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Bulletproof Monk

MGM // PG-13 // September 9, 2003
List Price: $26.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by J. Doyle Wallis | posted September 4, 2003 | E-mail the Author
Every sixty years, someone is chosen to be the protector of The Scroll of the Ultimate, a mystical text that contains the secrets to great power and near infinite vitality. In 1943, a Tibetan monk (Chow Yun Fat) takes on this responsibility and becomes the Monk With No Name. Immediately he finds himself on the run from a Nazi commander, Strucker (Karel Roden), who wants the scroll for his own nefarious needs.

Cut to sixty years later and the monk crosses paths with New York pickpocket and self taught martial artist Kar (Sean William Scott). When they meet, Kar has run into trouble with a gang called The Crew and fallen for one of its members, Bad Girl/Jade (Jamie King), a Russian Mafioso princess. After witnessing Kar in an act of selflessness and using fighting skills, the monk believes that Kar may meet the prophecies that point to his successor. But, for Kar, it takes some convincing. It isn't every day a parable spouting monk starts following you around and getting you mixed up with mystical scrolls and crazed Nazi geniuses who have dedicated their lives to hunting eternal life and superhuman power.

Very loosely based on a comic that nobody read, the film Bulletproof Monk lacks chemistry. And I don't just mean the obvious chemistry you think of in film- chemistry between actors. While it is missing that, it also seems to lack chemistry in every major department. From the comedy in the script to the lack of tension and style in the fight choreography, it fails with every major element it wants to work on. They do their best, but Yun Fat and Scott never gel and Scott and King are completely unconvincing as a scrappy lovestruck couple. The film repeats the same Eastern parable jokes, and I didn't manage the slightest giggle at the first one, let alone the twenty or so more that followed. The fighting is all pretty unremarkable, with wirework that has little fluidity, and the finale is ill-staged in a dull location.

It is also a good example of bad, blatant CGI. Yes, it may be a comic book fantasy film, but scenes like the opening fight on a rope bridge suspended across a deep cavern is so obviously computer enhanced, you wonder why anyone would allow it. The real annoyance is, the backdrop doesn't look the slightest bit convincing or even particularly pretty, yet it had to be more expensive than the traditional method of a matte painting. Slapping a Motel 6 painting in the background would have looked better. So, what is the point of a CGI backdrop if it doesn't look good and a cheaper method could have been used for the background? I assume their reasoning is that because CGI is more expensive and new it must be better.

They went to all sorts of trouble to carefully erase the wirework wires, yet you can often clearly see the harness rigging underneath the actors clothes. That is something I can forgive in cheaper HK films, but not in something with Bulletproof Monk's budget. It is pretty telling that, in the film, Kar lives above an old chop socky movie theater with Descendant of Wing Chun on the marquee. Descendant of Wing Chun probably cost about half of Jamie King's hairdresser's salary, and it is far more entertaining than Bulletproof Monk.

I've been watching Chow Yun Fat for well over a decade now and through his HK film career I've seen him in just about every genre possible, except for maybe porno and animation. I've watched him in macho gunplay, in silly comedy, in melodrama, in romance, in fantasy b-films, and in buddy action films. Yet, he didn't really do martial arts films. I assume because of the success of Crouching Tiger and the general Western assumption that because he's Asian he must be suited as a martial hero, that was the thinking behind this film becoming a project directly aimed at him. But, I just don't think it is his strong suit, or at least, not when directed in the sloppy ways he is in Bulletproof Monks fights.

In his HK days, what made Yun Fat an engaging actor was that, no matter if it was a star vehicle or a small slumming film, he always seemed to have some degree of gusto and passion for his roles. He still has charisma, but since making the US move, his output has dwindled and his films just don't click. Part of it probably has a lot to do with directors ill-suited for the genres and often first timers, like this and Replacement Killers. But the largest factor, I think, is the Hollywood industries way of working. It only took a whopping twelve producers to make Bulletproof Monk, including John Woo and Yun Fat's former manager Terrence Chang. It is another overscrutinized, mass appeal, PG-13 action film with a Hollywood jury assigned to make sure Bulletproof Monk was as commercial as possible (which, according to the box office, didn't work). In the process, it just becomes a diluted mess, and all the charming smiles of Chow Yun Fat cannot save it... Oh well, at least the soundtrack wasn't a bunch of Top 40 hip hop.

The DVD: MGM

Picture: Anamorphic Widecreen. I was actually surprised at how subdued the cinematography turned out. Director Paul Hunter, known for flashy music videos, opted for a grittier, stark look, resulting in a fairly gray and grainy film. While there are moments with splashes of vibrancy, it is a pretty uninteresting looking film and the colors and contrast were not especially striking or deep. The transfer is a bit soft. On a smaller set it wasn't too noticeable, but when I tried a bigger tv, the softness and little bits of edge enhancement were more noticeable. Still, the transfer is pretty fair, no other technical quibbles and the print pretty is clean. But, for a film this new, you think those little quirks could be worked out.

Sound: Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround with optional English subtitles. Here was yet another surprise. And, not a very good one. The mix and use of sound was pretty unimpressive for a Hollywood action film with a fairly good budget behind it. Mainly where it seemed the most lacking was in the sound fx. Whether it came to gunfire, punches, booms, or the sound of helicopter blades, the fx just seemed a bit thin. The dialogue is presented well, and even Yun Fats shaky pronunciation of English is clear and easy to hear. Due to the fx weakness, the music ends up being the most dynamic part of the soundtrack and has the most benift from the surround presentation.

Extras: Chapter Selections--- Trailers (Theatrical, Soundtrack, one for the Great Escape video game, and a couple more MGM titles)--- Photo Gallery--- Five Deleted Scenes with the option of some very blasé editor commentary. Very interesting scenes, including an alternate opening. Most involve the finale where The Crew helping out with the final battle was cut out of the film.--- Tao of Monk, several featurettes on the making of the film: Fists of Fury (7:05), Enter the Monk (19:53), Zen Palette (9:52), Smoke & Mirrors (8:03), Art of Score (10:32), and Monk Unrobed (6:57).--- Two Commentary Tracks. Track One with director Paul Hunter and producers Douglas Segal and Charles Roven. Track Two with writers Cyrus Voris and Ethan Reiff... Since I did not enjoy the film, I'll spare you my comments on the production docs and commentary, suffice to say that there was a lot of patting each other on the back. Also, I found it pretty telling on the "Zen Palette" production design doc, two people in departments of the films visual design gave differing statements, one saying they were aiming for a "realistic" approach, the other saying an "unreal" look. It is kind of telling that they weren't on the same page.

Conclusion: While the transfer of sound and image is less than perfection, MGM does deliver in terms of extras. So, for anyone who is a fan, the DVD transfer delivers enough to warrant purchasing the disc. But, I am no fan of this film. I highly doubt many people with a decent action film library will want to add this film to their collection. Lackluster fights, synthetic comedy, stale performances. Save yourself some money and, at the most, only rent it.

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