The Master Review
The Master (1989) and Hitman (1998), two of Jet Li's lesser titles from his extensive back-catalogue, are presented here together in one Special Collector's box set from the estimable Hong Kong Legends stable. Both movies revel in their own joyous right to rumble, with wafer-thin and wholly predictable plots that merely serve to hurl one fight sequence after another, and dialogue and performances so cheesy they'll make your toes curl. That the formidable Jet Li went on to make some truly great films is a given - in fact, even his early Shaolin Temple movies stand head and shoulders above these often embarrassing entries - but for fans who don't already own these two misadventures, this is the perfect chance to boost that high-kicking, fist-flying collection.
“He's my oldest pupil. He's useless.”
Starting with The Master, producer/director Tsui Hark (Once Upon A Time In China trilogy) presents us with one of the first attempts to make a Hong Kong-Hollywood crossover since Bruce Lee's Enter The Dragon. Taking his own stunt team and five-time Chinese National Wu Shu Champion, Jet Li, over to L.A. he fashioned a simple tale of honour and martial arts justice when a young kung fu student has to fight to defend the honour and the life of his former master from bitter rivals. As the errant pupil Jet (surprise, surprise), Jet Li is the cultural fish-out-of-water when he arrives in America seeking out his poor, put-upon Uncle Tak, and many less-than hilarious comedy situations ensue as he encounters inept Hispanic street gangs that end up idolising him, even more inept cops that can't decide whether they are armed or unarmed, and the usual awkwardness he affects whenever there is a possible love-interest. Although charismatic and enthusiastic, Li is really only here for one thing ... to knock the stuffing out a vast variety of disposable goons and thugs, and this he does in fight scenes that are often over far too quickly and display few of his signature moves.
“Hey, does that guy know kung fu, or something?”
Featuring kickboxing champion Jerry Trimble as the frighteningly mulletted nemesis Master Johnny, the plot takes in such lame asides as a punky young street urchin who dresses like Molly Ringwald (this was the eighties, after all) racial alienation and the afore-mentioned romantic interludes. All this, however, is clumsily handled with editing styles that chop and change from scene to scene, wayward acting and an ill-conceived sense of humour that is at odds with the brutality regularly dished out. The adoration of the street gang that tries to rob Jet at the start descends into pure Life of Brain farce - think of the gourd sequence. While the fights are quite well handled, excitement is kept at an all-time low by having no sense of urgency, threat or doubt as to the outcome of any particular bout. But the one shining moment of sword-spinning Wu Shu that leads into the first brief, but brilliant, battle between Li and Trimble is worth the wait, with the rogue Master Johnny hefting some truly awesome kicking power about. Also, the mass rooftop melee at the end is suitably vicious and bone-breakingly acrobatic. Check out the Jaws-style reverse zoom that Hark is cheeky enough to incorporate, as well.
“Hey, Crew-Cut, my Master has arrived.”
Whilst Crystal Kwok is certainly gorgeous, the romance between her and Li is daft and dull, notable only for the ludicrous beach scene where Li, who has damaged his arm for real, is at pains to keep his cast hidden from the camera. Also, compare and contrast the dreadlocked villain who flees from Jet early on, only to reappear later in a very contrived and superfluous bus/action sequence - the original actor couldn't be obtained so another was found and the dreadlocks simply thrown onto his head in the hope that no-one would notice. Fat chance. The film is riddled with such inconsistencies. And the score by Lau Yee Tat is the worst kind of 80's synth-doodling you can imagine. All in all, The Master is a trivial and often cringingly-bad film that is only enlivened by one or two kick-happy scraps. Worth seeing for Jerry Trimble's wacky hairdo, though, I suppose.
Things definitely move up a notch with Tung Wei's Hitman, which utilises some quite kinetic action scenes and a slightly more coherent and involving storyline.
“They'll all be after your head. So, if I were you, I'd just go.”
As Tai Feng, an assassin with a career-conflicting sense of moral justice and the rather dubious talent of missing his intended targets, Jet Li takes on the might of a gang of heavy-hitting mobsters in his own uniquely assured and dynamic fashion. Knowing that he is to be assassinated, a Japanese tycoon establishes a huge reward for the hitman who can take out his executioner, setting in motion a chain of events that will, once again, find time for Jet Li to have a curiously false romance, form a bond with someone who will learn the error of his ways and stop for plenty of woefully out-of-place humorous pit-stops. The stereotypical hilarious fat man routine is doled out in the guise of Sam, Feng's less-than streetwise chancer of an agent, played by Eric Tsang. The image change he decides Feng should undergo is definite low-point and the many other moments of comedy that threaten to derail the movie should likewise be avoided if possible.
“I gave you that assignment to kill Mrs. Chu ... and you repair her drainpipes!”
Hitman nevertheless contains some great action set-pieces. The skirmish on top of, underneath and hanging off the side of an elevator and the wild swinging around the cables in the lift-shaft sequence is tremendous stuff - Jackie Chan would be proud. The gun-battles are well choreographed in the Woo-style - all multi-angled, quick-cut stunt work - and the black-suited goons make terrific fist and bullet-fodder. Keiji Sato provides a fairly gruelling adversary too in the form of Eiji, the leader of a ruthless gang of hitmen. Watch for when he eats the ashes of the dead tycoon! Yet, ultimately the film is still as hollow and as underwhelming as The Master. Pure straight-to-video material, enriched only by Li's screen presence and the inclusion of some whirling manic mayhem.