A plot involving counterfeit coins, an army of undead warriors and the 'X-Men' by way of 'Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.' Sounds pretty awesome, right? That's probably the easiest and most enticing way to sum up Gordon Chan's newest martial arts spectacular 'The Four,' without getting into the somewhat perplexing particulars of the various characters and how the mix of mostly competent special effects and well-choreographed fight scenes don't feel like they work in conjunction with an underdeveloped plot and even more half-baked characters. (On the plus side, though, there's a pretty cute dog, Dumpy, that's fun to fuss over.)
As with most special effects-driven films, storytelling sometimes takes an unfortunate backseat to the spectacle on display, and once the initial plot is set up, it essentially goes on autopilot, setting up the transition from point A to B, and so on down the line until the film reaches it's inevitable climax.
When it comes to 'The Four,' however, the central plot involving an attempt to destabilize the Chinese economy by flooding it with worthless counterfeit coins is more than a little incongruous with the rather nonchalant depiction of fantastical superpowers and magically resurrected soldiers. It would be like telling Michael Mann that the world of 'Miami Vice' was filled with cops and criminals with magical abilities that go beyond the peculiar splendor of Colin Farrell's hair.
At the center of it all, is the Divine Constabulary, a collection of mystical misfits who go by codenames like Coldblood, Iron Hands, Emotionless and (my personal favorite) Life Snatcher. To round the ensemble out, Anthony Wong shows up as the group's mysterious, and even more mysteriously even-tempered leader Zhuge Zhenwo. Each member of the Divine Constabulary has a unique gift, which is detailed in only the most vague fashion – i.e., a brief fight scene in which said ability is put on display, but to no real effect.
To the film's credit, there is some attempt to grant the characters personality beyond their trademark superpower, but for the most part the film comes up empty-handed. Coldblood has a tendency to get angry and lose control and Life Snatcher…uh, likes to drink and has a fun mustache. Emotionless is basically Charles Xavier (though one might think her ability is to brood and glower constantly). Finally, we have Iron Hands, who seems to have been given the most applicable codename to make up for the fact that he's practically a nonentity.
The central conflict of the film, however, is between the mysterious Divine Constabulary (which isn't all that mysterious since no one seems at all impressed, curious or terrified by anyone's abilities) and Department Six – which is basically the non-superpowered arm of law enforcement. Both groups seek to track down the source of the counterfeit coins, but wind up embroiled in petty conflict with one another most of the time.
As an added wrinkle to the already crowded storyline, there are dual subplots involving double agents torn between the ideologies of Department Six, the Divine Constabulary and An Shigeng, the film's incredibly laid-back, jester-like and underdeveloped villain.
Despite the overstuffed plot and surplus of indistinguishable characters, 'The Four' still manages to tread wearily through its nearly two-hour runtime. The pacing is so far off the mark that it makes 'The Hobbit' feel like a brisk walk through the Shire. Much of this can be attributed to the fact that this is the first in a planned trilogy, making 'The Four' little more than two-hours of table setting for what we can only assume is four more hours of contrasting plot elements and sulky superheroes.
Chances are, filmgoers will be interested in 'The Four' to see the martial arts mixed with the kind of fantastical special effects that dominate the mega-budgeted landscape of film today. While there's nothing in particular to complain about (all of the effects are handled fairly well) they're not too far beyond the capability of a moderately-budgeted television program, making what was intended to be a lavish merging of two distinctly popular forms of filmmaking into something that's unfortunately far more pedestrian than its conceit would suggest.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'The Four' comes as a single 25GB Blu-ray disc in the standard keepcase from Well Go USA Entertainment. The disc has an outer sleeve, which displays the same cover art as the case's insert. Prior to reaching the top menu, there are several skippable previews on the disc.
With its 1080p AVC-encoded transfer, 'The Four' is a lot like the film itself: a nice looking affair that could have yielded better results had it been pushed a little further. That being said, color, detail and textures look decent here and generally maintain a presence throughout.
While the film is fairly sharp looking for the most part, there are occasions where the image softens and detail slips slightly. It's likely that this was done to allow the extensive special effects a chance to be better integrated and to give the film a more consistent feel. Additionally, there is filtered look throughout the film that may add something tonally to the film, but tends to wash away the most impressive layer of fine detail that high definition is able to provide. Still, there are plenty of instances where the image is very sharp and exhibits some excellent detail in facial features, clothing texture and background images.
Contrast levels are good in well-lit segments of the film, offering a nicely detailed, crisp image, but in low light moments, detail and shadow delineation tend to be weaker and offset the overall balance of the image.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track is the most impressive aspect of this disc. It offers a nice, immersive experience that truly helps enhance the visual aspects of this film. With its wide dynamic range, the lossless track presents something unique in nearly every scene – from convincing crowd effects, to the subtle noise of rain on a cluttered street, to the bombastic audio of destructive fight sequences, this mix is ready to handle them all.
Furthermore, the mix excels in delivering maximum impact to the various channels, pushing dialogue primarily through the center channel and leaving the front and rear speakers to handle the score and chaos of the film's many fantastical fight sequences. In addition to the creative use of channels, LFE is used well during the battles, but, thankfully, it is typically subtle and its presence never feels excessive.
Most importantly, however, the balance between the dialogue and the effects-driven sounds is managed wonderfully. Each sound feels unique and distinct, as the mix clearly favors clarity and richness over sensory overload.
'The Four' is one of those movies where nothing really makes much sense, but then again, maybe it doesn't have to. As this is clearly headed toward trilogy status, the filmmakers can add meaning and complexity to later installments, forcing the project to be looked at as a whole, rather than in segments. Unfortunately, as the first chapter, this film leaves quite a lot to be desired when it comes to characters with distinct personalities and a storyline that is compelling enough to create a desire for more. As it stands, this film is a plodding endeavor that relies on some fun choreography and an interesting premise more than truly competent storytelling. With its decent image and good sound, this one is worth a look.