The overwhelming success of The Matrix and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon spawned a new genre of Americanized kung fu flicks that emphasizes style over substance. Bulletproof Monk is the latest offering.
The best parts of the movie, as you might expect, are the high-wire martial arts scenes, while the rest of the movie languishes in the plot and many uninspired attempts at humor.
Chow Yun-Fat, star of Crouching Tiger, still needs to find the right script to achieve the same level of stardom he had in Hong Kong under the direction of John Woo (who serves as a producer for this movie). It’s too bad that he hasn’t, considering how much charisma he displayed in his earlier films The Killer and Hard-Boiled. At least his English is getting better.
A Fistful of Power
PG-13 for Violence, language, sexual content
But Bulletproof Monk shouldn’t hurt Chow’s career either.
The movie opens in a Tibetan monastery in 1943 with Chow playing a monk who, in order to be entrusted with a sacred scroll that can control the world, has forsaken his name. This monk is known throughout the story as “Monk,” or “The Monk with No Name,” a blatant homage to Clint Eastwood’s “Man With No Name” spaghetti westerns.
Monk’s mission is to keep the scroll out of the “wrong hands,” in this case, a platoon of Nazi soldiers (don’t even try to ask how they got through the Russian front, all the way to Tibet, with their uniforms still intact), led by the obsessed officer Strucker (Karel Roden), who wants the scroll to fulfill the Aryan Manifest Destiny.
The monk escapes Strucker’s attack and resurfaces in an unidentified American city 60 years later, and he’s still pursued by Strucker’s goons.
Hot Dogs and Hearts of Gold
He runs into Kar (Seann William Scott), a pickpocket with a heart of gold, someone who will steal from a businessman without thinking twice but buys hot dogs for homeless people.
The two get involved in an altercation in a subway station where they both wind up saving a young girl trapped in the tracks before an oncoming train can crush her. The two develop a bond that starts with mistrust and secret-keeping.
Kar manages to steal the scroll from the monk, only to give it up to an angry gang defending their turf. Monk follows Kar to the gang’s lair where Kar is forced to fight the gang leader’s girlfriend Jade (Jamie King).
Monk watches Kar battle the gang with a style that shows lots of potential, and he begins considering that this upstart might be the next One. He later learns that Kar lives in a movie theater that shows kung fu flicks and has picked up his moves from these films. Kar is very undisciplined, however, and only through Monk’s guidance can he hope to achieve his potential.
Dude, Where’s My Kar?
While Chow still might have something to prove to American audiences, the biggest burden lies on the performance of Scott. This is his chance to avoid typecasting purgatory by starring in movies other than the American Pie knockoffs. He actually uses this typecasting to his advantage. At first you want a bad guy to wipe his little smirk off his face, but before long he has you cheering him on, even though he deserves a comeuppance. Scott might not be the next action hero, but give the guy credit for trying.
The movie’s action scenes are engaging and well-done. Chow, Scott and other characters can fly and punch through brick walls, and we can believe it thanks to the slick choreography. The best of these scenes involve Kar and Jade. Their fighting is foreplay; violence is their way of getting to know each other.
Unfortunately, the good fight scenes are interrupted by the chunky plot. The weakest moments occur when Kar must learn to fight like Monk, and these are treated so superficially that the movie takes for granted that Kar can elevate himself from petty thief to True Defender of the World just by hanging around Monk. And the Nazi villains manage to show up only at the story’s convenience, appearing out of nowhere at times, just to get the fight scenes going.
Mysteries of Life
The movie promotes Buddhist philosophy by asking “why do hot dogs come in packs of 10, but the buns are sold in bundles of eight?” It’s the film’s way of getting viewers to think about something amid all the punching and kicking, just in case you want more from the movies you pay hard-earned money to see.
Bulletproof Monk does leave you wanting more, such as what drives these characters. But you won’t lament the time you spend seeing this movie, either.