Cover Art and Menus: 7/10
Martial arts films are pretty unique creatures. There are so many releases and different styles of martial arts movies that there are sub genres upon sub genres. The covers for most of the movies in the past have been pretty standard action covers, showing the main characters in poses that really get monotonous. For the Ultimate Force of Four box-set, the covers are pretty standard for these types of movies, but the use of the bright red and the poses is quite nice. What is funny to me is the fact that the red color is used in 3 of the 4 covers (the Legend of Drunken Master being the odd man out) and that is kind of the way I felt about the set; that the Legend of Drunken Master kind of did not belong in this Blu-ray collection. I will talk about that more later, but overall the cover was decent for a martial art movie collections like this.
The menus were adequate also, with a few odd inclusions like the computer generated Iron Monkey menu background, but again, nothing overly unique, and nothing overly horrible.
- Close Up Of A Fight Scene – In this extra they delve into how some of the action scenes were created. There is a nice amount of the wire work shown, and a few interviews with Jet Li and other actors involved with the movie. It was a very interesting piece.
- Inside The Action A Conversation With Quentin Tarantino & Jet Li – In this feature, you get a conversation between Quentin Tarantino, who presents the movie, and Jet Li, the main actor. It is an interesting piece, but a bit long in the tooth for me. Both are equally fun to watch talk though.
- Hero Defined – This 24 minute behind the scenes bit is by far my favorite of the group. It really shows the vision and creativity that went into this movie, and it shows the vast use of the Chinese locations, which make this movie so unique and beautiful.
- Storyboards – This is exactly what you would expect, as it shows the differences between the finished movie and the initial visualization that are presented in the storyboards.
- Soundtrack Spot – This is basically a promo for the unique soundtrack from Hero.
- Digital Copy –The obligatory digital copy accompanies this release, and I think I might actually put this on my iPhone, as the movie is so beautiful. I would still recommend seeing this on a bigger screen though, but I really like this movie.
The Legend Of Drunken Master
- Behind The Master – The only extra to accompany this movie is a short interview with Jackie Chan, which focuses on Chan and his stunts and how they came about. Not a bad extra, but this is not what I would want in a Blu-ray release. Granted this movie is a bit older than the others, but I expected more.
- Quentin Tarantino Interview – Again we get an interview with Tarantino, who is very passionate about these movies, but this is not quite what I would really want to see with such a good movie as Iron Monkey. There is no behind the scenes or any in depth background extras included.
- Donnie Yen Interview – We also get an interview with action star Donnie Yen, who is one of the big martial arts movie stars. He offers a little bit of insight into the film, as did the Tarantino interview, but again, not much here to get excited about.
The Blind Swordsman Zatoichi
- Behind The Scenes Special – At least there is a behind the scenes feature for The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi. This is a lengthy 40 minute feature that really goes into the making of the movie. The main focus is on the fight scenes (duh) and they do a good job of laying out the movie. This is a nice, detailed behind the scenes. My favorite part is the emphasis on Takeshi Kitano’s dislike of the classic long sword fights.
- Interviews With Crew – The interviews (4 of them) offer a bit more in the ways of the making of the movie. They cover things like training for the movie, and set creation.
The Movies: 6/10
I am going to start by saying that the Ultimate Force of Four is a strange collection of martial arts movies. They do offer a view of different styles and they are each unique, but it just seemed odd to me in the end. We have an older movie in the Legend of Drunken Master, and a pair of epic, newer movies in Hero and Iron Monkey, mixed with a sword heavy, blood splattering darker movie in the Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi. an eclectic mix that somehow didn’t mesh for me. That being said, there is a lot to like here, and while the Jackie Chan movie was a bit below the other 3 in video and audio presentation, I enjoyed this lot. I am , however, a fan of these types of movies, which you will have to be to enjoy this collection.
