Just in front of me in the theater where I saw Bulletproof Monk
was a girl and her father. The two of them were having a blast, "ooh"ing at the
special effects, and laughing so often and so appreciatively that at first I mistook
them for a couple of drunk college students.
I bring this up because Bulletproof Monk made me think of The Golden
Child, that mystical adventure/comedy with Eddie Murphy. I don't know how
old I was when I saw The Golden Child (more than once). I'm sure I was
not yet twelve. I have fond memories of The Golden Child, a movie I haven't
seen for probably a decade and a half, and a movie which is not exactly well-regarded
by critics. Now, here's the question: if I re-watch The Golden Child, will
I again enjoy the movie, or will I just ruin those fond memories I have of it?
Having asked the question but not answered it, I now return to Bulletproof
Monk, in which a Monk With No Name (Chow Yun-Fat from Crouching Tiger,
Hidden Dragon) teams up with a pick-pocket named Kar (Seann William Scott
from American Pie) and a "Bad Girl" to protect a powerful scroll. Bulletproof
Monk is a mystical action/comedy. The "comedy" part of this action/comedy
is pretty good. The script, by the co-writers of the Tales from the Crypt
movie Demon Knight, has some flat jokes, but overall the sense of humor
is hilariously off-kilter. The thief, Kar is a pretty impressive martial artist,
and his skills are especially impressive given that he learned everything he knows
from watching Hong Kong action movies at the old theater where he works. The Monk
With No Name soundly beats Kar in a fight, all while holding (and occasionally
eating from) a bowl of cereal. Afterwards, he confounds Kar with the most imponderable
Zen conundrum since "What is the sound of one hand clapping?" His question: "Why
do hot dogs come in packages of eight, while hot dog buns come in packages of
ten?" (There is a non-philosophical answer to this, by the way, but you'll have
to find your own path to enlightenment.)
Chow Yun-Fat has a lot of fun tweaking the stoic warrior and action hero he's
played in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, in John Woo movies, and in previous
American vehicles The Corruptor and The Replacement Killers. With
just an eye-twinkle and a bare hint of what might be a smirk, his line
deliveries pack more comic flair than a trunk-load of mugging sitcom stars.
So, on the checklist of mystical action/comedy, we've got a check in the "comedy"
column. Problem is, the action is missing-in-action, which leaves us with exactly
half of a movie.
We start out at a Tibetan monastery, or, more accurately, a shabby low-rent set-piece
somewhere in Canada. An Asian kid with a monkey and a bunch of bald men in robes
do not a Tibetan monastery make. In any case, this Canadian monastery is the repository
of The Scroll of Power, or some such sub-Indiana Jones mcguffin. If someone
reads the whole scroll, they will gain ultimate power, yada yada yada. Someone
wants the scroll, and that someone is the Nazis. Those wacky Nazis, having failed
to secure the Ark of the Covenant or the Holy Grail, have put a dozen men from
central casting in some soldier costumes to storm the Canadian monastery. They
are lead by Strucker, the least formidable Nazi since Colonel Klink.
Next stop, America, present day. Where we get some good funny stuff, but soon
realize that the villains have gotten even lamer since the days when the Nazis
invaded Vancouver. Do you remember the earlier Jackie Chan movies? The ones that
were released in the U.S. before Chan started teaming up with Owen Wilson and
Chris Tucker? A lot of those movies had just the most silly stereotyped villains
possible, which didn't matter, of course, because everything in those movies was
just an excuse to see (a younger, quicker) Chan do his Harold Lloyd meets Fred
Astaire slapstick martial arts ballet. In one movie in particular, Rumble in
the Bronx, the stereotypical villains added immensely to the comedy. Nearly
all the non-Asian characters -- from the gang members to the toughs with suits
and guns to the main bad businessman -- were mercilessly ridiculous "dumb and/or
greedy Americans" stereotypes. Those type of cardboard characters are actually
part of what made earlier Jackie Chan movies such shameless fun. Screw the character
development, let's get to the elaborately choreographed mayhem involving refrigerators,
mops, and bicycles!
Somehow, though, the type of villains that are fun in a quicky Hong Kong actioner
don't transfer well to a movie that was inspired by Hong Kong movies but written
and directed by Americans (or maybe they're Canadians). The gang of toughs that
Kar fights in the subway are right from Rumble in the Bronx. Or maybe they
were recruited from the cast of characters who are usually beaten up by the hero
in videogames like Double Dragon or Streets of Rage. Then there
are the thugs with suits and guns, which are also as interchangeable and as easily
disposed of as videogame baddies.
If that's not enough, we find out that for the past sixty years, that crazy Nazi
Strucker has been looking for the scroll, all the while refusing to change out
of his S.S. uniform. He's got this inexplicably sorry-assed information-extracting
torture device, and it's powered by water. Why is it powered by water? Maybe water
has special brain-sucking properties we're unaware of. Or Strucker wanted his
torture machine to be environmentally friendly. Or maybe he just saw The Princess
Bride one too many times.
Strucker also has a granddaughter, Ilsa, She-Wolf of the S.S. . . . I mean Elsa
Schneider from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade . . . no, that's not
it either. Her name is Nina, and, like any good Nazi's granddaughter, she's fond
of stiletto heels and tight leather. Oh, and will there be a chick fight involving
Nina? You bet your sweet riding crop there will!
Unfortunately, it's just not a very good chick fight. Which is the problem
with most of the movie. I might have been able to get into the uber-camp possibilities
of the chick fight, or of the Monk With No Name having a big showdown with a
Super Nazi, but the fights weren't particularly clever or well-executed. Yes,
the fight scenes showcased some fancy moves and special effects, but they're
only impressive if you haven't seen Iron
Monkey, The Duel, or any number of genuine Hong Kong movies released
in the last two decades which have combined martial arts, mystical powers and
comedy, and done so with much more success than Bulletproof Monk.
Overall, Bulletproof Monk is mildly entertaining. Emphasis on the word
"mildly". Credit for the entertainment part goes to Chow Yun-Fat and Seann William
Scott. Blame for the mild, watered-down part goes mostly to the director and editor,
who were unable to sustain any lasting momentum or believability.