A counterfeit money case stirs up a heated rivalry between Imperial Chinese law enforcement bureau Department Six and the Emperor's own secret service known as the Divine Constabulary led by sagely master detective Zhuge Zhengwo (Anthony Wong). Master Zhuge and his super-powered acolytes, crippled psychic girl Emotionless (Crystal Liu Yi-Fei) and strong man Iron Hand (Ngai Sing), smash a crime ring aided by new recruit Life Snatcher (Ronald Cheng), a wine-loving rogue with magical kung fu legs. They end up also enlisting Cold Blood (Deng Chao), a broody young swordsman burdened with an unfortunate curse. When enraged he transforms into a snarling, unstoppable beast man wielding a magical jade sword. Cold Blood sparks some romantic tension with beautiful yet self-loathing Emotionless, but is actually spying on the team on behalf of Department Six chief Sheriff King Lord Liu (Cheng Tai-Shen). He is also involved with alluring lady constable Ji Yaohua (Jiang Yi-Yan) who, unbeknownst to him, is a double-agent and girlfriend of An Shigeng (Wu Xiubo), self-styled God of Wrath, the man behind the counterfeit scheme who is out to conquer China with his legion of the living dead.
Chinese author Wen Ruian penned his best-selling series of wu xia novels about the titular crime-fighters back in the Seventies. Had his books been adapted into movies back then, say by a prestige studio like Shaw Brothers, they would have likely been either a chop-socky fest a la Chang Cheh or another moody, quasi-supernatural mystery from Chu Yuan. Instead in the twenty-first century Gordon Chan follows his recent impressive effects-laden blockbusters Painted Skin (2008) and Mural (2011) by re-imagining The Four as a kind of medieval X-Men. Each of the crime-fighters has a special super-power. Wheelchair-bound beauty Crystal Liu both reads minds and wields Carrie-style psychokinetic abilities, scene-stealing comedian Ronald Cheng has crazy cartoon feet, Deng Chao is the Hulk in all but name, Ngai Sing's buff blacksmith whips up cool gadgets including a nifty trick-laden wheelchair for Emotionless while Anthony Wong has the magical ability to stand around looking bored. Which given the volume of hyperkinetic action, intrigue and out there plot twists involving reanimated zombies, sexy femmes fatale and a cackling supervillain with elemental kung fu, is quite a feat.
Of course Bryan Singer's Marvel comics adaptation has proven surprisingly influential on Hong Kong films of late, as evidenced by Benny Chan's zany City Under Siege (2008) and Wong Jing's beguiling Future X-Cops (2010), but The Four does not really adhere to the template of your standard superhero team origin story. Instead Gordon Chan and co-director Janet Chun, a former actress better known for comedies La Lingerie (2008) and All's Well Ends Well 2011 (2011) along with costume romance The Jade and the Pearl (2010), craft an incredibly dense and complex crime thriller rife with conspiracies, shifting allegiances, and often unfathomable schemes. Truth be told the plot proves too complex for its own good though the film still yields an abundance of choice comedic moments, arresting imagery and exciting action sequences most notably the grand set-piece duel wherein Emotionless and Ji Yaohua have a telekinetic cat-fight in the midst of a zombie attack!
After a strong start the film meanders through a lot of cutesy antics while the star-crossed love story between Cold Blood and Emotionless falters due to the overly solemn performances. At one point everything grinds to a halt when Cold Blood takes off to go sulk. The chief problem with The Four is whenever the story seems poised to take flight Chan drags it back down to earth again with some mundane, meandering melodrama. The central theme put forward by Zhuge Zhengwo, that it is better to fight crime like a gentleman rather than use brutal methods and risk becoming a villain yourself, is interesting yet like the character himself merely loiters in the background. Although Wong's disaffected performance leaves his hero none too compelling, Ronald Cheng is entirely amiable as Life Snatcher. He hogs all the best lines while the supporting cast of non-super-powered helpers: Big Wolf (Bao Bei-Er), Dingdong (Wu Ying-Jie), Guts (Miao Chi) and Bell (Tina Xian Tian-Ran) prove way more engaging than the superheroes. Which can't be right, can it? Also while Wu Xiubo's self-amused villainy is amusing it robs us of any cathartic pleasure at seeing the bad guy getting his just desserts. He shrugs everything off with a careless cackle. Look out for veteran actor Waise Lee as an Imperial Prince though he would likely have made a much more charismatic Zhuge Zhengwo. But, hey, he's not box office anymore, so...
For all its shortcomings, The Four does deliver on fast-paced spectacle, comedy and suspense. This proved enough to enthrall the Chinese audience and two sequels have already been filmed.