I suppose most folks will associate The Four with TVB's 2008 television series with Raymond Lam in the lead role as Heartless, who in this big screen version undergoes a change in gender. Not something unusual, with many films out there taking liberties in casting, from Japan's Space Battleship Yamato to Hollywood's Battlestar Galactica. Based on the martial arts novel by Wen Rui'an entitled The Four Constables, The Four is the genre film that sees a current resurgence in popularity given Tsui Hark's acclaimed Detective Dee paving the way for fantasy based epics complete with CG (sometimes overdone), and an ensemble cast to draw the crowds in.
First, to get one of the major negative points out of the way. Whoever directed and had a hand at editing the very first big action sequence, deserves to get his or her head checked, and then shot at. The major misconception adopted was that fast-paced editing, with every shot lasting mere milliseconds, and flitting amongst countless of characters, even for a flash of the eye, does not get interpreted as fast paced. What this only achieves, is to irritate the audience, since everything's a blur, and nobody can see anything with everything whizzing by, and the camera work not helping. Perhaps it's to capture the adrenaline rush of the moment, but seriously, it just demonstrates amateur skills at play to mask poorly shot martial arts, or just plain incompetence on the filmmakers' part.
Thankfully, that was the only badly done fighting scene, with subsequent ones picking up in design, pace, and editing to provide a decent semblance of who's battling whom. The Four has a shaky start, but it improves from there, so between the two directors in Gordon Chan and Janet Chun, the latter having cut her teeth in comedies such as All's Well Ends Well 2011 and The Jade and the Pearl, one can only wonder who had more say. The story in this big screen installment deals with the proliferation of counterfeit coins, culminating in what many would have seen in trailers as a zombie-pocalypse, but what it truly is, was to take its time in the introduction of the titular characters, and then some, complete with politicking amongst factions, and individuals caught up in a web of deceit.
Essentially, it's a tale of two investigative functions, the Department Six Constabulary, and the Divine Constabulary, with the former now infiltrated by a shadowy group of six female inspectors, led by the ambitious Ji Yaohua (Jiang Yiyan), and the latter being that group with elite powers as granted by, and answering directly to the Emperor himself. Led by the evergreen Anthony Wong as Zhuge Zheng Wo, he is like the chaperon always on the lookout for gifted individuals with special prowess, whom he bands together under his investigations banner. Yes that's right, think of it like Professor X's School for Gifted Youngsters, with similarities in this version being quite like taking a leaf out of familiar Marvel heroes.
Which isn't really a bad point, given that this shares similar ambitions in wanting to tell a quality story, filled with intriguing, powerful characters who bicker more than they cooperate. It's a successful fusion of martial arts and special effects without going overboard with the latter, making this somewhat like a movie with oriental medieval mutants on display, out to help rid society of ills and those with evil intentions. And story aside, with its twists, turns and really extended fashion in going from point A to B, it's the characters that stand out, and make it fun to watch.
Liu Yifei headlines the quartet as Emotionless, a girl paralyzed from the waist down, but blessed with psychic abilities, a familiar looking wheelchair and having a penchant for hidden darts as deadly projectiles. Her movie outings of late has been period films from White Vengeance to The Forbidden Kingdom, but her character has to stay pretty serious looking for the most parts, despite romantic interest shown from Deng Chao's Cold Blood. A cross between the Incredible Hulk and Wolverine for being brought up by wolves, he finds an attraction toward Emotionless, and these two serve up, as best as they can, as the central emotional anchor for this film, which didn't play off too well.
Ronald Cheng, on the other hand and to great surprise, nails it as the comical loafer type as Life Snatcher, a new recruit whose fighting abilities resemble more like Storm Warrior's Cloud with focus on lower body limb attacks, contrasted against Collin Chou's Iron Hand, who is the team's blacksmith, and has ample opportunity to show off his bronzed abs. Their roles are pretty one-dimensional here, especially Chou's, and it's quite a long wait before these two get a chance to flex their muscles against enemy forces, forging a rivalry / partnership ala Gimli and Legolas in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, given their contrasting abilities.
Wu Xiubo also deserves mention as the chief villain here known as The God of Wealth, a conniving schemer who has no qualms at disposing allies once they serve no further purpose, and while he may not be the greatest martial arts villains out there, he's certainly one of the most memorable. The score by Henry Lai also stands out, especially its banjo sounding main theme that hints of an upcoming big fight each time it airs, though the film sometimes lapses into unnecessary posing for the sake of, atop watch towers, or lingering in bath waters to witness six female warriors letting their armour down.
As already reported, this film is now the first part of a trilogy, and that the sequels have already begun shooting. So far so good, as the story picked up as it went on, with the requisite finale with everything and everyone coming together for that last hurrah big battle, with enough twists and double crossings that lead the door wide open for follow up films. Hopefully by then, all the titular Four constables will be given screen time to build up characterization, and we should be in for quite a ride in this Chinese fantasy franchise!
The Four opens in cinemas from Thursday.