Thursday, August 25, 2016

Review - Black & White: The Dawn of Justice - 2014

August 25, 2016

Black & White: The Dawn of Justice – Taiwan, 2014

The circumstances that Black & White: The Dawn of Justice lays out are indeed frightening – ten missing criminals, all of whom appear in a cryptic video that eerily resembles the kind associated with a suicide bomber’s last testament; a series of explosions, each one designed to bring a part of Kaohsiung to its knees; and rumors of chemical warfare. Into this brewing catastrophe steps Wu Ying-Hsiung (Mark Chao), the central character from the first Black & White film, as well as the television show that the films serve as prequel to, and, as the first scene attests, he is a man who has not mellowed one iota. In the scene, we watch as he almost single-handedly fends off a series of terrorists intent on getting their hands on a high-ranking military official who has access to an important code. It’s an exciting scene, and it stands up there with the more memorable intros from the Bond series or Mission Impossible films, yet it’s almost all down hill from there.

Part of the problem with Tsai Yueh-Hsun's The Dawn of Justice is that savvy viewers will quickly notice uncanny similarities to other (and better) films. Stop me if you’ve heard these before – a villain with a deep bass voice, a secret society intent of destroying a city and then rebuilding it from scratch, a detonator and a choice of who lives and dies. In other words, the film borrows extensively from both Batman Begins and The Dark Knight Rises. Other elements seem taken from the Mission Impossible films, and, oddly enough, shoot-em-up video games. For example, in one scene, our heroes find a secret path, go up a long ladder, and turn around to find a villain for each of them to take out. Then once they have vanquished these foes, a new and more powerful one emerges, one that will take their combined efforts to defeat. Later they have to climb all the way up to the top of a building where their final opponent is causally waiting for them. I half expected them to pick up a more powerful weapon along the way and to eat a berry for extra energy.

Like the previous film, The Dawn of Justice never lets up, jumping from one action scene to another, with only a few down moments thrown in to explain just what the heck is going on and just who everyone is. It helps if you have an encyclopedic knowledge of the first film, for Dawn of Justice doesn’t bother to explain who most of the characters are. However, if you can remember the characters from 24, you’ll be familiar with these character types. There’s the police chief who wants to ground Wu. Think the head of CTU in any season in which Tony Almeida or Michelle Dressler aren’t in charge. There’s the computer expert trying to ascertain the villains’ whereabouts with very little help from his superiors. Think Chloe O’Brian. And there are a few female colleagues on the case as well. They could easily be any of the one-season CTU agents who are pulled into action after receiving a clue and not being able to communicate with Jack. Then of course there’s the reluctant partner who at first dislikes or don’t trust Jack. Here, think Chase Edmunds. Like Jack’s, we have a feeling that Wu’s doubters will eventually come around, too.

The film is helped greatly by the all-too brief appearance of Xu Da Fu (Bo Huang), the criminal turned hero from the first film. He shows up as the tenth suicide bomber, yet his involvement is anything but voluntary. Xu is every bit as energetic as Wu is staid, and Huang and Chao make the most of their limited screen time together. In fact, Xu’s storyline also gives the film its emotional depth, which is more than a little strange given how many lives are at stake if all goes according to the terrorists’ plans. However, most of Kaohsiung’s civilians remain background figures and are not given much screen time to develop a connection with the audience. In an interesting move thematically, what screen time they do receive features mobs of them ransacking stores and doing snatch-and-grabs - not necessarily the kinds of deeds that would endear them to the audience. Even when Wu runs in the middle of a panicked mob and saves a young child from being trampled, the scene fails. It’s a near carbon copy of Katie Holmes’s heroics in Batman Begins.

When the film does devote time to a new character, the results are hit and miss. A fellow police officer named Chen Zhen (Lin Gengxin) makes his grand entrance just as Wu is dangling perilously from a freeway overpass. What should be a heroic moment is used instead to establish the character’s oddball personality – instead of helping Wu, Chen snaps a selfie with him and then complains about the placement of Wu’s hand. The moment plays worse than it reads. Another character, Huang Shi-Kai (Shiou Chieh Kai), a member of an elite military unit known as the Black Hawks, fares much better. We get a clear sense of just how he skilled and principled he is, and everything he attempts to do later on in the film is completely believable.

Unfortunately, too little of the film feels original. From its use of plot points from Christopher Nolen’s Batman trilogy to its many clichéd supporting characters, there’s just never a sense that we’re seeing anything new, and no amount of energy and action can make up for this. Wu, Huang, and Xu are all intriguing characters, yet they’re stuck in a movie made by a studio too afraid to venture outside of established action-film norms. The film didn’t need strained attempts at comedy or action scenes exaggerated to the point of being parody; what it needed was to trust that audiences would invest in the film’s characters and willingly go wherever the ride took them. They needed to take a chance. That they didn’t is obvious, and the result is a film that is watchable, yet ultimately forgettable. (on DVD and Blu-ray)

2 stars

*Black & White: The Dawn of Justice is in Mandarin with English subtitles.

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