It's not about anger, it's about peace.
It's not about special effects, it's about plot. And acting. And timing. And caring. Bulletproof Monk is heavy on the first one, not so quite on everything else.
Facts of the Case
High atop the Tibetan mountains lays a monastery that houses the power to rule the world, but this power must remain hidden because mankind is not yet ready to wield such a responsibility. In 1943, a monk who has given up his name (Chow Yun-Fat, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon) completes a prophecy making him the next protector of this awesome power. It is his duty to protect it for 60 years, when the prophecy will be fulfilled again, and a successor will be found.
In 2003, The Monk With No Name (TMWNN) finds himself in America running from German mercenaries who have been chasing him ever since the Nazis attacked his village 60 years ago, trying to capture the scroll of ultimate power. A street thief named Kar (Seann William Scott, Road Trip, American Wedding) helps TMWNN evade capture and in doing so TMWNN thinks he has found his replacement. Thus, TMWNN begins to train Kar in the ways of the monk that will help him defend the sacred power, all the while evading the evil Nazi still in hot pursuit.
Comic books are easy source material for Hollywood. They've raided that cookie jar so many times in recent memory that Stan Lee is starting to charge admittance to his kitchen. Spider-Man debuted last summer, and both X2 and Hulk found their ways to the Cineplex more recently. But back in February of 2003, a lesser known comic book called Bulletproof Monk found its way on the big screen when no one was looking. Sometimes a lesser known comic series can strike it big in the box office, like Men in Black, but in this case, it's best to remember that movies that debut in January or February usually are forgotten by March.
I went into this movie wanting to like it. The idea of a Tibetan superhero with more Tao than dynamite behind his powerful abilities could have produced a very different story arc from the usual Matrix copycats that plague the screen, but alas, no such luck. The storytelling is severely lacking in continuity and purpose. Is it the school of training TMWNN subscribes to give him his amazing abilities, or is it the secret he guards? If it is the training, why did the Nazis kill all the monks and not try to learn from them? If it is the secret power he guards, how does Kar perform his gravity defying stunts without prior knowledge? And wait, back up a sec, how did the Nazi find out about it in the first place anyway? If it is such a powerful weapon, why did the Nazis send only one small group of storm troopers to secure it? For anyone to enjoy this movie in the slightest, I'd suggest you suspend all belief before your trip to Hollywood Video.
Coming off the domestic success of Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, it is surprising Chow Yun-Fat would subscribe to such an oddly suited role. Yes, he is a Chinese action star with a commanding screen presence that makes most shots inherently better, but his comedic timing is in the wrong time zone. The match-up with Seann William Scott pales in comparison when compared with Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker in Rush Hour, or Chan and Owen Wilson in Shanghai Noon. The most his character has going for him is to smile a lot and make supposedly profound statements on the nature of the universe that sound like they were read off the back of a cereal box.
Scott, while accomplished at being the lovable imbecile jerk in the American Pie series, is no action star. As TMWNN says, "It's about grace." Scott doesn't have it yet. His performance feels amateurish, but seeing as he learned his martial arts from watching kung-fu movies, his fantasy come to life is perfect for boys aged 8-13.
The third main character, Jade, or Bad Girl depending on how the director felt that day, is the requisite reluctant sidekick that does all the real work but gets little of the credit, much like Penny in the old Inspector Gadget cartoon show. Played by Jaime King (Pearl Harbor), her interaction with Scott feels much more natural and believable than with Yun-Fat, but her character is still loosely defined that has all the traits needed for the script, regardless if they make any type of sense when mixed together. It might have worked in the comic book, but it doesn't work at all on the screen. Chock that up to the director and writers. Excluding Yun-Fat for obvious reasons, every other main character seems to have advanced degrees in Chinese lore and custom without any justification of why they should, aside from, "It's in the script."
