by Del Harvey
Dying the death of a thousand groans at the hand of an inferior director in what could have otherwise been a fairly decent film.
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Chow Yun-Fat is an international superstar, but you’d never know it by the features starring him in this country. But none before have equalled Bulletproof Monk for sheer trashiness.
Not that Chow Yun-Fat doesn’t try damned hard with what he’s given. Unfortunately, and due to elements beyond Mr. Yun-Fat, the Monk’s character comes off as part Kwai Chang Caine, part Yoda, and part Neo from The Matrix. Any of this is far beneath Chow Yun-Fat, who is a truly charismatic actor of some depth. Well, if you saw any of his films made outside the U.S., you would understand why I say this. Of the films he’s made in the U.S., only two come close to being any good at all, and they are pedestrian at best: The Corruptor and The Replacement Killers. The latter is really an Americanization of about three different Hong Kong films, and there’s no visible improvement in the final product.
Okay, I’m getting away from the story. So, here it is, in a nutshell. In a Tibetan temple during WWII, a young Monk (Yun-Fat) has just been told by the Temple’s Master that he has achieved his own level of mastery and is ready to succeed him in protecting the sacred scroll, which will grant unlimited power and eternal life to whomever reads it. Just then a crew of Nazi Stormtroopers led by the ruthless killer from 15 Minutes (Karel Roden) show up to steal the scroll, killing all of the monks in the process. Except for our young nameless Monk, who takes the scroll and seemingly is shot and falls to his death. Except the scroll protects its protector.
Okay, leap ahead to present time. The Nazi Stormtrooper is wheelchair ridden and he now runs some world human rights organization—great cover for any evildoer—with the help of his Aryan-looking and equally lethal granddaughter. They’re in New York City, where they’ve tracked the Monk. The Monk has just bumped into a pickpocket named Kar, who seems to be the unlikely candidate to take his place, since Kar’s a streetwise young man who only cares about himself. But when Kar inadvertently saves the Monk from capture, they become partners in an effort to save the world from the evil Nazi and his protean offspring. Along the way, the Monk and Kar meet a sexy Russian mob princess called Bad Girl who’s damned good with either an Uzi, a stick of dynamite, or her finely manicured little fists.
The original story of Bulletproof Monk comes from a 3-issue series of comic books published in the late 90’s. In the world of comic books, three issues can come and go without so much as the slightest notice by a devout fan in any given year, so for this one series to stand out tells you something about just how good it was. I follow comics for several reasons, one being that they are very much a part of our national culture and say something about us as we evolve and grow, and the Monk series is a notch on the ethereal timeline of America at a point when the youth of this country unconsciously bridged the gap between cultures and continents. The fact that the comic book has now become a major motion picture just furthers that acceptance. Another reason I follow comics is the visual nature of the media; it lends itself to filmmaking much more readily than novels or books. In the early 70’s a comic book artist named Steranko made perhaps the first and most complete connection between media lifeforms when he did a series of comic books (Nick Fury, Silver Surfer, etc.) which featured whole series of pages without text or dialogue, but which hold some of the most cinematic drawn art ever seen.
Okay, that was the origin of Bulletproof Monk, and I’m damned glad they put together a top-notch cast for the film. But they could have gone a little further and actually assigned the film to a decent director. Instead they give it to Josh Hunter, whose sole credit prior to this has been a Mariah Carey video. Why didn’t they just save ALL their money and give it to any starving film student? That way, the end product would have had a decent chance of being better. The film has John Woo’s name on it as producer, along with longtime collaborator Terence Chang. Whether or not they actually got involved in the production of the film or just signed to permit their names above the line and thus collect some of that bottom dollar is anybody’s guess. The third most prominently listed producer’s name is Charles Roven, who worked on Fallen and Twelve Monkeys, so you’d think he’d know his stuff. Of course, there is a list of some nine producers total on this film, so there’s no telling.
The writers, Ethan Reiff and Cyrus Voris, have worked together on sci-fi/fantasy television series in the past and from the looks of things created a decent script. But the real problem lies in the direction. The production values just look so crappy in some scenes that it’s pathetic. The climactic battle scene looks like it was an outtake shot on bad film with inadequate lighting. In truth, I have seen many student films with a more professional look. Added to that are a couple of scenes during which your subconscious mind registers a couple of other films so quickly and without question that it just smacks of hack work. The Matrix and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon are the two films I refer to, and when you see Bulletproof Monk I think you will spot these moments instantaneously. And they could have been directed any number of ways; there seems to have been a clear and distinct process in the final choice.
Seann William Scott (Evolution, Dude, Where’s My Car?, American Pie, Final Destination) does his best with the role of the comic sidekick, but I truly felt that many of his scenes may have been picked up by a second unit camera, and that as an afterthought. The very waiflike and beautiful James King (here called Jamie) does much better than many of her supermodel brethren who have attempted a leap to the big screen and is menacing, sexy, and funny all in one very compact and controlled bundle. Mr. Yun-Fat is an excellent actor and I appeal to your love of good acting and filmmaking to see any one of his many excellent films: The Killer, Hard-Boiled, Peace Hotel, A Better Tomorrow and A Better Tomorrow II, etc. This country does not know what a talent is being wasted.
Bulletproof Monk looks to me to be the perfect example of how a studio can churn out crap and expect the American audience to eat it up and beg for more. In a time of popularity for comic books translated to film, this is an injustice of the highest form.
Del Harvey is the founder of Film Monthly and teaches screenwriting at Columbia College Chicago.
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