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Black Mask Directed by Daniel Lee. Starring Jet Li, Karen Mok, and Lau Ching Wan. The main reason anybody watches a Jet Li movie is to see what Jet does best: defy gravity and kick butt.

Beijing-born and trained martial arts magician Jet Li has all the right moves in the action-packed Black Mask.

American action movies tend to be 90 percent tedious stuff like plot and snappy one-liners, and only 10 percent fighting and things blowing up. Generally, storylines and dialogue are fine features for a movie, but when an action movie doesn’t contain enough action, well, it’s like a porn flick without enough sex. Even in a high-voltage flick like The Matrix, audiences had to wait forever for Keanu Reeves to emerge from warm goo and start leveling buildings.

That is not the sort of problem you’re going to have watching a Hong Kong movie. Case in point: Black Mask. Within the first 10 minutes, rival crews obliterate an entire warehouse and almost everyone in it with the kind of apocalyptic guns-and-grenades spray that most American actioners save for climaxes. It’s not subtle, but it does get your attention.

The threadbare excuse for all this carnage is the rebellion of a gang of genetically-engineered humans who are extraordinarily strong and oblivious to pain. These mutants—called 701s—were designed to fight crime, but like all cinematic science experiments, something went horribly awry. Now they are aggressive mutants, waging spectacularly cruel war on both police and local drug lords in order to establish themselves as the city’s main muscle. There is, of course, only one man who can stop them.

Michael (Beijing-born and trained martial arts master Jet Li) is a tamed 701 who also happens to be a mild-mannered librarian. (Yes.) It’s just a matter of time—this being a Hong Kong flick, about six minutes—before his past catches up with him and he has to start busting 701 skull. But since he’s so comfortable in his new, Dewey-Decimal-system lifestyle, Michael decides to do his destruction undercover, employing a snazzy mask and what looks like a chauffeur’s cap. (“That Kato look is soooo retro,” one female character sniffs.)

Of course, all of this is just filler. The main reason anybody watches a Jet Li movie (Shaolin Temple, Once Upon a Time in China and America, Lethal Weapon IV) is to see what Jet does best: defy gravity and kick butt. He tumbles, he crashes through windows, he fights while swinging from chains and balancing on slender beams. He may be the only actor who can box someone’s ears with his feet, and can look menacingly cool brandishing cardboard boxes as boxing gloves. For 90 minutes, this is pretty much what Jet Li does, and he does it like a rock-’em sock-’em robot on steroids.

It’s not quite as entertaining to watch bombs explode and guns rat-a-tat in the wake of recent events in Colorado, even knowing that Black Mask was released long before Columbine. And the movie’s new hip-hop soundtrack, with songs like “Killing Spree”, may be an ingenious way to draw rap fans to the theaters, but it also delivers an unintentionally ominous chill. To the movie’s credit, very real-looking pain accompanies the violence: Li may bounce back, cyborg-like, from his fights, but it doesn’t diminish the big ouch he wears every time some Leviathan flies feet-first into his chest. As he pirouettes on girders at the top of an unfinished building, his precarious position is both breathtaking and nauseating. The poetry of Jet’s work isn’t that he makes it look easy. It’s that he makes it look realistically grueling.

Imitations from the likes of Tarantino and Ritchie may come and go, and Hong Kong stars like Jackie Chan and Chow Yun Fat may cross over to stateside success. But there’s something about Hong Kong originals that is unlike anything else. Sure there’s lousy dubbing, puzzling editing and implausible plots. But put Jet Li in a snazzy slicker and let his fists start flying and nobody—not even Keanu—can compare. Action-wise, his shoes are the ones to fill, and as long as they remain mid-air, eye-level and very, very fast, no other performer comes close.

Black Mask is available from a vendor near you.

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