The Heroic Trio/Executioners Criterion Collection 4K UHD Review: Insane Hong Kong Lady Action

In the pre-Internet era, information about different cultures’ cinema was obscure. It was rumor. It was some still in a magazine article. Your buddy saw a movie at some convention, or festival, and it blew their mind. It’s difficult, in this world of universal connection, to convey how intriguing it was, this notion of completely different modes of filmmaking. In Japan, some of the cartoons weren’t just for kids. There were Italian horror movies that went way beyond anything they did in the states.

Buy The Heroic Trio/Executioners Criterion Collection 4K UHD

And then there were those Honk Kong movies. Incredible action. Bloody violence. Nothing like the cheese we were used to in America. John Woo was the major director, from the Western enthusiast perspective. But he was focused on guns and shooting, and for a lot of genre enthusiasts, it was the martial arts movies of the ’80s that were the draw. They had wild wire work, incredible athleticism… and pretty Chinese ladies. The two films in this Criterion 4K UHD collection come from the tail end of that kind of exotic Honk Kong martial arts cinema world, and feature three of the major leading ladies from the time.

The Heroic Trio and Executioners, both from 1993, are wild martial arts/superhero stories featuring three major actresses from Hong Kong cinema. The women are Anita Mui as Wonder Woman (not that one), Michelle Yeoh as the Invisible Woman, and Maggie Cheung as the Thief Catcher. Michelle Yeoh, of course, recently won an Oscar. Maggie Cheung, a Miss Hong Kong runner-up, is in my own opinion one of the prettiest actresses to ever grace the screen. Anita Mui was best known as a singer, and tragically died in 2003 of cervical cancer.

The Heroic Trio is a bizarre story centered around child kidnappings. Eighteen babies have been stolen from local hospitals. The assailant is apparently invisible and is nearly thwarted in her latest attempt by the local superhero, Wonder Woman. She is married to a policeman who, in Hong Kong movie fashion, also has nearly supernatural martial arts powers of his own: in the opening scene, he interrupts a car thief by leaping from a window, lashing him with a vine, and telling him to cuff himself. He does so, at once.

The Heroic Trio shifts tone precipitously, in ways fans of Hong Kong cinema will expect. It goes from serio-comic to tragic to wildly melodramatic, sometimes all in the same scene. The babies are being kidnapped by some sewer-dwelling eunuch because one of them will be the next Chinese emperor, and the weirdo wants him under his control. I guess, it’s not very clear. But there are scenes of martial arts combat and tragedy and comedy. All the superwomen have connections in their past. They don’t make a lot of sense.

More sense is made in The Heroic Trio than Executioners, which decides what the story needs is a nuclear holocaust to move it along. Between the two films (released a little more than six months apart) Hong Kong has been nuked, and uncontaminated water is run by a monopoly, the Clean Water Company. Though split apart by time and lifestyle differences, the trio come back together to thwart a military coup.

Both films take place in essentially comic book worlds and have no concern for that absolute unreality of their settings. The Heroic Trio spends a lot of time in a hospital that looks like… frankly, blank walls on a sound stage. Every scene takes place in a space too large for reality, but the right size for a movie. Unmotivated lighting and fans increase the drama and decrease the connection to reality.

Executioners is even more flagrant. The stagy unreality of its setting is more unapologetic. Everything looks fake, but who cares? It’s a movie. Just enjoy yourself.

And that’s the point of the films. They have unearned emotional beats, and some story points that should be appalling. Hell, because of the carelessness of the characters in the first film, a baby ends up dead. And later, when the trio find some apparently corrupted young children, they fire-bomb them to death. But they’re the heroes, so it’s okay.

There’s plenty of tonal weirdness that for me made it difficult to really connect with the characters. And there was some martial arts sloppiness, too. Some of the fights in The Heroic Trio have the amazing athleticism one expects from Honk Kong cinema. But several of them are just people in loose clothing twirling around, with none of the distinct clean lines of martial artists properly showing off. It’s worse in Executioners, where much of the action is dull gunplay.

I’m a little sad I can’t enthusiastically recommend these Hong Kong oddities. A lot of the action is fun. The main actresses are beautiful. I could look at Maggie Cheung’s face all day, every day, for most of the rest of my life. The 4k presentation looks reasonable, occasionally very good (Executioners looks clearer than Heroic Trio), but nothing here is reference quality.

The Heroic Trio is an okay martial arts film, with some fun twists, but all the excesses of Hong Kong cinema (melodrama, tonal inconsistency) that make that style of filmmaking an acquired taste. Executioners is the same, but with a way more incoherent plot, and way less fun martial arts. Both are kind of dumb. Heroic Trio is fun dumb; Executioners… just dumb.

The Heroic Trio/Executioners have been released on 4K UHD and Blu-ray by the Criterion Collection. The releases include three discs, a 4K UHD disc with both films, and the films each on their own Blu-ray disc. Extras include “Superhero Sisterhood” (18 min), a discussion of the film with critic Samm Deighan; “No Ordinary Actor” (8 min), an interview with actor Anthony Wong; trailers for the films; and an essay in the accompanying leaflet/poster.

Kent Conrad

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