" I always wanted to be a criminal I guess. Not this big a one. "
— Martin Sheen, Badlands

MRQE Top Critic

The Great Train Robbery

(review...)

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Maybe it was the caterer they used on the production of The Replacement Killers. Perhaps a Folgers saboteur infiltrated and switched coffees, replacing regular with decaf. That might explain why nobody put much effort into the making of this movie.

Zeedo (Michael Rooker), a cop, breaks up a big drug deal and kills the kingpin who will not surrender. The kingpin’s father, the local Chinese godfather, naturally wants revenge.

John Lee (Chow Yun-Fat), in debt to the godfather, is assigned to assassinate Zeedo’s 10-year old son. Lee gets the kid in his sites but finds he doesn’t have the heart to kill a child.

Refusing the godfather’s assignment will mean death if he stays in town, so Lee tries to leave the country by getting a passport from forger Meg Coburn (Mira Sorvino). Before Lee can get his passport, the godfather’s henchmen track him to Coburn’s apartment, and wreck the place. Lee and Coburn take it on the lam.

The plot doesn’t sound awful, but it certainly doesn’t sound original. The other components of this movie are the same way: they’re workable, if not original, but they lack the shine of elbow grease.

For instance, the bad guys are introduced as drug dealers. Drug dealers in an action movie might as well be made of catsup-filled cardboard. No action movie criminal is less interesting or less threatening than a drug dealer. These guys are dressed perfectly for the role, wearing expensive suits and dark shades. They are wealthy, smooth, and deadly. Years of the TV show COPS showing us wiry, ugly, nervous drug dealers hasn’t scratched the surface of this movie stereotype yet. A token twist on this archetype would have helped the movie immensely, but it was apparently too much effort.

Then there was a potentially interesting cat and mouse sequence in a car wash, but Fuqua and editor Jay Lash Cassidy minced it. Quickly-cut closeups of blazing guns, and the lack of any sort of establishing shot, ensured that the audience wouldn’t have any idea what was going on. It looked interesting, but it had no real meaning until we saw who was left standing. It would have been better to choreograph the whole sequence, but that takes more work. It’s easier to just splice lots of quick shots of guns, which they did.

Later, after a don’t-think-but-act super shootout, the bad guys get the drop on our heroes. Do they kill them in the heat of the moment? Of course not. Instead, they calm down enough to reveal their evil plans. It would be better to let the heroes learn about the plans through their own ingenuity and cunning, but it’s easier to just write a scene where the bad guys spill their guts and leave the heroes for dead.

There are some parts of the movie that are just plain bad. No amount of effort is likely to have helped the immature dialogue or the flat emotion. For example, the godfather is very deeply moved by the death of his child, so deeply that he vows a personal revenge. His grief takes the form of a four-word segue: “A child is irreplaceable... which brings me to your task...”

Occasionally the movie makes the mistake of asking for emotional involvement. An officer is killed, a child is threatened. But these shallow attempts to elicit feelings are a waste of time in a movie with such callous and deadly killing. Real emotion is hard to put into an action movie. It’s easier to sprinkle in a dab so you know what the characters’ motivations are. It would have been better to leave it out entirely.

Eventually the movie picks up a bit. When Meg and Lee are on the run, the pace is good and they get to do some fun butt-kicking. Mira is eventually allowed to hold a gun and pull the trigger a few times. A shootout in a theater was tense and exciting.

Also, the action cinematography was pretty good. The camera takes some interesting points of view. In the car wash sequence, Yun-Fat polishes off a drug dealer from an oil-change creeper. The opening sequence shows Yun-Fat from an extremely low angle, making him an immensely imposing figure. It’s too bad that these shots weren’t edited any better, because in and of themselves, they looked pretty good.

But these factors are not enough to make The Replacement Killers worth seeing.

I should admit that I didn’t mind watching the movie. The experience itself was average, kind of fun. I even thought I might give this movie a break-even rating while I was watching it. But I realize I was waiting for the one scene or sequence that was going to leave me satisfied. A few came close, but when it was all over, that moment never came.

If I may be permitted a bit of deconstruction, I found it interesting that after all Meg and Lee went through, they parted with longing looks and without so much as a hug. Compare this to what happens after James Bond and Wai Lin (Michelle Yeoh) finish off their bad guys in Tomorrow Never Dies. I think it’s safe to say that good old semi-prude hypocritical America is okay with white men making it with oriental women. But audiences are expected to be uncomfortable with non-Anglo men making it with “our” pretty blond white women. I was disappointed but I was not surprised.