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Bulletproof Monk   D

MGM Pictures

Year Released: 2003
MPAA Rating: PG
Director: Paul Hunter
Writers: Ethan Reiff, Cyrus Voris (based on the comic book by Brett Lewis and R.A. Jones)
Cast: Chow Yun-Fat, Seann William Scott, Jaime King, Karel Roden, Victoria Smurfit.

Review by Rob Vaux

How does an actor like Chow Yun-Fat constantly end up in drivel like Bulletproof Monk? We know how good he is, we've seen his abilities on display in real movies. But with the notable exception of Crouching Tiger, every effort he makes in recent years turns into a festering pile of offal. Some of it stems from Hollywood's pathological tendency to team him with some hip young star-of-the-moment -- actors who, though not necessarily bad, simply don't mesh with his particular brand of chemistry. Mark Wahlberg, Mira Sorvino, and now Seann William Scott have all shared screen time with him, to the detriment of everyone concerned. The presence of Scott may be a new low in this dubious trend; his abilities don't extend to kung-fu ballistics and his rakish grin feels sadly out of place next to Chow's brooding charm. I'm sure whichever executive greenlit this project had visions of Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker dancing in his head, but results fail to reach even that modest level. Bulletproof Monk compounds it with shoddy effects, slapdash directing, and a story that brings out the worst in its chosen genre.

At least Chow himself seems comfortable here, the gorgeous hood ornament on a four-cylinder junker. His title character surrendered his name as part of a mystic ceremony imbuing him with supernatural powers. He's charged with guarding a mystic McGuffin that holds the power to control the universe. Naturally, his Tibetan monastery comes under attack by Nazis (the only villains without a viable lobbying group these days), and he flees for parts unknown, cropping up 60 years later -- still youthful and healthy -- on the streets of New York. Chow's charm and physical presence bring an easy grace to the proceedings, and he sells his character wonderfully, even when spouting faux wisdom of the "when you snatch the pebble from my hand" variety.

The remainder of the film is a complete waste. Bulletproof Monk started life as a comic book, which the filmmakers seem to have taken as an excuse to do everything half-assed. Director Paul Hunter struggles to bring even the vaguest bits of energy to either the story or the plentiful fight scenes, which have all the zip of cold oatmeal. He can't stage the action appropriately -- laboring to thrill us with crude wirework and stilted choreography -- and the quickfire editing reduces the action to a jumbled mess. The remainder of Bulletproof Monk adds to that with a distressingly cheap look: bad sets, poor lighting, and grainy film stock combine into a thoroughly off-putting whole.

And then there's Scott, playing a go-lucky pickpocket who may be the next protector of the mystic McGuffin (as the prophecies foretold, of course). When Chow watches him flash his karate moves on a gang of heavies and put the make on a trampish street vixen (Jaime King), he can't believe that this guy is supposed to succeed him. Neither can we. Scott has a workable sense of humor, but he looks dreadfully lost amid the pyrotechnics... as does King, who brings very little to her nominal leading role. Yet they're forced to carry a huge chunk of the film on their backs, a burden for which they're clearly not prepared. As the plot kicks into overdrive, throwing more Nazis at us in eerily predictable waves, they can do little but trail behind Chow like a pair of lost puppies.

Bulletproof Monk was presumably conceived in the spirit of good pulpy fun, but even pulp requires more than it's willing to put out. The overall structure lacks even the vestiges of originality, and Hunter doesn't have the vision to carry it in an appealing direction. By the time the bad guys start hooking Buddhists up to pseudo-bondage torture devices, there's nothing left but to check your watch and slink out the back. The credits list John Woo as a producer, which comes as a shock despite the luster he's lost of late: surely he has better projects on which to spend his time. It does explain Chow's presence, however, as well as suggesting a possible means of relief. If you go see Bulletproof Monk, keep a copy of Hard Boiled close at hand. It might help you purge afterwards.

Review published 04.21.2003.

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