The Four, 四大名捕, or Si Da Ming Bu (2012)
This has been a deeply frustrating experience. I like the original story on which The Four (2012) or Si Da Ming Bu is based, and even though the television version was drawn out too far and contained some unfortunate missteps, I went to the cinema prepared to like the big screen wuxia version. Indeed, the first five minutes seem to promise much. The cinematography and shot selection is particularly impressive as crane shots change the angle over street scenes and we follow a CGI bird as it flies over the roof tops to the Palace where we get our first view inside Department 6. This is the top policing agency in the Song Dynasty, and it both runs a spy network and has a paramilitary approach to the process of arrest. Obviously it can be a dangerous business to go up against potentially powerful kung fu masters, so this is SWAT with shields and spears ready to lock together to contain difficult unarmed (sic) criminals.
Anyway, the major problem surfaces almost immediately. I had great difficulty in following the plot. Usually, I have everything nailed down as I watch a film, but this time I emerged from the cinema and had to exchange notes with my wife while we tried to work out who was on which side and why people might have been doing whatever they were doing. Eventually, we arrived at a basic grasp of what we think happened, but we still can’t decide quite what the villain was aiming to achieve. I can’t bring myself to believe this was a plan to kill the Emperor, royal princes and the nobility because there just aren’t enough bodies (literally) available to see the assault through once the fighting begins and the capital is alerted. Worse, even if the Emperor’s army
were to be defeated, there seems to be no planning for any kind of takeover. If you are planning a coup, you need a major team of people ready to step into key roles, taking command of tax collection, the military and other key departments of state. Yet all we ever see is one guy and some minions who start off counterfeiting the coinage and, when there’s an investigation, it escalates into an attack on the Prince. This seems completely illogical because there was a plan in motion to infiltrate Department 6 and, once that was under control, the villain could more or less do what he wanted without anyone investigating him. There was every reason not to attack the Prince, particularly in such a spectacular way.
So after our family powwow, this is what we think happens in the first part of the film. We watch the arrival of a new group of female investigators led by Ji Yaohua (Jiang Yiyan) in Department 6. She, her second-in-command called Butterfly and the others who occupy screen time lolling around naked in a sauna (can’t think why they do that), are infiltrators sent by the villain Lord An (Wu Xiubo). The plan is slowly to kill all the more senior officers and allow them to rise through the ranks until they control Department 6. We then get into a pissing competition between Department 6 and the early version of the Divine Constabulary as to who has the better right to track down those responsible for the outbreak of counterfeiting in the capital. At this point, Zhuge Zhengwo (Anthony Wong Chau-Sang) (with Sheren Tang in attendance to bring “free” food and wine from her Inn to feed the constabulary family) has his adopted “daughter” Heartless (Yifei Liu) and Iron Fist (Collin Chu) in place as constables. In the first major attempt to arrest one the the leading villains, Zhuge Zhengwo quickly identifies Chaser (Ronald Cheng) in the crowded inn as Constable material and saves him from arrest by Department 6. The final recruit comes courtesy of Department 6 which sends Cold Blood (Chai Deng) as an undercover agent. We then get the traditional bonding sequences as our four find reasons to fight each other so they can be embarrassed into being friends.
Now a few words about the titular four. Personally, I’m always in favour of realism when it comes to fighting abilities. This does not mean I’m against wire work and the more balletic moves. But I think reliance on supernatural skills is lazy. This might be different if we were watching a Marvel or DC Comics blockbuster. We accept Professor Xavier in his wheelchair using mutant psi powers because the whole is intended to be science fiction. Similarly, Wolverine’s ability to grow hairy and throw people around using super strength is vaguely credible because we’ve seen what he had to go through when William Stryker replaced his bones with adamantium. However, seeing Heartless in her wheelchair use telekinesis and telepathy is not really playing the fantasy game. Similarly, Cold Blood’s ability to turn into a wolf, or Iron Fist’s ability to wield fire is not the same as using steampunk technology to weaponise the wheelchair or being good with a sword. Lord An gets in on the mutant powers with the manipulation of both fire and ice. Even Zhuge Zhengwo turns out to be Magneto with an ability to pull metal needles out of inconvenient places.
At every turn, this plot either grinds to a halt while the emotional Heartless and Cold Blood, the wolfman, decide whether their shared love of a puppy makes them suitable sex partners, or we get the completely redundant introduction of zombies. Yes, there’s a zombie plague in the original story as one village falls prey to an infection, but this is recruiting active and motivated soldiers from the ranks of the dead. There’s no explanation of how they are capable of fighting in an orderly way. There’s also a major distinction between the first fight involving one zombie which survives a major assault by the best humans can bring to bear until Chaser accidentally triumphs, and the massed ranks which are mown down rather more easily by all-comers.
Directors Gordon Chan and Janet Chun should have had people on set telling them when the plot made no sense. It costs little or nothing to spend an extra moment making sure we get a clear view of people or a short explanation of why they act as they do. Merely making the film look good is never enough on its own. If directors can’t communicate a coherent plot, all they do is lose the audience’s interest. In fact this happened around us with many giving up and texting their friends until the next action set piece came along. The Four (2012) or Si Da Ming Bu is not recommended unless you’re into wuxia regardless of plot.
For a review of the television series, see The Four or Shao Nian Si Da Ming Bu (2008)