As of late, the Gordon Chan once responsible for exhilarating martial-arts spectacles like Fist of Legend has taken a backseat to a more ... uh, whimsical perspective from the director, whose gritty intuition in hand-to-hand combat gets lost in flourishes of magic and stiff characterizations. Occasionally, as is the case with Painted Skin, the positives manage to outmuscle the negatives; however, the frustrating, enthusiastically awkward misfires in The Medallion and The King of Fighters become harder to overlook as indicators of how his talent has taken shape over the years. His latest, the lively and noticeably comic-inspired The Four, falls somewhere between the two: a polished production sets the stage for a handful of vigorous superpower-infused battles in historical China, but the kaleidoscopic usage of magic, limp humor, and tedious storytelling once again overshadow those meager indulgences. As the entry point to a projected trilogy, Chan's off to a sluggish start.
Adapting from Wen Ruian's wuxia books, "The Four Great Constables", it's hard to ignore the persistent inspiration the film takes from the comic-book spectrum, namely from the likes of X-Men and The Avengers. A group of gifted fighters and power-wielders, whose personalities often conflict with one another, band together under the Divine Constabulary in order to combat crime during the era of the Song Dynasty. With the standard government police organization, Department Six, feeling threatened by this rival agency reporting directly to the emperor, they send a recently-fired investigator, Cold Blood (Deng Chao, Detective Dee), to infiltrate their ranks. Once there, Cold Blood joins the group -- a telepathic info gatherer, Emotionless (Liu Yifei, The Forbidden Kingdom); an engineer, Iron Hands (Collin Chou, The Matrix Reloaded); and a roguish debt collector, Life Snatcher (Ronald Cheng, Legendary Assassin); all led by a sagely overseer, Zhuge Zhengwo (Anthony Wong) -- to solve an issue with rampant counterfeit currency that could lead to societal and financial collapse in the city, a plan put in motion by a mysterious entity with mystical powers.
Instead of gradually pulling in the audience by assembling the Divine Constabulary's ragtag dynamic, The Four hurls most of them into an explosive situation right away -- an undercover operation at an alehouse -- that allows for little character development beyond a guessing game of which comic-book all-stars they're reminiscent of. A mind-reading, wheelchair-bound psychic, a fierce loner who reluctantly sticks with the agency for women and wine, and an outcast who morphs into a beast when he's angry are unavoidable emulations of the Marvel universe, down to the internal conflicts created by their attitudes. The prospect of "The Avengers in Historical China" has a nice ring to it, some of which comes through in Chan's direction and the actors' dedicated bravado, but the script rushes along at first without much awareness of who these "gifted" individuals are and what motivates them, forcing the audience to play catch-up when the film slows down to focus on these emulations of storied heroes.
Eventually, The Four does reveal a bit more about what's going on with the conflicted characters through smaller-scale happenings: wavering allegiances, identity drama, and other relatable issues against the backdrop of the counterfeit money situation disrupting the city's stability. That modest conflict is a refreshing change of pace from the broad end-of-the-world schemes that drive many Western comic-book "allegiance" action flicks, even though this main villain's supernatural bag of tricks -- reanimated corpses, engulfing fireballs, camouflaged Mystique-like henchmen -- develops into something more beyond his wickedness than mere hunger for political power. Unfortunately, the story's ideas clutter together into a dull, confusing jumble with more moving pieces than Gordon Chan can manage, shifting from strained love triangles and empty musings on the Divine Constabulary as a "family" to Department Six's espionage tactics, effectively drowning out the low-key central plot. It's saying something when one of the film's most explosive and identifiable sequences ignites over a joke about a dead dog. It's a mess.
Battles also happen under more standard circumstances, of course. Operating kind like a Detective Dee-esque procedural mystery driven by superpowers and its historical Chinese essence, with rich photography capturing whimsical flourishes, The Four doesn't waste the talent of action/stunt director Ku Huen-Chiu with its vigorous brawls, foot chases, and wielding blades during the investigation's twists and turns. Outside of Cold Blood's hulky transformations and Emotionless' psionics, most of the Divine Constabulary's members wield force-pushes and charged-up kicks, resulting in wire-fu eye candy that conveniently changes the rules of its universe where needed. The bustle of combat is hard-hitting and executed well enough in the moment, as disposable entertainment possessing glimmers of the director's talent; however, the commotion ends up being a hollow, unmemorable parade of martial-arts whimsy when it gets back to the main plot. This isn't a bumpy ride quite like Chan's other recent work, but it's still a far cry from his capabilities.
Video and Audio:
Dutch angles, rich wood-shaded interiors, and plenty of robust magical bursts adorn the visual tempo for The Four, which comes out swinging on the Blu-ray from Well Go USA in a 2.35:1-framed 1080p treatment that fluctuates between suitable and exceptional digital photography. Colors tend to lean towards dark blues and browns with splashes of color on occasion, testing the threshold of the disc's contrast levels with a respectable amount of aplomb. Close-ups are, expectedly, the most impressive, where clear textures and robust skin tones accentuate the tilted, quick-moving cinematography when it settles down, notably in rich interior shots. Other sequences -- namely a few outdoor stretches -- have problems appearing hazy, flat in detail, and washed out, but they're isolated enough to not be an overarching problem. Most importantly, though, the fluidity of motion during the combat sequences is quite stable, notching this disc up as another success from the studio.
A 5-channel Master Audio treatment powers the Mandarin language track with frequent aggressiveness and some unanticipated clarity. Chan's sound design makes amble use of slight, punchy sound effects -- the cracking of wood, a dusting of magic, the clank of toasted glasses, etc. -- that don't shy away from moving among the surround channels. Punches, both of natural and supernatural varieties, hit the bass levels with suitably ferocity, along with flickers of fire and the thud of bodies against the wood set locations. The Four alternates between two clear sides of the audio spectrum: either a lot of activity is going on, or it's driven by dialogue with little to no intruding effects. And in both instances, Well Go USA's disc unerstands keeping the central sound points as clear, natural, and aware of the design's surroundings as possible. The provided English subtitles mostly get the job done, though a few grammatical hiccups (stray words either missing or added) can be found.
Besides a series of Deleted Scenes (4:10, SD) and a Trailer (1:41, SD), a suitable Making of The Four (24:22, SD) featurette toggles through interviews and behind-the-scenes shots to give us a glimpse of what went into the fiml's production. Director Chan and his crew discuss using a crane-supported spider camera, the production's caliber of quality in comparison to Hollywood's, and the usage of special effects as a "secret weapon". Plenty of raw green- and blue-screen shots can be seen, as well as some pretty neat glimpses at how the spider camera captures the wire-fu action across rooftops and along water.
The Four marks a meager elevation in Gordon Chan's recent martial-arts direction, where he takes the well-worn framework of a superhero blockbuster and collides it with wire-fu action, rampant magical powers, and a robust historical-China setting. Adapting from a series of wixua books, the story keeps things admirably restrained as it focuses on a counterfeit currency plot with a mystical underside, revolving around a group of conflicted power-wielders who band together to combat the sinister force behind the city's plight. The action itself can occasionally be engaging, but it's not enough to mask the dull, unfocused excess built around the story or the uninspired emulation of other comic-book flicks. Give Well Go USA's strong Blu-ray a Rental for the action sequences, the effects, and the visual tone it achieves, but keeps any expectations of a return to form from Chan at a minimum.