The Heroic Trio

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Too fast and furious, maybe, Johnnie To’s 1993 superhero actioner The Heroic Trio nevertheless has energy and style to spare, and as much of that strange Hong Kong martial-arts weirdness – all leaping and spinning but no contact – as you could want.

The plot gets kind of lost in the excess but it’s about a mad scheme to ensure that China has a new emperor by kidnapping a whole series of babies who are born on auspicious days. Eighteen have disappeared so far but it’s when the chief of police’s newborn becomes the 19th that a line is crossed.

Behind the kidnappings is a mad cackling supervillain called Evil Master (Yen Shi-Kwan) but doing the actual stealing is Invisible Woman (Michelle Yeoh), whose invisible costume renders her… you get the idea.

Of course she does not go unchallenged. Against her a mercenary superhero you can hire by the day – Maggie Cheung’s Thief Catcher (handy name, considering) and the much more altruistic Wonder Woman (Anita Mui), who is married to the police inspector on the case (Damian Lau), though he has no idea what she gets up to when he’s at work.

Note: Wonder Woman goes by the name Shadow Fox in the English-language dub, for reasons you don’t need to be an intellectual property lawyer to understand. She bears no resemblance to the Wonder Woman of the DC Universe.

A bit of backstory emerges later on, informing us that Invisible Woman wasn’t always a wrong’un, that something resembling a heart beats away inside her and that she has a connection to one of the other other two women. It helps explain and justify the film’s stirring last chunk, when the three women band together to attempt to defeat Evil Master and save the babies (who had been all but forgotten by this point).

Yen Shi-Kwan as Evil Master
Evil Master (Yen Shi-Kwan)

Betweentimes, an eat-all-you-can buffet of 1990s film-making surfeit. To lays it on with much use of the slo-mo, wind machine and smoke. Light pours through slatted windows, noirish shadows are cast and there’s much use made of contrasting yellow and blue light. As for our heroes, they’re often dressed stylishly, which isn’t necessarily that appropriate when there are flying daggers to be dodged and bullets to duck.

So of course there’s wire work, lots of it, with the laws of physics largely disregarded. The three women even do a lot of the stunts themselves (though look closely and it’s easy to see when doubles are used).

Through the hindsight telescope Michelle Yeoh is the biggest star of the three, but both Anita Mui and Maggie Cheung were the names at the time. Yeoh had only just come out of retirement the year before after divorcing husband number one (he’d wanted her to stay at home) – Tomorrow Never Dies, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Everything Everywhere All at Once all lay in the future. She responds to the starriness of her co-leads by attempting to out-badass them. Much scowling.

The men tend to be passive, effete or pathologically mad in The Heroic Trio and there are moments of that inexcusable buffoonery-as-comedy stuff you get in HK movies. There are also plot avenues that open up and then go nowhere. The soundtrack of burbling synths is often out of keeping with what’s happening on screen – big fight, muted music.

But against its weaknesses there is a lot to like. The leads are great, it looks great and it never stops moving, with a fizzing cartoon energy. This was Johnnie To’s second feature as a more independent player and he’s keen to put a distance between himself and the likes of Tsui Hark, who’d produced his previous film. He achieves his goal. The Heroic Trio is stylish entertainment and successful enough to spawn a sequel, Executioners, which also came out in 1993 – that’s a fast and furious turnaround.

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© Steve Morrissey 2024

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