When he set out to make Armageddon, director Gordon Chan had the X-Files in mind. He wanted to make a Hong Kong film that could compete with American action movies and one that incorporated supernatural elements a-la the hit Fox show. Though the film was made on what Hollywood would consider a shoestring budget it looks slick, has interesting special effects and features good performances by the principal actors. Unfortunately it's also deeply flawed in terms of plot and script.
At the opening of the film we learn that a mysterious group terrorists is engaged in a campaign to kill the world's leading scientists. Three men have already died by being burned to a crisp and Dr. Ken (Andy Lau) is next on the list. For protection Dr. Ken hires an old detective friend T.C. (Vincent Kok) and the two set about trying to unravel the motivation behind the killings. Along the way they discover connections between the murders and biblical prophecies concerning the seven signs of the Apocalypse. Meanwhile, Dr. Ken begins having visions of his recently deceased girlfriend Adele, a comely woman who was struck by a bus in a freak accident. All of these plot threads slowly lead to a conclusion in which Dr. Ken is forced to decide the ultimate fate of the human race.
Armageddon probably could have been a very good film but it suffers from a distinct lack of narrative focus. The plot jumps around between the murder mystery, the terrorist sub-plot, the dead girlfriend and the biblical connection but never seems to gel. The problem is a script that fails to link the various elements and leaves us with a superficial story that contains no deeper meaning. We're treated to some very good special effects and action sequences at the beginning and end of the picture but the middle of the movie is slow and confusing. Armageddon spins its wheels going over plot points again and again but never frees itself from the mire of bad writing and bad pacing.
The non-anamorphic transfer for Armageddon is taken from pristine film elements. There are no physical flaws such as dirt and scratching apparent. The transfer itself is very nicely done with good color balance, accurate skin tones, nice saturation and evenly rendered contrast. The black levels are deep and shadow detail is very good. You may notice a little edge sharpening from time to time but its kept to a bare minimum and never distracts from the film. I wasn't able to see any digital compression artifacts.
Armageddon features a Dolby 5.1 audio mix on the Cantonese language track and it's something of a disappointment. The first thing I noticed about the track was its lack of dynamic range. Everything seems very compressed and the voices, music and incidental sounds all sort of run together. The low end is quite aggressive but also muddy. Panning effects across the front sound stage are minimal and the surrounds are used mainly for music with only occasional splashes of ambient sounds and special effects. I actually found the English dub track in Dolby Stereo more satisfying (though the dub itself is only average).
Though not exactly a full blown special edition, Armageddon has some nice extras. First up is a collection of theatrical trailers. Included are both American and Chinese versions of the Armageddon trailer. In addition there are about a half dozen trailers for other Gordon Chan films. Next there's a Chinese production featurette with behind-the-scenes footage, interviews with the director and actors and a smattering of information on the special effects. Finally there's a nice audio commentary with Chan and Hong Kong Film Historian Stefan Hammond. The two men discuss the technical aspects of the film, its place in the Hong Kong film canon and a handful of onset anecdotes. Chan and Hammond work well together and the resulting commentary is fast moving, informative and very interesting to listen to.
Armageddon may appeal to Gordon Chan fans and to Hong Kong film aficionados but it fails to live up to traditional Hollywood standards. Chan was able to get a lot of production value out of his limited budget but probably should have spent more of that money on writers than on explosions. My recommendation: Rent It.