THE HEROIC TRIO / EXECUTIONERS 4K Review: Hong Kong Action Symphony in Two Movements

Maggie Cheung, Anita Mui and Michelle Yeoh star; Johnnie To and Ching Siu-tung direct. Now in 4K from the Criterion Collection.

Managing Editor; Dallas, Texas, US (@peteramartin)
THE HEROIC TRIO / EXECUTIONERS 4K Review: Hong Kong Action Symphony in Two Movements

These heroes are in a class by themselves.

The Heroic Trio / Executioners
Both films are now available from The Criterion Collection in a 3-disc 4K + Blu-ray combo edition, as well in a separate 2-disc Blu-ray only edition.

In February 1993, director Johnnie To's The Heroic Trio, featuring action choreography by producer Ching Siu-tung, was released without gaining much critical or popular interest. Evidently, it was made back-to-back with its sequel, Executioners, which was released in September of the same year, in further collaboration with Ching Siu-tung; both filmmakers are credited as producers and directors.

(In between those releases, To directed The Bare-Footed Kid, released in May; produced A Moment of Romance II, released in June, and directed The Mad Monk, a comedy starring Stephen Chow, released in July. I guess he took August off.)

Featuring the star power of Michelle Yeoh, Anita Mui, and Maggie Cheung, The Heroic Trio begins by setting up the three women separately. Tung (Anita Mui) pretends to be a dutiful housewife, married to a police inspector (Damian Lau). In reality, she is a masked hero known as 'Wonder Woman.'

Chat (Maggie Cheung) is an avowed bounty hunter who relishes in her identity as 'Thief Catcher.' The mysterious Ching (Michelle Yeoh) is known as 'Invisible Woman' because she has the ability to become invisible, a power gained from her boyfriend, a professor (James Pak); in reality, she serves an even more mysterious villain known as Evil Master (Yen Shi-Kwan), who is also served by Kau (Anthony Wong), a less-powerful minion.

Buoyant and dynamic, The Heroic Trio bounces briskly from action scene to action scene, becoming more compelling by virtue of its accumulation of awesomeness. One of the first 10 films I saw when I first began investigating Hong Kong cinema in the late 90s, via the Mei Ah DVDs available for rent from Netflix, The Heroic Trio made a lasting impression on me and helped make me a devoted follower of Hong Kong cinema.

Watching Michelle Yeoh, Anita Mui, and Maggie Cheung in 4K is a truly stunning experience. The 4K digital restoration makes their beauty and humanity abundantly apparent. True, wires are now clearly visible during the high-flying action scenes and, initially, it was distracting. As the movie progresses, though, I got caught up again in the narrative. Sandy Shaw's script marvelously balances things between Ching Siu-tung's action choreography and Johnnie To's comic and dramatic direction. All in all, it's a marvel to behold.

And to think: it's all accomplished in just 88 minutes!

In my memory, Executioners was a lesser piece of work, a sequel that didn't do it for me like The Heroic Trio. Watching it again, though, I think my opinion on the two films has swapped places.

A much darker film, overall, Executioners takes place in a future where a nuclear explosion has drained the metropolitan city of water, leaving its citizens on the brink of an uprising, and making them easy prey for duplicitous villainous leaders. The city is in a state of constant protest and uproar.

Tung (Anita Mui) has retired her 'Wonder Woman' persona and is content to raise her young daughter with her husband, now police chief (Damian Lau). Chat (Maggie Cheung) is still 'Thief Catcher,' but with a bit more social awareness.

Ching (Michelle Yeoh) is now doing charitable work, hoping to atone for her past. Her former co-worker in evil has been disfigured but is now masked and known as Mr. Kim (Anthony Wong); he's working alongside Ching. Anthony Wong also portrays another villainous character, whose face is partially covered.

Takeshi Kaneshiro portrays a protest leader who is riling up the anti-government forces. Lau Ching Wan, who would go on to star in multiple films directed by Johnnie To as part of Milkyway Image productions later in the decade, plays a key supporting role, and jumped out at me in this viewing.

Each of the Heroic Trio must confront consequences of the actions in the past, even when they were aiming to do good. By exploring the characters further, the film has a greater dramatic impact, to go along with its even more spectacular action sequences. I saw a lot of Ching Siu-tung's work as a director around the same period that I saw these two films, including The Swordsman, and A Chinese Ghost Story and its sequels, and I always thought of his fight scenes as featuring a plethora of 'fly and fight' moments, with near-continuous slashing action.

That's true here as well, with several outstanding sequences that are even more fierce than The Heroic Trio. And, again, because of their increased emotional depth, I felt every slash.

The 4K treatment is equally helpful on Executioners, spotlighting the action and drama in spectacular fashion. There's less comic relief, but what balloons (?!) the running time up to 97 minutes are more fight scenes.

My only reservation about this edition is the paucity of special features. Both films are combined on a single 4K disc. Each film has a separate Blu-ray, each with their own respective trailer and a single extra.

The Heroic Trio has an 18-minute interview with film critic Samm Deighan, who provides a very good overview of the films and their place in cinema history. Executioners has an 8-minute interview with Anthony Wong, who speaks frankly about the films and his experience making them.

Instead of a booklet, film critic Beatrice Loayza's exquisite essay is printed on one side of a fold-out poster of the cover, a gorgeous piece of art by Alice X. Zhang. It's not my preference, and it's awkward to read Loayza's expert words.

Three audio tracks are provided for each film: the original Cantonese monaural, 5.1 surround Cantonese, and an English-dubbed version as well, all featuring new English subtitle translations.

Tremendously entertaining, a sheer joy to watch, The Heroic Trio and Executioners easily earn their place in any action-cinema fan's physical media library. My love for the films outweighs my concern about the special features.

Screen Anarchy logo
Do you feel this content is inappropriate or infringes upon your rights? Click here to report it, or see our DMCA policy.
4KAnita Mui and Michelle YeohChing Siu-tungCriterion CollectionJohnnie ToMaggie Cheung

More about The Heroic Trio

More about Criterion Collection

Around the Internet