As explained in the extra features, the script went through many changes. I can't say more without giving away the ending, but there are at least three endings to this movie, two of which are filmed and included on the DVD. The third, while more poignant and thought provoking, is the riskiest cinematically to choose, especially if they were hoping to build a franchise. So they chickened out, chose the safe predictable route, and we are treated to another hackneyed Hollywood ending, which if you can't see coming it's not your fault, you just probably fell asleep in the middle.
Since this movie is aimed at adolescents, the producers made a conscious effort to have the good guys not use any guns in the film, to send the right message that guns are bad. So it is too bad that they failed miserably. The picture's biggest "money shot" is Chow Yun-Fat standing on the roof of a car brandishing two handguns, a la John Woo (who was one of the producers, by the way), while the camera pans around in slo-mo. He only fires two shots, and it is only to hit the guns out of the bad guys' hands, but you can easily tell it was the director's favorite shot of the film, as it does play better than most of the martial art sequences of the film. And then, on the cover of the DVD, we see Yun-Fat again brandishing those guns with the look on his face that reads, "You can have my guns when you peel them from my cold dead fingers!" So you hear that kids? Guns are bad, despite the glorification you see in the movie to the contrary.
The martial arts themselves rely heavily on wirework, but it doesn't work as well as it did in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. The subtle wire work however, where Scott's pratfalls are caught by Yun-Fat's toes as they spar, contains some of the few graceful dancelike maneuvers that rendered Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon so refreshing to domestic audiences. But in order to get to these scenes, you have to wade through long tedious filler scenes, making the actual fighting few and far between.
The video is shown in anamorphic widescreen, and looks very good on the screen. There is noticeable edge enhancement, but it is not overly distracting. Little grain otherwise, or haloing. Colors are bright and well within their ranges, no noticeable bleed in the reds or blues. A pretty clean print overall.
Aurally the score plays very well on all six speakers. The Dolby Digital sound is well mastered free of any distortion or hiss while the voices stay focused in the front channel. Directional effects are present where appropriate, but won't blow you away in their resonance.
The extra content is a mixed bag. Firstly, we have two commentary tracks, one with the director and producer, the other with the writers. Then there are a series of featurettes, six in all, but for some odd reason they are separated into groups of five and one. The first five are contained in the section labeled "The Tao of Monk" and last about ten minutes each. Individually they examine: the fighting/martial arts, the background of the Tibetan culture and the respect they tried to pay to it getting the details correct, the color schemes used, special effects, and the score. There is a Play All button, but you still have to watch five sets of opening and closing credits for each section. Most of the information is pertinent, with surprising little fluff mixed in, but the most interesting featurette is the final sixth one, the one not in the main group. Labeled "The Monk Unrobed," it looks at Bulletproof Monk from its comic book origins and subsequent transition to the big screen.
Next is a series of deleted scenes and one of the alternate endings with or without commentary by editor Robert K. Lambert. These were all good calls that actually improved the movie by not being there. If they deleted all the bad scenes, the movie probably would be reduced to trailer length, and it's hard to get the public to pay $8.50 for a trailer, unless it's for the newest Star Wars movie.
Also included is a photo gallery of behind the scenes shots.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The cheesy nature of the script is lighthearted enough to be enjoyed as a comedy, if not taken too seriously. This way there are moments where the movie can be enjoyed as what it is. Spotting the plot holes or every time Chow Yun-Fat smiles could be a fun drinking game with friends.
Definitely not worth the MSRP, but an okay buy at under $10. Those wanting more authentic martial arts action would be well advised to look elsewhere, as this one comes up short. Probably good as a rental for those who couldn't stand the philosophizing of The Matrix, but you may want to rent another movie as well to cleanse your palate afterwards.
Guilty! Director Paul Hunter is advised to keep practicing on music videos and commercials before his next movie attempt and to choose better storytellers. His sentence is to watch classic martial art films in Chinese without subtitles for a period of no less than one year. Court adjourned.
Give us your feedback!
What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Scales of Justice
• Audio Commentary with Director Paul Hunter and Producers Charles Roven and Douglas Segal
Review content copyright © 2003 Jonathan Nelson; Site design and review layout copyright © 2013 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.