Chan's 'The Four' a Stunted Attempt at Superhero Gusto

Directed by: Gordon Chan; Runtime: 118 minutes
Grade: C-/D+

As of late, the Gordon Chan once responsible for exhilarating martial-arts spectacles like Fist of Legend has taken a backseat to a more ... uh, whimsical perspective from the director, whose gritty intuition in hand-to-hand combat gets lost in flourishes of magic and stiff characterizations. Occasionally, as is the case with Painted Skin, the positives manage to outmuscle the negatives; however, the frustrating, enthusiastically awkward misfires in The Medallion and The King of Fighters become harder to overlook as indicators of how his talent has taken shape over the years. His latest, the lively and noticeably comic-inspired The Four, falls somewhere between the two: a polished production sets the stage for a handful of vigorous superpower-infused battles in historical China, but the kaleidoscopic usage of magic, limp humor, and tedious storytelling once again overshadow those meager indulgences. As the entry point to a projected trilogy, Chan's off to a sluggish start.

Adapting from Wen Ruian's wuxia books, "The Four Great Constables", it's hard to ignore the persistent inspiration the film takes from the comic-book spectrum, namely from the likes of X-Men and The Avengers. A group of gifted fighters and power-wielders, whose personalities often conflict with one another, band together under the Divine Constabulary in order to combat crime during the era of the Song Dynasty. With the standard government police organization, Department Six, feeling threatened by this rival agency reporting directly to the emperor, they send a recently-fired investigator, Cold Blood (Deng Chao, Detective Dee), to infiltrate their ranks. Once there, Cold Blood joins the group -- a telepathic info gatherer, Emotionless (Liu Yifei, The Forbidden Kingdom); an engineer, Iron Hands (Collin Chou, The Matrix Reloaded); and a roguish debt collector, Life Snatcher (Ronald Cheng, Legendary Assassin); all led by a sagely overseer, Zhuge Zhengwo (Anthony Wong) -- to solve an issue with rampant counterfeit currency that could lead to societal and financial collapse in the city, a plan put in motion by a mysterious entity with mystical powers.

Instead of gradually pulling in the audience by assembling the Divine Constabulary's ragtag dynamic, The Four hurls most of them into an explosive situation right away -- an undercover operation at an alehouse -- that allows for little character development beyond a guessing game of which comic-book all-stars they're reminiscent of. A mind-reading, wheelchair-bound psychic, a fierce loner who reluctantly sticks with the agency for women and wine, and an outcast who morphs into a beast when he's angry are unavoidable emulations of the Marvel universe, down to the internal conflicts created by their attitudes. The prospect of "The Avengers in Historical China" has a nice ring to it, some of which comes through in Chan's direction and the actors' dedicated bravado, but the script rushes along at first without much awareness of who these "gifted" individuals are and what motivates them, forcing the audience to play catch-up when the film slows down to focus on these emulations of storied heroes.

Eventually, The Four does reveal a bit more about what's going on with the conflicted characters through smaller-scale happenings: wavering allegiances, identity drama, and other relatable issues against the backdrop of the counterfeit money situation disrupting the city's stability. That modest conflict is a refreshing change of pace from the broad end-of-the-world schemes that drive many Western comic-book "allegiance" action flicks, even though this main villain's supernatural bag of tricks -- reanimated corpses, engulfing fireballs, camouflaged Mystique-like henchmen -- develops into something more beyond his wickedness than mere hunger for political power. Unfortunately, the story's ideas clutter together into a dull, confusing jumble with more moving pieces than Gordon Chan can manage, shifting from strained love triangles and empty musings on the Divine Constabulary as a "family" to Department Six's espionage tactics, effectively drowning out the low-key central plot. It's saying something when one of the film's most explosive and identifiable sequences ignites over a joke about a dead dog. It's a mess.

Battles also happen under more standard circumstances, of course. Operating kind like a Detective Dee-esque procedural mystery driven by superpowers and its historical Chinese essence, with rich photography capturing whimsical flourishes, The Four doesn't waste the talent of action/stunt director Ku Huen-Chiu with its vigorous brawls, foot chases, and wielding blades during the investigation's twists and turns. Outside of Cold Blood's hulky transformations and Emotionless' psionics, most of the Divine Constabulary's members wield force-pushes and charged-up kicks, resulting in wire-fu eye candy that conveniently changes the rules of its universe where needed. The bustle of combat is hard-hitting and executed well enough in the moment, as disposable entertainment possessing glimmers of the director's talent; however, the commotion ends up being a hollow, unmemorable parade of martial-arts whimsy when it gets back to the main plot. This isn't a bumpy ride quite like Chan's other recent work, but it's still a far cry from his capabilities.

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