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X marks the pratt
A region 2 DVD review of MR. X by Slarek
 

If you're one of those people who find formal weddings tiresome – and I certainly am – you might take a perverse pleasure from the opening few minutes of Mr. X, as an entire white-dressed wedding party is slaughtered by armed goons in what is clearly a carefully planned assault. Who anybody is at this stage is unclear – half the wedding party are Chinese, half are Japanese, and the assault team look like American FBI types, but with an oriental female leader.

Minutes later we're in New York and some American guy, the Mr. X of the title, is secretly observing two local Chinese gangs do a dockside drug deal that quickly descends into violent mayhem. Could there be a connection with the wedding massacre? Well, yes and no. Several vicious deaths later, one gang stands triumphant, but not for long – Mr. X suddenly mutates into a one-man army and kills everything left moving. Bloody hell, could these guys just pause for a minute and TALK?

A few minutes on and we're back in Hong Kong via a news report about a new venture between Chinese and Japanese businessmen. Aha, the dots are starting to connect. Suddenly the news report is interrupted by an explosion and – oh dear God no – another heavily armed superman appears, this time of Oriental extraction. As he sets about killing wave after wave of the FBI look-alikes, I began wondering how anything ever gets built in Hong Kong if this is how they conduct business.

At this point most will realise that all this is less about plot than the spectacle of slaughter, something the film absolutely revels in. The slow motion gunplay administered by an icy-cool assassin in dark sunglasses with a machine gun in each hand comes across as Z-grade John Woo, but there is none of Woo's carefully choreographed violence here, just the same ten sunglassed goons piling stupidly and repeatedly through a door and being shot to the ground by After Effects-style bullet-hits (bullets, generally, do not cause sparks when they hit the sleeves of tailored suits) over and over again. Man, how many times can you watch that same long haired guy and that one with the distinctive angular face get shot and die before your brain screams "ENOUGH!"? In my case, just once.

We're twenty minutes in before a particularly loathsome American who I will call Mr. Exposition explains to Mr. X (and us) just what has been going on. Mr. Exposition wants Mr. X to go to Hong Kong and help the small group of Chinese (or, as he calls them, "Chinks") who want nothing to do with the pact between the Triads and the Yakuza ("Japs") that started all this. He wants him to kill one guy in particular first, not because of any threat the man represents, but because he turns Exposition's stomach and reminds him of "a slanty-eyed toad." And so we're 25 minutes in and Mr. X is in Hong Kong telling the kindly old Chaplin Chang (the film's producer, and that's his real name) and his associates the way things are gonna be now that this horse is in town, and all I want is to see Mr. X become the ex-Mr. X, preferably through the insertion of a live grenade in his anus. No such luck.

To say that what follows is predictable would be slightly misleading – certainly it's largely formulaic stuff, but it's also hard to foresee what a complete arse Mr. X proves to be. Concealing himself in order to slaughter another collection of locals and their business partners, for example, his thunder is stolen when one of the men whose side he is supposed to be on turns up and does his job for him. What does X do? He kills the good guy and growls "I told you I work alone." What a complete bastard. Somehow we are supposed to find this idiot engaging, but as played by Joe Lewis he has all the screen charm of a cactus with herpes and grace of movement of a hobbled hippopotamus.

Adding to the confusion is the sneaking suspicion that the film's mysterious director, a Mr. Ed Woo (hey, we're just one letter shy of an altogether more notorious filmmaking name there), is actually a composite of three different filmmakers, all of whom handled different characters and scenes. The dockside fight at the start, for example, is energetically staged and choreographed, whereas just about anything involving gunfire is shabby at best and often ludicrous (see the above comments). Close quarters hand-to-hand combat, on the other hand, is superbly staged, at least when it's left to the Oriental cast members – stripped of his weapons, Mr. X fights like a big girl's blouse.

This stylistic schizophrenia is emphasised in the very long three-way climactic battle, which flips between two Chinese brothers dressed in white overcoats shooting everything that makes a noise, two gangland warlords slugging it out with samurai swords, and Mr. X caught in fisticuffs with a mountain of muscle posing as a guard. The sword fight is furiously staged, but the two brothers land us back in low grade John Woo territory, and as for X – I defy anyone watching his forceless punching to explain to me how he (inevitably and depressingly) defeats the Gorgon in human form that he's pitted against. It's not just that these three parallel stories are staged differently, they even LOOK different to each other, as if they also had three separate and uncommunicative cinematographers as well.

There are good things in Mr. X, in the aforementioned close combat fights and swordplay, in the fact that the English, Chinese and Japanese characters speak in their own languages rather than in badly dubbed English, and there's even a very niftily done on-foot chase through the Hong Kong back streets. But this counts for little when so much else is so bloody poor, from the ludicrous one-against-a-hundred gun battles – where the bad guys clearly have blanks in their guns and high powered magnets in their clothing to attract the bullets from the hero's weapon – to Mr. X himself, an utterly detestable git who is only likely to find favour with an undiscriminating audience whose moral values are four steps to the right of Genghis Khan.

sound and vision

If you've read any of my previous reviews of 55th Chamber releases, you'll already have an idea what to expect in terms of picture and sound quality. Yep, once again we have an NTSC to PAL conversion, cropped to 4:3 and hauled off of what looks like a low band tape source. As a result the picture is seriously lacking in the areas of sharpness, contrast and colour integrity. What is surprising (and unusual) is how clean of dust spots the print is, or at least at first – a few minutes in they return en masse, and once in residence there's no shifting the buggers. Interesting end credits include 'VT Operator' and 'VT Mastering'. Was it actually shot on film at all?

The mono sound is also low grade stuff, unforgivable for a film made only 11 years ago, but at least unsurprising given the source print and the film's curious rarity. Initially there are some very obvious synchronisation issues, with words and sound effects missing their mark by almost a second. Although post-dubbing has been common practice in Hong Kong action cinema for years and produces inevitable mismatches of picture and sound, this is clearly a problem with the source print that has not been rectified at the digital stage, most evident when the word "Time!" is seen barked in big close-up, but not heard until the following shot.

The subtitles for the Chinese and Japanese dialogue are burned in, but appear to have been added at the digital stage, resulting in better clarity here than you might expect, at least until 45 minutes in, when the quality noticeably drops, suggesting two different source prints nailed together midway. They do improve again later on.

extra features

The usual 55th Chamber collection consists of a UK Promotional Trailer (1:12), which is nothing of the sort and just a montage of action shots from this DVD print cut to some really horrible music, plus a Stills Gallery (1:20), and a plug for some of their other releases.

summary

Mr. X is the generic Hong Kong actioner at its least inspiring, a series of noisy, busy, but largely unexciting action scenes of wildly varying quality and style, strung together by a plot whose cross-cultural potential is buried by shallow character development, over-familiarity, and an offensively awful central character. Fans of fast and furious close-combat kung-fu will find of couple of sequences of real interest, and it's these that momentarily lift the film out of the doldrums and suggest a finer work that could have been. Whether you feel this is worth a fiver is a decision only you can make.

Mr. X

Hong Kong 1995
91 mins
director
Ed Woo
starring
Joe Lewis
Lam Wei
Alex Man
Chan Wei Man
Chaplin Chang

DVD details
region 2
video
4:3 cropped
sound
Dolby 2.0 mono
languages
English, Chines and Japanese
subtitles .
Fixed English on Japanese and Chinese dialogue
extras
Trailer
distributor
Prism – 55th Chamber
release date
Out now
review posted
10 August 2006

See all of Slarek's reviews