Saturday, August 18, 2012

Movie Review: The Four

The Four (Chinese, 2012)

Imagine that the X-Men lived in ancient China, that they were working for the imperial Secret Service, and that they were fighting zombies.

That is a rough description of the plot of this new film, which features Deng Chao (Judge Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame), Liu Yifei (Forbidden Kingdom), Collin Chou (Forbidden Kingdom, The Matrix) and Anthony Wong (The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor), among others.  The story is inspired by a wuxia novel by Wen Ruian. But other than the setting and a few standard wuxia movie tropes, it doesn't bear much resemblance to wuxia films like Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon or Hero.

Though Wen's novel The Four Great Constables follows the tales of several constables serving the imperial justice system, this movie puts its protagonists in two organizations: Department Six, which is the more typical organization serving the emperor; and the Divine Constables, a group of pardoned criminals led by a former imperial bodyguard, who work among the common people to uphold justice and solve crimes.  Complicating this is the presence of a group female constables from the mythical land of Penglai, who've been sent to assist Department Six.  All three of these groups are trying to solve a counterfeiting plot, but there are plenty of hidden motives and political intrigues to complicate matters.

Nearly everyone in this film has a superpower, not limited to the usual wuxia abilities like qinggong (superleap), qigong (internal energy), running up walls, and performing incredible feats of swordplay. These people can transform into monsters, exhibit telepathy and telekinesis, summon fire and ice, and other powers.  There's nothing that is too obviously an imitation of Western comic book superheroes, with the possible exception of Liu Yifei's character, whose need for a wheelchair is awfully reminiscent of a certain X-Men character (though the filmmakers gave the baldness to Collin Chou).

In addition to the detective story and the superpowers, there are a couple of romantic subplots.  Despite spending most of the movie looking sullen and never smiling, Deng Chao is the object of affection for two of the female characters.  He's an indecisive sort: he can't make up his mind which girl to pursue, and he can't make up his mind whether to join the Divine Constables or return to Department Six.  He's not the most compelling character, and his ability to serve as lead is compromised by the large cast and convoluted plot.

With so much going on, this movie is a bit confusing, especially at the beginning, where it follows the tradition of many Asian films by throwing the viewer in at the deep end and letting you tread water until you figure out who all these people are and what's going on. But once you get past that, it becomes interesting. The interaction between the characters, especially the members of the Divine Constables, is a lot of fun, and it's nice to see Collin Chou doing something besides showing off his martial arts skills. Anthony Wong also makes more than a cameo appearance, putting in an enjoyable turn as the gentlemanly leader of the Divine Constables Zhang Zhengwo. The superpowers aren't overused or overpowering, the villain doesn't do too much maniacal laughing, and the acting is uniformly good.

Oh, yeah, there are zombies, too. It's not a zombie movie, and they're not Western-style gore-coated, brain-eating zombies. But there are zombies, and they're kinda cool.

The Four is supposed to be part one of a trilogy.  If the sequels are produced, I'll take a look.

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