Starring Chow Yun-fat and produced by Chow's longtime friends and Hong Kong mentors John Woo and Terence Chang, “Bulletproof Monk” is serviceable, formulaic “buddy” action fare with an Asian twist. The film starts in 1943 at a Tibetan monastery where generations of monks have guarded a scroll with the power of ultimate evil or ultimate good--depending, of course, on who possesses it. Responsibility for guarding the scroll is passed to a new individual every 60 years, endowing them with extraordinary powers and suspending the aging process until a successor is selected by the fulfillment of three prophecies. But just as the scroll has been passed to a new guardian (Chow), a band of artifact-hunting Nazis sidles over from “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and starts mowing down monks. Chow, however, escapes with the scroll, making a flashy getaway that leaves head Nazi Struker (Karel Roden of “15 Minutes”) frothing at the mouth with rage.
Flash forward 60 years. A still-youthful Chow roams the streets of New York, imparting Zen wisdom like a latter-day Kwai Chang Caine. One who doesn't much care for his piety is an impetuous punk named Kar (Seann William Scott) who supplements his income as projectionist at a kung fu movie house by pickpocketing. But by a weird stroke of fate, Chow comes to suspect that the age-old prophecies may now be pointing to Kar as his unlikely successor. Adding urgency to the succession selection is the fact that Struker is still alive--though shriveled like a prune--and more determined than ever to obtain the scroll, now relying on an army of mercenaries and a seductive yet wicked granddaughter (Victoria Smurfit of “About a Boy”) to do his evil bidding.
The script by “Demon Knight” writers Ethan Reiff and Cyrus Voris juggles these elements in a mostly predictable fashion, putting Chow and Scott through the usual mismatched-buddy paces (borrowing liberally from the “Rush Hour” movies among others) interspersed with the obligatory batch of chase sequences. The most interesting story thread involves the mysterious “Bad Girl” (Jaime King of “Pearl Harbor), a tough, exotic beauty whose butt-kicking skills and cold, steely gaze immediately set Kar's heart aflutter. How and why she eventually integrates into the story is something of a mystery throughout, helping generate a moderate degree of intrigue whenever the rest of the film is tripping on its obviousness.
What's supremely disappointing about “Bulletproof Monk” is that the action scenes which are presumably its raison d'etre are so poorly executed. None of the principals are martial artists, though all do a reasonably good job of faking it. Unfortunately, the fights, many of which were choreographed and directed by frequent Jet Li collaborator Corey Yuen, are bungled in the editing, hacked, slashed and discombobulated to the point where it's impossible to tell what's going on. Director Paul Hunter, who segues from the over-edited world of commercials and music videos, seems the primary culprit here, unwilling to let any shot last for more than a microsecond.
Fortunately, Chow's innate charm is not so easily sabotaged. A pillar of charisma effortlessly carrying a forgettable bit of fluff on his shoulders, he walks through picture as though he owns it, quite nearly making audiences believe that it's actually something worth owning. Starring Chow Yun-fat, Seann William Scott, Jaime King, Karel Roden and Victoria Smurfit. Directed by Paul Hunter. Written by Ethan Reiff and Cyrus Voris. Produced by Charles Roven, Terence Chang, John Woo and Douglas Segal. An MGM release. Action. Rated PG-13 for violence, language and some sexual content. Running time: 103 min