Silver Hawk

Silver Hawk (originally titled Masked Crusader) is loosely based on a series of popular pulp tales by Xiao Ping, published in Shanghai during the 40s and 50s. These told of the adventures of a masked heroine, Wong Ngang, sort of a female Chinese Robin Hood in superhero garb. The stories were previously adapted into Hong Kong movies and TV shows in the 60s and 70s, with the heroine portrayed by big stars of the time including Connie Chan, Angie Chiu and Petrina Fung Bo Bo. This movie’s genesis was rather more down to Earth: producer Thomas Chung was in China doing promotion on The Touch and noticed that Spider-Man was doing bravura business, and decided a superhero movie could make some serious money.

So another cinematographer turned director came on board in the form of Jingle Ma (Tokyo Raiders) and concocted a script with his Raiders screenwriter Susan Chan. Yeoh returned with Touch co-star Brandon Chang, as well as Taiwanese star Richie Ren (who previously worked with the director on Fly Me To Polaris). Fresh from his turn as the vampire Nomak in Blade 2, Former Bros drummer Luke Goss signed on alongside American action star Michael Jai White (Spawn, Universal Soldier: The Return, Exit Wounds, almost Kill Bill) and pretty starlet Li Bing Bing as the bad guys.

Some time in the not-too-distant future. A powerful silver motorcycle leaps the Great Wall of China, hot on the trail of a speeding truck. The motorcycle is a nifty bit of kit, being able to drive along independently when its rider, superhero Silver Hawk (Yeoh) leaps aboard the truck. Disarming the goons with her batarangs (hawkarangs?), SH proceeds to lay some cool superhero smackdown on the evildoers. In fact she finds them rather easy pickings (in a rather amusing bit of business they tie themselves up to avoid a longer beating) before she examines their cargo – an illegally poached panda cub of astonishing cuteness.

Then to the first-class section of an airliner, where police Superintendent Man Yan (Richie Ren) is heading for his new job in Polaris City (he’s Flying to Polaris, see? It’s a joke). Man has a habit of introducing himself with his finger in a James-Bond-with-pistol pose as “Man… Rich Man” (because Richie was in a movie called Marry a Rich Man – another joke). Also on the flight is the lovely Lulu Wong Ngang (Yeoh again), who we learn by the miracle of flashback was at a strict kung fu academy with Man. But he doesn’t remember her, and only recognises the gorgeous millionairess philanthropist from magazine covers. He also fails to recognise that Lulu is of course Silver Hawk, who Man has sworn to arrest for her vigilante behaviour. Lulu decides it would be a good idea to keep tabs on Man and so plants a bug in his phone while he is distracted by the large, cheerleader-like group of young female cops who have come to collect him – did I mention I already love Polaris City?

Back at her spacious apartment, Lulu gleefully describes her adventures to her sidekick Mimi (Wei Lai, kind of a better-looking equivalent of Joe Regalbuto’s character in the old TV show Street Hawk). They are interrupted by Lulu’s stern aunt Jean (Guan Ying), who has set up a date with eligible bachelor, professor Ho Chung (Chen Da Ming). It’s painfully obvious that the two have nothing in common, and besides Lulu has to rush out halfway through to solve a couple of crimes. One of these, an apparent assault on a woman in the street, turns out to be a police sting, leading to a fight between Silver Hawk and Man disguised as a woman. Naturally Man gets his butt kicked, while the cheerleader cops – all disguised as guys – beg SH for her autograph.

The professor invites Lulu to a demonstration of his new computer chip, where she meets Kit (Brandon Chang), the prof’s assistant and founder of the Silver Hawk Fan Club. Man is also there to provide security, and he’s finally remembered that he knew Lulu when they were kids. The professor’s invention is a headset that takes detailed diagnostics of the wearer, and then by means of an annoying holographic butler encourages subjects to live a healthy lifestyle. Lulu and the crowd aren’t impressed, believing that one’s lifestyle is a matter of personal choice. The professor is distraught, since his intention was only to make life better for everyone. But such concerns are short-lived when a duo of badass kung fu assassins named Morris (Michael Jai White) and Jane (Li Bing Bing) arrive and kidnap the professor. While Man and Kit try and give chase in Man’s police-issue Maserati (did I mention I love Polaris City?) Lulu is already in costume and mixing it up with the bad guys. Unfortunately she can’t stop them escaping with the professor.

