Xian dai hao xia zhuan [Executioners] (1993)

Executioners is the sequel to The Heroic Trio, a Hong Kong superhero team-up movie built around three superheroines: Wonder Woman (not that Wonder Woman), the Invisible Woman (not that Invisible Women, either), and Thief-Catcher (not that... no, wait, I think we're good here). I should note that I have no idea whether the monikers of Wonder Woman and The Invisible Woman correspond with the respective names of the Marvel and DC heroes in Cantonese. The characters don't seem at all connected, for what that's worth.

It's also worth noting that both films were released in 1993. If you're wondering whether Executioners feels rushed as a result... yes, of course it does. Obviously. But we'll circle back to that. Let's talk a little about the heroines.

Wonder Woman, played by Anita Mui, is essentially a masked ninja, more akin to Batman than Diana Prince. Of the three, she's the most unambiguously heroic. Thief-Catcher (Maggie Cheung) starts out more in the vein of Tank-Girl or Deadpool: an over-the-top, comedic anti-hero who's ostensibly more interested in getting paid than doing the right thing. The Invisible Woman (Michelle Yeoh) spends most of the first movie working for the antagonist, though she switches sides at the end.

Got all that? Because it's all mostly an afterthought in the movie we're discussing. While they're still the primary protagonists in Executioners, the sequel opens with exposition telling us that the relatively straightforward, modern-day crime-riddled city of the first movie is now a post-apocalyptic wasteland where the only source of fresh water is controlled by a psychotic masked mutant industrialist who looks a lot like the Phantom of the Opera. Wonder Woman has retired from hero work to raise her daughter, The Invisible Woman has become a government operative focused on protecting innocents and finding a steady source of fresh water, and Thief-Catcher is still a vigilante for hire.

What we're not told is that all three got nerfed between installments.

Don't get me wrong: they're still impossibly badass, but in the first movie they felt like neigh-unstoppable superhumans who could only seriously be challenged by each other and similar super-human warriors. By Executioners, groups of armed soldiers are serious threats, and there are some mundane supporting characters who are a match for them. Essentially, the second movie feels less like a genuine superhero flick than a sci-fi action movie where the leads have weird backstories.

In fact, the movies feel so disjointed, I suspect Executioners might have started out as an unrelated script, with the three heroines added in response to the first film's success. The villains really have nothing to do with the main characters conceptually (unlike the first, in which everything's sort of connected), the setting is completely transformed, and the movies came out in rapid succession: I can't find anything confirming this was the case, but a hastily rewritten script about water shortages in a wasteland would certainly explain a lot.

I'm not even going to attempt a full plot synopsis of Executioners, because the story is far too convoluted to summarize in a form that would make coherent sense. I will, however, try to give you a sense of how the movie is structured and some of the elements play out. Once the new status quo is established (which takes a while, as there are a lot of characters, both new and old, to cover), the trio is pretty quickly separated into their own side stories, which take most of the runtime to cover. Wonder Woman's husband is killed by a colonel working for the mutant following the assassination of a religious figure the mutant was also manipulating, and she spends a large portion of the movie stuck in prison wringing blood from rats for sustenance until she finally transforms a piece of metal (I think it was supposed to be a bedpan) into a mask and reemerges as a vengeance-obsessed version of her former self. The Invisible Woman sacrifices her minion (one of the villains from the last movie - don't ask), and eventually her own life in order to cart around a double for the president (who the aforementioned colonel and mutant are targeting for assassination) as a ruse. And Thief Catcher, along with a love interest who's not long for the world and Wonder Woman's young child, go in search of fresh water the mutant's company is hiding.

While that probably sounds ridiculous and fun, the tone of the movie is dour and grim. Aside from brief breaks for moments of kung fu action, the movie spends most of its runtime trying far too hard to be taken seriously. The first movie had a similar issue, but the split between depressing drama and delightful action favored the latter. Honestly, the fact even Thief Catcher's story is dark and depressing might be the movie's biggest letdown - I found her genuinely hilarious in The Heroic Trio, but here she's mostly just dull.

That said, there are still some solid action set pieces and great wire work - just nowhere near the amount delivered in part one. I did like the sequence with Invisible Woman battling the colonel on wires, the sequence in which Wonder Woman finally breaks out is satisfying, and there are a handful of other similar cool beats... but it's just not enough.

Now, let's talk Christmas, to the extent we can. Some of this movie is set around the holidays. Actually, it's possible the entire film takes place between Christmas and New Years, though I think that interpretation is a stretch. What's clear is the movie opens just before Christmas, as this becomes a significant point in the early scenes. Wonder Woman's kid wants her dad - the chief of police - home for Christmas Eve dinner, but he needs to work, so they go to meet him and are therefore present to witness the political and social order start to unravel. The movie delights in contrasting Christmas cards and holiday music with gunfire and an escalating body count. We see Christmas dinner squashed beneath the tires of a military vehicle to drive the point home: war and corruption destroy joy.

It's the same sort of use of the holidays western action movies of the era delighted in showcasing, which is notable in itself. Executioners does seem to be mimicking that trend, down to using classic Christmas tunes as juxtaposition for tragedy. The reference here is the American action genre.

In addition, the movie plays with some religious iconography that western films would avoid. The religious figure manipulated and eventually killed at the mutant's command is depicted as somewhat Christ-like in appearance. It's worth noting that while he doesn't appear to be a bad person, he's not entirely innocent, either. He actively works with the mutant, and the movie implies his fame and popularity were achieved with resources originating from that partnership. In effect, the ultimate villain of the film is less the mutant himself than a coalition of corporate power, military force, and religion. So, basically a fictionalized version of the Republican party of the time (and I assume other right-wing alliances in other capitalist nations of the time, though it's difficult not to see this as a direct criticism of the US).

The politics here are commendable, but the movie as a whole just doesn't work for me. I'm always a little uneasy dismissing cinema from other cultures, since I could well be missing a great deal of nuance that simply isn't translating. That's certainly a possibility, but - to be frank - I'm skeptical. That feels far more plausible in The Heroic Trio, which features ornately designed sets, gorgeous cinematography, and numerous action scenes, along with some tonal choices that don't connect with me. But Executioners really just feels like a case where the movie was rushed through production with a focus on speed over quality. There's still some good stuff in here, but unless you're really curious about Michelle Yeoh's early work, I don't recommend sitting through this for a handful of good moments.