Black Mask is not, as its title would indicate, a belated blaxploitation version of the hit Jim Carrey comedy. Instead, it's the first Americanized starring vehicle for Jet Li, the Hong Kong superstar who was far and away the best thing about the otherwise-atrocious Lethal Weapon 4. Li stars in Black Mask as a technologically enhanced super-soldier who escapes a government laboratory and begins a new life as a mild-mannered librarian. The rest of the film follows Li as he attempts to implement the Dewey Decimal System, form a reading club for the library's older patrons, and launch an ambitious literacy drive. Of course, Li's character instead becomes the latest in a long line of cinematic pacifists who are forced by circumstances beyond their control to open up a value-sized can of whoop-ass on their diabolical enemies. In Li's case, those enemies are fellow technologically enhanced soldiers who are understandably upset by the government's efforts to kill them rather than turn them loose on the public. Released in Hong Kong in 1996, and fitted with the by-now-obligatory shoddy dubbing and hip-hop soundtrack, Black Mask is silly, derivative, and ultra-violent, but it's also an entertainingly over-the-top showcase for Li, who lacks Jackie Chan's comic sensibility but possesses a cool, enigmatic presence that nicely complements his remarkable fighting skills. Fans of Hong Kong action cinema will likely be familiar with Li, co-writer/producer Tsui Hark, and director Danny Lee's stylistic tricks, but that doesn't make them any less enjoyable. While never reaching the manic highs of Chan's best work, Black Mask is an exciting, lightning-fast introduction to one of Hong Kong's biggest and most charismatic stars.

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