Screen Reviews

Bulletproof Monk

Bulletproof Monk

directed by Paul Hunter

starring Chow Yun-Fat, Seann William Scott, Jaime King


If I could make a big-budget, Hollywood kung fu movie based on a popular comic book and with Chow Yun-Fat as its star, it wouldn’t resemble Bulletproof Monk (MGM) — opening in theaters nationwide April 16 — in any way. Then again, my credentials and experience hardly match that of director Paul Hunter, a prolific music-video and commercial creator whose biggest claim to fame is the direction of Moulin Rouge‘s “Divas” video.

In Bulletproof Monk, Yun-Fat stars as a Tibetan Buddhist monk/kung fu master with no name who, as a young disciple in 1943, is charged with the protection of a mystical, all-powerful scroll; his mission is to last 60 years, when his duties are to be passed along to someone who fulfills an ancient prophecy. Of course, 1943 is smack-dab in the middle of WWII, and WWII and mystical scrolls can mean only one thing. In true Indiana Jones fashion, a maniacal, scroll-seeking Nazi SS officer (Karel Roden) and his goons storm the Tibetan temple while “the Bulletproof Monk” grips the cauldron of hot coals with his forearms, searing the dragon tattoo…ok, the cauldron-tattoo part is from another film, but it would have fit in nicely here.

Flash-forward to 2003, and the Monk (whose age is defied by the power of the scroll) is roaming New York, doing good deeds while being chased by more goons (shades of Kwai Chang Caine!). While running from this hit squad (mercenaries hired by the almost-deceased Nazi-maniac, and his icyevil grand-daughter, Nina, played by Victoria Smurfit), he encounters Kar (Seann William Scott, of American Pie and Dude, Where’s My Car? ), a pick-pocket by day/film projectionist by night, in a subway. Together, they free a young girl trapped on the tracks; intrigued by Kar’s selfless act, the Monk shadows the slack-jawed thief, and watches him in action against a menacing gang — where the outnumbered novice is rescued by gang-harlot “Bad Girl” (Jaime King). Afterwards, the Monk winds up crashing at Kar’s loft — conveniently situated above his place of employment — “the Golden Palace” (legendary supporting actor Mako has three, too-brief scenes as the theater’s garrulous owner).

After besting a stupefied Kar (whose comparatively awkward fighting style is gleaned from watching the Palace’s low-budget, vintage chop-socky flicks) in a brief tussle, the proverb-spouting Monk begins to suspect that the young man is the “chosen one” prophesied by his predecessors.

The gimmick to Bulletproof Monk is the defiance of gravity, an art form originally popularized by Hong Kong filmmakers in the 1970s and later digitally redefined in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. In its latest incarnation, the levitating monk tells the young street fighter that the secret to it all is simple — “You walk on air as if you were stepping on a stone… all you have to do is believe.” Sort of like the Peter Pan formula, sans pixie dust. However, this device — apart from a captivating opening sequence — doesn’t reach it’s gasp-inducing potential in the film.

The snoozy story — amazingly enough, produced by John Woo, Terence Chang and Douglas Segal — goes even further downhill from there. With mostly inane dialogue, a script that seems to have been written by three different, Alzheimer’s-stricken writers, and alternately slow and choppy pacing, Bulletproof Monk flows like a turn-of-the-’80s TV movie filling a 1 AM time slot. The subway gang, led by the believably villainous Mr. Funktastic (Marcus Jean Pirae) is never seen again. Character development on either side of the good guy-bad guy fence is almost nonexistent. Sean William Scott, a graduate of the Keanu Reeves School of Acting, does a passable job playing a dolt, but his leering countenance begs for a roundhouse kick to the cranium. Furthermore, Kar’s “love interest” subplot with “Bad Girl” is about as shallow as a bird bath, with its own laughably improbable conclusion.

Characters get hit with lead pipes and take nasty falls seemingly without injury — in fact, there isn’t any blood-and-guts violence to be found, if one is looking for such realism. A bizarre sado-masochistic Mengele-torture angle adds confusion to the final chapter. And, in a cliché to cap all of the other clichés riddling this tired vehicle, the monk inexplicably loses his ability to nonchalantly whup ass in the finale – when he’s thrown around like a rag doll by the rejuvenated Nazi madman.

The most heinous crime that Bulletproof Monk‘s creators have committed is the incredible waste of Chow Yun-Fat’s talent. The “Cary Grant of Asia’s” deadpan demeanor and wry sense of humor keeps the film above straight-to-video level. Until recently, Yun-Fat, a la Eastwood, was known primarily for his handiness with a firearm, not a fist — he became a superstar in the Orient with a series of brooding, guilt-and-revenge-driven gunfighter roles. Oddly enough, Bulletproof Monk‘s best action sequence (one of a surprising few) reprises his famous bloodbath-creating persona. Leaping on top of a car (in slo-mo, naturally), brandishing two confiscated handguns, his overcoat whirling about him — Yun-Fat is at his stylish best. Unfortunately, he’s a peaceful monk this time around, so instead of emptying a clip into each of each of his attackers, he merely shoots the guns out of their hands.

Bulletproof Monk underestimates the audiences to which it panders — the film is not funny or engaging enough to compete in the Jackie Chan-ruled, comedic-karate genre; alternately, it doesn’t have the nonstop action or “hardcore” fight scenes required to interest the teen crowd or martial arts aficionados. As for me, I’d sooner watch any of the low-tech Hong Kong classics showing nightly at the fictional Golden Palace than this half-hearted Hollywood attempt.

Bulletproof Monk:

Screen Reviews

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

Directed by Ang Lee

Starring Chow Yun Fat, Michelle Yeoh, Zhang Ziyi

Sony Pictures Classics DVD

It may have been one of the most critically acclaimed and widely discussed films of the past year. It may have been nominated for ten Oscars (and won four). Yet I still feel that Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is underrated. Although praised, there was so much emphasis on the film’s visual style that the intricate plot, complex themes, and outstanding acting got lost in haze. Now, with the film finding a home on the U.S. on DVD, perhaps people will begin to see more in the film than just action set pieces.

Granted, the fight choreography by Yuen Wo Ping is stunning, but the strength of the film is slightly beneath the surface, in the parallel relationships of the film’s protagonists. More than kung fu, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is about two women who have had to make similar choices between the lives that was planned for them and following their hearts. Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh) made her choices years earlier, and sees a reflection of her youth in the Princess Jen Yu, played with zeal by the breathtaking Zhang Ziyi. Jen Yu is has a secret. Although she’s scheduled to be married, she has a secret outlaw lover and masterful kung fu skills. Yu Shu Lien also has a secret: through a twist of fate and a sense of honor, she has wasted her life living as an adventurer with the man she loves, unable to profess that love or even be happy. Ang Lee takes great pains to develop his female characters so the rivalry between Zhang and Yeoh is never cartoonish, and when the two duel, it has real meaning and is not merely a fight scene.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon also differs from most wuxia films not only in its depth of characters and plot, but also in its pacing. The whole film is constructed more like the great Westerns than the great martial arts movies. It is a closer cousin to The Searchers than it is to Five Deadly Venoms.

Not only does the DVD of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon contain a pristine transfer of the film; it is also loaded with extras. The film is naturally presented in 2.35:1 letterbox, and also features a 5.1 Dolby Digital mix of the Mandarin soundtrack. There are also English and French dubs, but why would anyone bother? There is a commentary by Ang Lee and screenwriter James Schamus, a Michelle Yeoh interview, and more.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is one of those films that gets better with repeated viewing. Once you get past the style, you can start to delve into the substance of the film. The DVD is an excellent way to do just that.,