects. It is here that Gordon Chan – who gave us the breathtaking Jet Li classic Fist Of Legend – unleashes his inner Tsui Hark and goes all out with the high concept punch ups, involving fire, ice, levitation, invisibility and an army of zombies. The aerial scenes we filmed with something called a Spidercam, being the first Chinese film to employ this light weight, all purpose crane shot technique and it adds a lot to the visual dynamics where CGI detracts from it.

Sadly the same can’t be said for the film’s opening gambit – a messy, quick edit kick-a-bout a lot of which was shot in the dark thus being difficult to follow. Considering this was supposed to introduce us to our heroes, this was just the first of some poor decision making on Chan’s part. One would think he’d learned his lesson after his last messy attempt at fantasy Mural  but apparently not.

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Anthony Wong thankfully provides some class to the film as the dignified Zhuge Zhenwo while renowned comedy actor Ronald Chen is able to control his instincts to overplay his role as Life Catcher despite the many opportunities to do so. Liu Yifei, who seems to be making a habit of starring in period films, is called on to do little more than be stoic as Emotionless but gets to show some fighting chops via her aforementioned wheelchair. The rest of the cast are really there to fill their roles and are not given much room for growth although Wu Xiubo seems to be enjoying himself as villain An Shigeng.

The Four provides a visual spectacle and some fun fight scenes but is let down by its overstuffed story and unfocused script. This is the first of a proposed trilogy so let’s hope that lessons have been learned and the same mistakes aren’t made on the future productions.

Extras:

English Subtitles

Making Of Featurettes:

  • Mid-Air Lake Scene
  • The Constables vs The God Of Wealth
  • How Monsters and Ghosts Are Made
  • The Training of Kung Fu Masters

 

 

Rating – ***

Man In Black