Think Local, Act Global
One of the ways in which Hollywood has been very forward-thinking in its approach to big
business has been in its attitude to foreign (which, in Hollywood terms, means 'non-English
speaking') actors and directors. For almost as long as there has been a film industry in
America, the major studios have been keeping an eye out for talent that speaks a different
tongue, with an eye to signing it up. Sometimes the results have been, if not creatively great,
then massively lucrative - Bela Lugosi's performances as Dracula, for example, or most of Paul
Verhoeven's American movies. Sometimes work of genuine quality has been produced - Akira
Kurosawa's last few, George Lucas sponsored movies probably qualify under this heading. But a
lot of the time the result is an actor or director looking horribly uncomfortable and not really
justifying the transfer fee.
Which brings us moderately neatly to Paul Hunter's Bulletproof Monk. You have to
admire a film with the cojones to go out into the world under a title like that, still more one
which accompanies it with the tagline 'A monk. A punk. A chick. In a kick-ass flick.' I
thought it sounded like the sort of parody The Fast Show used to specialise in, and
after seeing it wasn't quite sure if I'd not been right all along.
Tibet, 1943: Chow 'Most people can't spell my name right' Yun-Fat plays a novice Buddhist
monk just about to complete his training and become the guardian of the Magic Scroll of
Ultimate Power. Chow looks a bit long in the tooth to still be a novice, but we will forgive him
this because, hey, he's Chow Yun-Fat. Chow's receipt of this great responsibility coincides with
some Nazi storm troopers attacking the monastery, led by the nasty Strucker (Karel Roden),
who is intent on nabbing the Scroll for himself. Pausing only to go all Crouching Tiger on their
collective asses, Chow scarpers. Sixty years later, Chow (who, we're told, has been kept young
by the Scroll) is in the US, still hunted by Strucker and his followers, and searching himself
for the one who prophecy has said will succeed him as the Scroll's protector. And who should
he run into but small time crook Kar, played by Seann William 'I can't spell my own name
right' Scott, who has more important things on his mind - such as working down the local kung
fu movie theatre and romancing the mysteriously well-deodorised street-fightin' girly Jade
(Jaime King). Will Kar get the girl? Will Strucker get the scroll? And will Chow ever get
offered a sensible English-language script?
This is a movie with a rather cartoony style, which is mainly attributable to its origins as an
obscure comic book. Thankfully, it doesn't attempt to duck away from this, and the result is a
film with considerable energy and charm, if not much plausibility. It's an odd fusion of
old-school kung fu with Indiana Jones-style action fantasy - pepped up by some
not-quite-cutting-edge special effects.
In the last few years we've come to see a very odd new sub genre appear when it comes to
martial arts films - namely, the kung fu movie starring people who don't actually know kung fu.
This isn't necessarily a criticism, as the most famous film of this type is the fabulous
Matrix. But it does mean the film is much more likely to be judged on the quality of its
acting, direction, and special effects than on the action sequences themselves. Certainly,
Bulletproof Monk falls down quite badly when it comes to the actual fights; they have
nothing new to offer in terms of how they're choreographed or directed.
But the film has several aces up its sleeve in the script and acting departments. Clearly
aware that this is, to be generous, an incredibly silly story, scriptwriters Ethan Reiff and
Cyrus Voris have abandoned all pretence of seriousness and instead gone for a high-camp romp
which treads the line between light-hearted fun and blatant self-parody with impressive skill.
The staples of traditional martial arts come in for some good-natured ribbing, as do the
acrobatic excesses of Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon. But this doesn't just function as
a spoof, in many places it's genuinely funny on its own terms. The script is well-endowed with
ridiculous, larger-than-life characters, and to their credit performers such as Mako, Marcus
Pirae, and Roger Yuan all turn in appropriately fruity performances. Special mention must be
made of Victoria Smurfit's performance as the evil Nina, she-wolf of the SS: with long golden
hair, a cut-glass accent, some frankly dodgy screen-acting technique and wires attached to
every extremity (for those tricky mid-air flips and kicks) she appears to be auditioning for
the role of Lady Penelope in the forthcoming Thunderbirds flick.
I must confess to being unfamiliar with the filmographies of both Seann William Scott and
Jaime King, but they do pretty well here - Scott is likeably goofy, King looks nice, and they
have good chemistry with both each other and the films' unquestioned star and saving grace -
ladies and gentlemen, Mr Chow Yun-Fat.
Fans of world cinema, particularly world cinema featuring people being repeatedly shot in
the head, will already no doubt be aware of what a massively charismatic performer Chow is.
In an ideal world he really shouldn't be labouring away in this sort of film - one hopes he
hasn't become trapped in the martial arts ghetto - but to his enormous credit he gives total
commitment to a part he could probably play in his sleep. It would be very easy for this kind
of (literally) holier than thou, fortune cookie wisdom spouting character to rapidly become a
pain in the arse, but Chow gives his eponymous character depth and warmth and humour. None
of the battles he fights in the film are as protracted or as painful to watch as the one he
engages in with the English language throughout, but his charm and intensity are the same no
matter if he's talking or not. (That said, throughout the film he looks most comfortable when
speaking Chinese or posing with a gun in both hands.)
I didn't have high expectations for this film, and was all set to put the boot into Hollywood
for once again hiring a great talent and then squandering it in a terrible, unsuitable film. Well,
Bulletproof Monk isn't a terrible film. It's not deep, or serious, or have an urgent
message about the world, but as a piece of light-hearted escapism, with at least as many laughs
as there are thrills, it's a reasonably good bet for a fun night out. If Sir Ian McKellen can
play a magnetic mutant1, then I suppose Chow can get away with
playing a magic monk - but just as McKellen will doubtless return to the legitimate theatre, so
I hope Chow Yun-Fat will also get the opportunity to demonstrate the full range of his talent
before too long.
mentioning *d*m*nt**m sk*l*t*ns.