Lulu and Kit examine the prof’s email for some clue to the identity of his kidnappers. All they can ascertain is that Shiraishi Enterprises in the fictional country of Zenda (actually Japan) were interested in the development but pulled out when they were refused exclusive rights. Meanwhile, the prof is encountering his captor for the first time: in a gleaming underground supervillain lair he meets Alexander Wolfe (Luke Goss), a megalomaniac psychopath with bionic arms and a very curious accent. Wolfe wants the prof to adapt his chip into a mind-control device so that (Pinky and the brain, Pinky and the Braiiiin!) he can take over the World! Narf!

Man travels to Zenda and hooks up with local cop Lt. Lisa Hayashi (Lisa Selesner). They attempt to meet with company boss Akira Shiraishi (Koichi Iwaki) but he’s busy with an important visitor – Lulu, an old friend of the family. In fact once she’s finished a pleasant Q & A with Akira she plans to have lunch with his daughter Tina (Misato Tachibana) – a plan ruined when Morris & Jane show up to kidnap the young girl. Lulu swings into action but doesn’t have time to change into Silver Hawk, allowing Wolfe – watching via video surveillance and studying her kung fu moves – to figure out her secret identity. Once again Lulu is thwarted in preventing the bad guys escaping with their target (she’s a prisoner of Zenda – see, I can do it too!).

Wolfe meets with Akira and sets out his plan – the company will make a new phone that can control minds, turning them into Wolfe’s willing slaves but causing horrendous brain damage in the process. Several prototypes have already been sent out to influential senators, who nominate Wolfe for president of Zenda. Wolfe also has designs on Silver Hawk, sending Lulu a message to lure her to his lair. She manages to fight off his first wave – a gang of bungee-jumping guys in Power Rangers costumes – but comes unstuck when faced with Morris, Jane and Wolfe himself. Injured, she is forced to flee – and is discovered unconscious by Man, who is also on to her secret.

Man undergoes a crisis of conscience and cannot bring himself to arrest Lulu, though he does warn her to stay out of his way. Meanwhile Kit has discovered a signal encoded in one of the phones sold by Shiraishi – the final, brain-frying mind control transmission will be sent that very day! Will Man and Silver Hawk settle their differences to save the World? Will SH find a way to neutralise Wolfe’s lethal bionic gauntlets? Will there be a massive finale featuring kung fu ice-hockey players, Morris & Jane, the cops, Silver Hawk and Wolfe’s self-destructing lair? Probably…

As you’ve probably guessed from the synopsis, Silver Hawk is barmy. It doesn’t make a lick of sense and many aspects of the production are lousy. It’s also completely brilliant. Oh, there’s plenty of bad stuff: like many Hong Kong films there’s an unfortunate reliance on childhood flashbacks, and HK child actors aren’t generally noted for their thespian skills. The pair in this flick, Lui Wei (young Man) and Wu Sai Kit (young Lulu) are better than most, with Wu showing off some impressive kung fu, but even so the flashbacks are not altogether welcome. Then there are the moments where the actors switch into English. Yeoh is OK at this but everyone else is pretty horrible, especially Misato Tachibana as Tina – “I’ve missed you sooooo much!” – ugh!

And those viewers who dislike product placement in movies will be less than impressed. Flashy phones are featured as plot points, in particular Kit’s Nokia N-Gage – a device that can defuse an evil supercomputer faster than even Jeff Goldblum’s laptop from Independence Day. Then there are the vehicle endorsements; every car Richie Ren gets in is a Maserati (lucky blighter), everything Michelle drives – from Lulu’s limo to the Hawk-Cycle – is a BMW.

The look of the film is another factor some folks may find a bugbear. Silver Hawk ain’t the only thing that’s silver, every surface seems to be polished chrome or brushed concrete. It’s the sort of quasi-futuristic appearance that has been largely supplanted by more hip ‘retro-future’ looks, and the shiny blue-grey sheen of, well, everything in the movie does get a bit grating after a while – I’m surprised Jingle Ma, responsible for his own cinematography, didn’t mix things up a little more.

