Written by O'Brian Gunn
My first introduction to the wuxia film genre was Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Before that, I’d always been a fan of martial arts flicks, especially those that came out of China/Hong Kong, but there was something especially captivating about watching characters flow across the screen in gravity-mocking leaps and graceful fight scenes that were more like ballets with weapons. With The Four Trilogy, one of my favorite film genres was combined with another one of my favorites: superheroes. So did the three films Wing Chun punch me senseless with cinematic glory?
In the original The Four, audiences are introduced to Department Six, a government police force, and the Divine Constabulary, a small secret service whose members have supernatural abilities. Emotionless has the ability to read minds/auras and is telekinetic, and Iron Hands can make his arms hard as iron and can project chi from his fists. The two newcomers are Life Snatcher, who is a master tracker and projects chi from his superpowered kicks, and Cold Blood, who is essentially a werewolf with a mystical sword that can emit blades of green energy.
The plot focuses on a counterfeit coin operation and Cold Blood being fired from Department Six and sent to infiltrate the Divine Constabulary to bring them down from the inside - due to a rivalry between the two forces. There’s also another double agent in Department Six, Ji Yaohua, who’s working for the film’s main antagonist, An Shigeneg. It’s not a spoiler to reveal the moles, as the movie makes their identities known fairly early on. What I like about this is that you don’t spend the film wondering who the double agents are, but focusing more on their motivations and how their roles impact them psychologically.
One thing you should know about this film is that there are a lot of characters to keep up with. The film does a pretty good job of not overwhelming you, but there were times where I had to pause to match faces with names. As far as what the film does right, the physical setting and costuming looked fantastic, there’s a contingent of female warriors in Department Six, and I like the bits of philosophy (doing the wrong thing for the right reasons) that were added. Areas I felt needed some fleshing out included character development and making the final battle less confusing in regards to just how the characters’ abilities worked and giving their powers limits. There’s also a love triangle between Cold Blood, Emotionless, and Ji Yaohua that didn’t really resonate with me.
Overall, The Four is a decent introduction to the trilogy, one that was enough to leave me wanting to learn more about the characters and the world they inhabit. The Four II (also titled The Lawless Kingdom) is where my prayers were answered.
In the second installation, the counterfeit operation plotline is tied up, and another is kicked off in the form of the discovery of several bodies of men who were supposed to have died 12 years ago. At the center of the mystery is Zhuge Zhengwo, the leader of the Divine Constabulary, mainly because it is he who attacked Cold Blood at the beginning of the film before the bodies are discovered, and because he is connected to the bodies. The story is tighter, we finally understand how the characters got their powers (chi manipulation), and the film dives headfirst into its mystical world rather than shuffling around it - as they did in the first film.
There were some truly great bits in The Four II. Emotionless and Zhuge Zhengwo are blocked from using their abilities by acupuncture, the jailbreak scene towards the end is a fantastic visual feast and well-paced, and the new antagonist (Lady Fog) reminded me of a villain from Power Rangers, but with less camp. I also liked how most of the minor characters from the first film had larger roles, and how the story is more character-driven. I won’t spoil the revelation towards the end, but I will say I loved the direction it took the characters and story in. This installation was my absolute favorite of the three.
The third and final entry (also titled Kingdom of Blood) is...regrettable. The events from the second film carry over, but the way they’re handled and tied up leaves a lot to be desired. In the final installation, there’s an assassination attempt on the emperor, and Zhuge Zhengwo does his best to get the divine band back together before An Shigeneg fills the void left by the absence of an emperor or heir. Because events from the last film left Emotionless with little choice but to leave the team, she’s reluctant to work with her old teammates again to investigate the murder, and she tells Cold Blood as much when he tries to bring her back into the fold. The only problem is that she immediately throws her hat in the investigation ring with no discernible reason why as soon as Cold Blood leaves. Maybe she’s not as emotionless as her name implies when it comes to him.
The rest of the film was mostly a let down for me; fight scenes are uninspired (although there is a slight improvement with the final battle), and the delightful Lady Fog is barely even in this one! That said, I did like the development of Ji Yaohua’s duplicitous character, and there were a few solid attempts at humor that actually stuck their landings.
The Four Trilogy makes for okay viewing if you’ve got a free afternoon/weekend and some popcorn you’ve been looking for a reason to devour. If you’re a completionist (like myself), you’ll likely be unable to bear the lingering loose ends left dangling by skipping the third movie, especially after viewing the end of the second movie. That said, you might have a different opinion than mine. Bear in mind that I like a wuxia film that has just as much of a compelling story/script/characters as it does breath-snatching fight scenes, so your movie mileage (and expectations) may vary.
If you’re interested in plunging into the X-Men-esque trilogy for yourself, both The Four and Kingdom of Blood are currently available to rent on Google Play, and The Lawless Kingdom is available to view for free on the Tubi TV app, which is compatible with several devices.
Next Up: Girls, written by the Luna Brothers, depicts what happens when rural Pennystown is visited by beautiful aliens who want one thing in particular from the men and nothing from the women...except for their lives. Lines are drawn around the town and between the sexes as we figure out just what these girls want and what Pennystown’s residents are willing to do to see that they don’t get it.