The Legend of Drunken Master is a classic Hong Kong movie featuring a much younger Jackie Chan. The movie was released originally in 1994, and was a follow up to the wildly successful Drunken Master; a 1978 Chan piece that catapulted him to fame. This time around Wong Fei-hung (Chan) is again the goofy son of a prominent physician. Wong gets into trouble when he tries to hide a package of cheese in an ambassador’s luggage compartment, and he ends up getting a rare artifact instead. The trouble begins when the British smuggles realise that the artifact is gone, and use some local Chinese heavies to try ot get the piece back. Wong, who fights better when drink, ends up battling to keep the rare artifact in China.
A quirky little movie, but an absolute classic Chan movie. It is fun, and enjoyable, and a great example of the older style of Hong Kong actions movies. Again, my only issue is that it seems a bit dated to be included with the rest of these more modern films in this package. I understand it’s inclusion, as Chan is a famous martial arts action star, but it just seemed slightly out of place with the 3 other movies.
Iron Monkey was released in 1993, a year before the Legend of Drunken Master, but it looks and sounds like it was made last year in comparison. Iron Monkey features Rongguang Yuas Dr. Yang, who moonlights as the Iron Monkey, who is a local Robin Hood type character who steals from the corrupt governor and gives the money to the poor and destitute. Dr. Yang has a beautiful assistant Lady Orchid, who is also gifted in martial arts. When the two meet visiting Wong Kei-ying (played by the action star Donnie Yen), a friendship is born. That friendship is strained however when they learn that Wong’s son Wong Fei-hong has been captured and held hostage by the local governor, in his attempt to capture the Iron Monkey. Wong senior is told that in order to free his son, the accomplished martial artist must use his skills to capture the thief, thus pitting the two new friends together.
The movie itself is a blast to watch. The acting is not great, but the story and action more than make up for it in this type of movie. Iron Monkey was created by Yeun Wo Ping, whose work garnered him a reputation, and eventually led to his involvement in movies like Kill Bill, the Matrix, and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. This is a silly movie with just enough wire work fighting to make it fun.
The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi is a different type of movie that the other 3, which are more PG fighting movies. Zatoichi is a much more bloody, ruthless type of movie. A Japanese movie, Zatoichi is directed and stars Takeshi Kitano, as a blind master swordsman who kind of drifts around the countryside. A gentle person who helps others, Zatoichi also can eviscerate those who attempt to cause harm, and he does so with insane speed. He wanders into a village and ends up befriending an older woman who allows him to stay with her. Zatoichi ends up challenging the local samurai for hire, who has his own unique back story.
Zatoichi is a strange movie that moves at its own pace. While it is based on a beloved classic Japanese character, the movie itself is hard to get involved with, mainly due to the pace and the (at least in my view) difficult lead characters, who are not easily understood and seem wooden. I enjoyed the journey, but this was my least favorite of the 4 movies.
Audio & Video: 6/10
Most of the video for these four movies is decent. The main exception is the Legend of Drunken Master, which looks only slightly better than a standard DVD release. Now obviously this is an older movie, and the original film was probably not top notch, but it almost doesn’t fit with the rest of the movies included here. The other movies are decent transfers, but they still lack the detail that one would want from a Blu-ray release. Hero and Zatoichi looked the best, but I would have even liked more detail in Hero, but overall the 3 remaining Blu-rays were average transfers.
The audio for the lot was a bit disappointing. Again, we have to remember what we are working with, but it seemed that all of the movies were underwhelming in the audio department. Again, Drunken Master was the worst in terms of audio, but I expected more from Hero and Iron Monkey. Both were extremely front heavy, and the use of the rear speakers for all films was sparse and uneven. It should also be noted that the English (dubbed) versions of these films seemed to me to be even more unevenly mixed than the original language mixes. Again, not the best overall, but adequate.
Value is a hard thing to quantify for a collection like this one. There are some great movies included here, and this really seems to be a nice collection of martial arts movies, but this is by no means the best 4 examples of the genre. If you like these types of films, this is a good cross section of genres, and for the most part, a decent showing on Blu-ray. There are some real gems here, and Hero is especially noteworthy for the vision and scope of the epic movie. At least a rental, but perhaps a bit too pricey for the casual kung fu fan to buy outright.
Overall Score 6/10