Then there are other elements that many reviewers have highlighted as negatives. Well, stuff ‘em. Anyone who criticises this movie for plot shortcomings is missing the point, and I’m not about to trot out the old ‘leave your brain at the door’ defence either. Remember the 1980s, before a whole generation of video kids made toy tie-in cartoons retro and cool? How plausible were any of Cobra Commander or Megatron’s schemes for World domination? Did the guy doing the voice of Skeletor ever learn to act? ‘Course not! Well, the spirit of those crazy ‘toons is, intentionally or not, alive and well in Silver Hawk!

Take Luke Goss. The teenybop idol turned actor gained much respect in movie circles after an impressive turn as Jared Nomak, the lethal reaper from Blade 2. Well don’t get too excited yet, because Goss gives a performance of such staggering awfulness as Wolfe that new adjectives must be invented to do it justice (I came up with putrisuckulent, but feel free to create your own). He appears to be going for upper-class British but comes off more as brain-damaged South African, and as a megalomaniac genius is a joke – but was Cobra Commander any better? Then there are Wolfe’s henchmen, Morris and Jane. Morris is a giant black badass in a goofy hat, Jane is a cute Asian chick who’s hair changes colour from scene to scene. These guys aren’t meant to be copied as action figures, they are action figures.

And the script follows the cartoon pattern too. My favourite part of the whole film comes when Akira and assorted Zendan senators call a press conference to endorse Wolfe as President. Akira announces his support in a flat, vacant monotone, then the speakers (who are senators, remember) begin chanting “WOLFE! WOLFE! WOLFE!” while mechanically pumping their fists in the air. But the killer, the true piece de resistance, is the backdrop: a 20-foot high picture of Wolfe STILL CLAD IN HIS SUPERVILLAIN LEATHERS!!! It’s a classic moment in the History of Cinema. Then there’s the fact that Wolfe manages to sell 100 million phones in about a week, and just how is Wolfe planning to control all the folks who prefer their Motorolas..?

The action is by the amusingly named Alien Sit, who previously created fights for Shaolin Soccer, China Strike Force, TV’s Martial Law and Jingle Ma’s Tokyo Raiders, for which he was nominated for the Hong Kong Film Award for Best Action Choreography. He turns in some fine work, with Yeoh the inevitable standout. Michael Jai White, another talented martial artist, gets a chance to bust some fine moves, but I was impressed that non-fighters Richie Ren and Li Bing Bing held their own with no obvious doubling. And at least Luke Goss proves that his action scenes in Blade 2 were no fluke, displaying some impressive form against Yeoh. It’s a shame that Jingle seems to have picked up some of Hollywood’s quick fire editing methods that obscure the action slightly, but I’ve seen much worse.

But if you still need a reason to watch Silver Hawk I got two words for ya: Michelle Yeoh. In a stark contrast to most of her movies where she plays tough, no-nonsense characters, Yeoh is as sexy as an especially naughty gumdrop. She plays Lulu/Silver Hawk as a woman who clearly loves her job. Her cheeky grin is infectious, especially when it appears mid-fight after she pulls off some particularly flashy takedown. It’s also the first film I can recall where Yeoh plays a character who is thoroughly out-and-out sexy. It sure as Hell works – the actress seems to look hotter with every passing year. And her costumes don’t hurt either, sporting several rather delightful wig & hotpants combinations, even in superhero mode. In fact the only slight negative is her mask, described by Stomp Tokyo’s Scott Hamilton as “combining the practicality of wearing a grapefruit shield on your face with the sex appeal of Lisa Loeb’s glasses.” It’s a fair description, though the mask works better on screen than in photos.

Silver Hawk may not be clever but compared to dreck like Protégé De La Rose Noire it’s Citizen Kane, or at least Superman: The Movie. It gets my maximum recommendation as a delightful 99-minute blast of pure nitrous oxide. Though the movie didn’t do well at the Hong Kong box office, sequels are apparently being discussed. I for one hope this happens, I’ll be first in line – or at least, waiting impatiently by the mailbox for the DVDs!

Release Year: 2004 | Country: Hong Kong | Starring: Michelle Yeoh, Richie Ren Xian-qi, Luke Goss, Brandon Chang, Li Bing-bing, Michael Jai White, Wei Lai, Guan Ying, Chen Da-ming, Lisa Selesner, Iwaki Koichi, Tachibana Misato | Screenplay: Jingle Ma, Susan Chan Suk-yin | Director: Jingle Ma Choh-shing | Cinematography: Chan Kwok-hung, Chan Chi-ying | Music: Peter Kam Pau-tat