Dir: Paul Hunter. US. 2003. 104mins.
Hollywood's latest attempt to infuse a familiar genre with added youth appeal casts Hong Kong legend Chow Yun-Fat in a slight but pleasantly breezy East-meets-West martial arts adventure leavened with odd couple comedy. To hardcore Chow fans - who have been waiting more than two years for a follow-up to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon - Bulletproof Monk will seem like very lightweight stuff. But with its PG-13 rating in the US and cheeky comic book tone, the film could draw a good number of teens, tweens and even families for its Easter weekend US opening through MGM. Outside the US, independent distributors that have licensed the $55m project from Lakeshore Entertainment (which took over co-production and sales duties from the short-lived Signpost Films) should, with careful marketing, see decent theatrical and strong video returns.
Inspiration for the story came from a cult late-nineties comic book series first picked up by Lion Rock, the US production company of Chow's frequent Hong Kong director John Woo. Chow's title character is a martial arts master assigned for 60 years to protect an ancient scroll from those who would use its mystical power for evil ends. After a Crouching Tiger-style opening set during World War II in a Himalayan monastery, the action shifts to present day America, where the Monk - kept youthful by the scroll's power - has wandered in search of a successor guardian. To his surprise, he finds himself steered by prophecy towards Kar (Scott), a streetwise American kid who picks up his rudimentary martial arts moves at the rundown cinema where he lives and works.
What ensues in the script by Ethan Reiff and Cyrus Voris (writers of Demon Knight and the forthcoming Labor Day) is a standard issue adventure quest: the scroll falls into the hands of ageing Nazi Struker (Roden) and his nasty granddaughter Nina (Smurfit, best known from the BBC's Ballykissangel), and Monk and Kar join forces to recover it, assisted by Kar's love interest Jade (King, from Slackers).
While it lacks originality, however, the script does provide some nice touches of culture-clash humour (advised to pay more attention to his spiritual development, Kar explains that in the US "we don't have enlightenment - we have McDonald's, strip malls and HBO."). And director Paul Hunter (making his feature debut after a career in commercials and music videos) manages to find some genuinely endearing moments in the budding father-son relationship between Kar and his new mentor.
The two lead performances add considerably to the film's appeal. Chow is as charismatic as ever but here goes more for Zen-like calm and gently sardonic humour than the hard intensity of his most famous roles. Scott, known mostly for his broad comic turns in the American Pie movies and Dude, Where's My Car', is surprisingly effective as the outwardly tough but inwardly vulnerable Kar. The actors play off each other well in the film's more straightforwardly comic moments.
Where Bulletproof Monk may disappoint some members of its target audience is in the action department. The monastery opening suggests that the film will offer the same kind of gracefully acrobatic martial arts moves as crossover hits like Crouching Tiger and The Matrix. Subsequent fight scenes, however, including the big finale (parts of which were reportedly re-shot after test screenings), feel somewhat short on excitement and punch.
Prod cos: Lion Rock, Mosaic Media Group.
Dist (US, Canada, France): Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
Int'l sales: Lakeshore Entertainment.
Prods: Terence Chang, Charles Roven, Douglas Segal.
Exec prods: Kelley Smith-Wait, Michael Yanover, Gotham Chopra, Caroline Macaulay.
Scr: Ethan Reiff, Cyrus Voris.
Cinematography: Stefan Czapsky.
Prod des: Deborah Evans.
Ed: Robert K Lambert.
Music: Eric Serra.
Main cast: Chow Yun-Fat, Seann William Scott, Jaime King, Karel Roden, Victoria Smurfit.