It's pretty hard to say if 2003's "Bulletproof Monk" is supposed to be a straightforward action adventure or a parody of an action adventure. With Chow Yun-Fat playing a character known only as a "monk with no name" (shades of Clint), a secondary character named Diesel (shades of Vin), stunts that look like takeoffs on "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," and a butterfly emerging from a cocoon reminding us of the "little grasshopper" in the old "Kung Fu" television series, who can be sure?
Our first clue to the nature of the film comes when we read the opening credits and discover the story and characters are based on the cult creations of Michael Yanover in his Flypaper Press comic book. Then, the movie's first scene involves a fight on a narrow suspension bridge over a deep gorge that looks for all the world like a shot from a video game.
The whole movie has the air of a comic book about it, from the silliness of the plot to the evilness of the villains to the invincibility of the heroes. Now, don't get me wrong. I have nothing against comic books or this particular comic book; but I am reviewing a movie here, and the movie becomes awfully frivolous and awfully tiresome awfully fast. If you're in the mood for nonstop fighting, kicking, punching, and killing, with a dollop of juvenile humor thrown in, "Bulletproof Monk" may be just what you're looking for. As for the rest of us, it's the same old, same old, and not much more.
The idea here is that Tibetan monks have been preserving and guarding since time immemorial an ancient artifact, the "Scroll of the Ultimate," an object of unlimited power. Anyone who reads the scroll out loud in its entirety gains eternal life and the power to control the world. Talk about the pen being mightier than the sword. An individual monk guards the scroll for sixty years, during which time he becomes invulnerable and never ages; then he relinquishes his guardianship to another, chosen monk, who stays young while the former guy withers up.
Our story begins in 1943 as the guardianship is being handed to Chow Yun-Fat's character, who must give up his identity and become for the next sixty years a monk with no name. For the duration of the review, we'll simply call him the Monk. Immediately fast forward sixty years to the present, and it's time for the Monk to find a successor, all the while trying to dodge a group of ex-Nazis who are out to get the scroll. That's about it. Half the film is about the succession of guardianship, half about the fight with the baddies. It's mostly mindless motion.
The new potential guardian comes in an unlikely form: A wily young thief named Kar (Seann William Scott), with a heart of gold. The Monk feels Kar is the right person for the job because the kid fulfills some venerable prophecies. Kar wants no part of it. But to the Monk the kid seems to be perfect, especially as he is a passingly good martial artist, something that comes in handy when you're protecting the most valuable object in the history of the world. Kar learned his martial arts skills at the Golden Palace, a local movie theater, where he imitated the actors on screen. And I'm a water buffalo because I watch the Nature Channel.
Joining forces with the Monk and Kar in helping to defend the scroll is Jade (Jaime King), the beautiful daughter of a rich and powerful but now incarcerated mobster. She, too, is a martial artist, and how she becomes involved in this affair is a story unto itself. Suffice it to say, it has to do with Kar's attraction to her. Scott, incidentally, plays the same brash, flippant fellow he played in "American Pie," and King is, well, beautiful. Neither character displays a strong enough personality to carry the movie, nor does Chow Yun-Fat, for that matter, since he does little but look calm and reassured most of the time.
So, it's up to the villains to do their part to keep us interested in the goings on. The main evildoer is Strucker (Karel Roden), an ex-Nazi who has been chasing after the Monk for sixty years and just caught up with him. He wants to rule the world and cleanse it of inferior beings. Or inferior beans, I wasn't sure. He should start by eliminating comic-book villains. When Strucker finally gets his hands on the scroll's secret message and turns young again, he's stuck with the same bad haircut he had sixty years earlier. Doesn't seem fair. Equally evil is his granddaughter, Nina (Victoria Smurfit), the kind of dragon lady whose disposition could wilt flowers in a conservatory. They and their various henchmen liven things up, especially as Strucker has a penchant for weird, medieval torture devices in his subterranean basement, giving the set designer a field day.
There are a couple of cute bits along the way, like Kar struggling to climb over a wall while the Monk walks around it, but mostly the humor is limited to the movie's corny, fortune-cookie style dialogue and its over-the-top, bullet-dodging action. Doors are never just broken open, they're knocked down! And our peace-loving Monk is not opposed to using an automatic weapon in each hand as well as kicking the living daylights out of his opponents.
"Bulletproof Monk" may provide the expected antics of a comic book, but it seems a decided letdown for Chow Yun-Fat as his first film after "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon."
The movie is presented in an anamorphic widescreen scope measuring approximately 2.13:1 across a normal television. Like many of MGM's transfers, it is sometimes very, very good and sometimes very, very ordinary. Colors are generally beautiful, thanks to the film's art director, but they do not always show up as well as we might hope. The focus is a tad soft, and the brilliance ranges from bright to dull, depending on the scene. There is a small degree of haloing present, some jittery lines, but very little grain. Overall, there is nothing to distract a viewer from the action on-screen but nothing to excite the videophile, either.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio reproduction acquits itself nicely, projecting a healthy and robust
sound throughout the picture. Bass is extremely deep, dynamics are strong, tonal balance remains smooth, and frequency extremes are well extended. The rear or side channels are effectively utilized, as required in an action film, with full-circle surround for wind, rain, bullets, ricochets, and music, with every noise pinpointed accurately. Inevitably, a helicopter flies over spraying gunfire, making the audio menu complete. My only reservation is that the music and sound effects can occasionally overpower the dialogue, so it's helpful to have a volume control at one's fingertips.
This MGM Special Edition contains a number of extras, including five featurettes that could just as well have been combined into a single documentary. Instead, one either has to click on them one at a time or play them all at once with separate introductions and closing credits. These five main featurettes last from seven to nineteen minutes each. They are collectively labeled "Tao of Monk" and individually titled "Fists of Fury," "Enter the Monk," "Zen Palette," "Smoke and Mirrors," and "The Art of Score." A final, six-minute featurette, "The Monk Unrobed," is unaccountably left on its own. Each featurette overlaps the others in telling about the film's production, the choreography of the stunts, the music, and the like.
Then, there are two audio commentaries, one with director Paul Hunter and producers Charles Roven and Douglas Segal and another with writers Ethan Reiff and Cyrus Voris. Given that these kinds of movies appeal largely to adolescents and that this age group is the least likely to listen to even one audio commentary, let alone two, I'm not sure of the value of these particular supplements. Next, there are five deleted scenes and an alternate ending with optional commentary by editor Robert K. Lambert, followed by a behind-the-scenes photo gallery, several different theatrical trailers, thirty-two scene selections, and an informational booklet insert. English, French, and Spanish are provided as spoken languages; with English, French, Spanish, Mandarin, and Cantonese subtitles.
The best that can be said of "Bulletproof Monk" is that it attempts to add a little humor to the usual kung-fu proceedings, and Chow Yun-Fat smiles a lot. That's a far sight more than can be said of Jet Li's "Cradle 2 the Grave," which took itself so seriously it was a downright chore to watch. "Bulletproof Monk" might have used Jackie Chan as its lead actor with little noticeable difference. While I found nothing objectionable about the movie, it didn't inspire me to want to see it or anything like it again. A harmless diversion at best.