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Bulletproof Monk
Official Site
Director: Paul Hunter
Producers: Charles Roven, Terence Chang, John Woo, Douglas Segal
Written by: Ethan Reiff & Cyrus Voris; characters created by Brett Lewis
Cast: Chow Yun-Fat, Seann William Scott, Jaime King, Karel Roden, Victoria Smurfit

(For Chow Yun-Fat Fans) out of 5
(For everyone else) out of 5

 “This movie isn’t very good,” said my evening’s companion. “You’re right,” I agreed, “but I enjoyed it anyway.”

Bulletproof Monk was inspired by Brett Lewis’s comic series. While the movie does have a medallion, Nazis, a guy named Kar, and a bad girl who can kick some ass, it also has far more humor than the source material. Thus is the phrase “comic book” often a disservice to the content inside. It also has the titular character, who wasn’t actually even a player in the Flypaper Press series. And lastly, Bulletproof Monk-the-movie, unlike the Asian-peopled comic, has white folks in major roles. The movie’s Kar is the modestly talented and perpetually goofy-looking Seann William Scott (American Pie’s Stifler).

The movie begins promisingly in 1943 Tibet. At the Temple of Sublime Truth, we find a young monk (Chow) engaged in some balletic stick-fighting on a rope bridge swaying over (of course) a chasm. After being bested and then saved from a plunge to certain death, the Master Monk pronounces that the young monk’s training is complete. He then takes the young monk into the temple and conveys to him to a sacred scroll and the abilities to protect it for the next 60 years. At the end of this mystical laying on of hands, the Master has aged greatly and Chow relinquishes his name to become the official keeper of the scroll. Meanwhile, a cohort of Nazis come trudging up the hill, in search of that selfsame scroll. Was there no corner of the world safe from those Nazis?

The Nazis are here for the Scroll of the Ultimate, and they have no particular qualms about gunning down every single monk to get some answers as to its whereabouts. During a confrontation with SS officer Struker (Roden), the new scrollbearer is shot in the chest, and falls off a cliff. Cut to San Francisco, 2003.

There’s a very Raiders Of The Lost Ark/Last Crusade vibe to the opening, especially after those damn Nazis show up. Since the writers departed so widely from the original story, this would definitely have been a validly entertaining way to go. It is unfortunate that director Paul Hunter was unable to sustain that vibe. The old-time serial atmosphere fades in and out throughout the movie, tantalizing the audience with what could have been.

Hunter heretofore directed commercials and music videos (e.g., Marilyn Manson’s “The Dope Show”), winning an Emmy for the Nike Freestyle commercials. So while there’s no chance of his making a misstep in terms of what’s hep, there’s every chance—and, sadly, realization—of levels of hep way out of calibration with the story at hand. Oh well. Playing Spot the Pop Culture References is both fun and appropriate for a movie like this.

The movie’s Kar is a pickpocket, working the platforms of the San Francisco’s subway system, when he literally bumps into Chow’s Monk With No Name, thus entwining their fates for the next 80+ minutes. Both men are on the run—Kar from the cops who have caught on to his thievery and the Monk from a cadre of guys who dress like Agent Smith and are the myrmidons of someone who wants that scroll very badly. In the course of all this running, Kar meets some colorful subway tunnel inhabitants (Mr. Funktastic, a character who speaks genuine Cockney gibberish, is particularly fun), among them, Bad Girl (King), the love interest. Naturally Kar smart-mouths this crowd and before you know it, everybody was kung-fu fighting.

At his point, I had to ask myself, “It’s so old, it’s so tired, and these fights aren’t even particularly well done; how come I’m having such a good time?” And I shit you not, this stuff is tired. Frankly Chow Yun-Fat should contractually refuse to adopt the iconic two-gun pose, coattails swirling, for the rest of his career. (And why is the Monk shooting—shooting?—anyway?) Crazed, obsessive Nazi used as cinematic shorthand? Been there. Twisted, deviant bitch-villainness? Done that. A smarty-pants hotshot and an older, wiser mentor? Can you say Yoda? Nevertheless, I was amused enough to hang in there to see Kar, the Monk, and Bad Girl save the world (Could there have been any doubt?) by keeping the scroll from falling into the wrong hands.

Why? Because the parts of this movie add up to some mild fun. It’s not just that no actors gives an embarrassing performance. The answer lies in the charm of the two leading men. Chow Yun-Fat is as likeable a screen presence as there is, and Scott has a certain ingratiating charm that is alluded to as one of his character’s attributes. Their likeability and their enjoyment go a long way toward making up for various plot and editing sins. Nevertheless, this is not one to add to your DVD collection. It is not for the hardcore Asian cinema fan, nor is it likely to claim a large share of the mainstream movie audience. Recommended for the mushy middle and for Chow completists.

—Roxanne Bogucka


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