Director: Gordon Chan, Janet Chun
Starring: Deng Chao, Liu Yifei, Anthony Wong, Ngai Sing, Ronald Cheng, Wu Xiubo
The Four, based on a series of wuxia novels by author Wen Ruian, comes to us via veteran director Gordan Chan and is the start of a trilogy of films surrounding the characters of the Divine Constables, a group of royally sanctioned officers who investigate criminal offenses that negatively affect the people. Filled with many people, each skilled in their own ways, the Divine Constables have authority even higher than that of the official police force, Department Six. This film establishes the forming of The Four, the top constable in the Divine Constabulary. While unfamiliar with the novels, I did have experience with the manhua by Tony Wong and Andy Seto and while there are differences, I do not feel the changes are big enough to undermine the film. So does this big screen adaptation truly entertain? Or does it fall into the same trappings of so many forgettable swordplay pictures?
Gordan Chan has a very interesting visual palette on display in this film that is very unique compared to many of his other films. There is a great deal of dynamic camera movement which keeps the eyes moving about the screen. It’s a lot more aesthetically pleasing considering the large sets, big cast, and very solid visual effects. Chan is certainly a director who has made the leap from 80’s era HK pictures and truly embraced the new filmmaking technology available to him. A note is that he is also planning to turn this film into a trilogy, with production on part two currently underway.
Deng Chao leads as Coldblood and he is fine, but hardly exemplary. His character is far too conflicted to make him likable and at times you want to just shake/strangle him. Ronald Cheng’s Life Snatcher is very likable and fun, conversely. He has a much more relaxed part of the film, and he introduces a good deal of levity to the picture. Collin Chou’s Iron Hands is cool, like pretty much all of Collin’s characters, but has little to do, minus an Iron Man-inspired building sequence for the ladies. He is given some decent choreography, but it is too short and the reliance on ‘special abilities’ is there. Emotionless, played by Liu Yifei, was definitely marketed as the face of the film, being the hot new starlet will do that for you, but she is unable to elevate her character past the state of her namesake. In her defense, I never did warm up to her character in my reading so it is probably a fault in character design more than anything else.
The standout here is Jiang Yiyan as Ji Yaohua. As the double agent she is appropriately conflicted, mysterious, and performs well in her action sequences. I had a Brigitte Lin vibe going while watching her and I definitely look forward to seeing more of her work. Wu Xiubo as An was a surprise as well, I hadn’t seen him in anything before, but he takes to his evil character quite swimmingly. While stereotypical, he’s a formidable character and his Taoist magic is admittedly pretty cool to see. Anthony Wong also does a bit of his ‘Buddha in training’ act here, he’s always a welcome addition, but as the leader of Divine Constables, he always restrained, until the finale. I was also happy to see Waise Lee here as well, I confess to having not been abreast of much of his work recently, but it is always nice to see an actor who you admire pop up surprisingly.
The film has a unique soundtrack as Western instruments are used in conjunction with traditional Chinese instruments. There are multiple times where this is particularly noticeable, including a few montage sequences. I suppose these are more recognizable because of individual character themes, but I have not consulted the soundtrack listing. It is interesting and I’d say I liked it, it does keep in line with the slightly Westernized version of China the world presents.
In the end, The Four is bogged down by too many characters, twists, and lack of urgency. While the film has a good visual style and impressive effects work, it cannot overcome the lack of real martial arts on display and the poorly written characters. From the comic material, it did take a while for the series to get going, so hopefully, now that introductions are out of the way, the next films will be able to get right into the meat of the story. Certainly an interesting enough film, there are many ‘cool’ moments to be had, but by the end it just seems slightly above average.
If you enjoyed this film you may also like: The Storm Riders, the Onmyouji film series, and Dragon Tiger Gate
Special thanks to Well Go USA for providing a viewing copy!