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Hong Kong action ends up on the wrong flight

by Kaori Shoji

Bulletproof Monk

Rating: * * (out of 5)
Director: Paul Hunter
Running time: 104 minutes
Language: English
Currently showing
[See Japan Times movie listings]

Hollywood takes a shot at B-grade Hong Kong action in “Bulletproof Monk.” The difference between this picture and the hundreds of kung-fu action flicks made in Hong Kong is that the latter were examples of expertly packaged, so-bad-that-it’s-good, cinematic junk food. “Bulletproof Monk,” on the other hand, dribbles out of the box and makes a mess, which director Paul Hunter shows little interest in cleaning up. Half-spoken sentences trail off, action sequences get haphazardly chopped off and no scene lasts for more than a few seconds.

Perhaps this is a new Buddhist approach to action cinema. If so, the enlightenment is elusive. Perhaps it’s because “Bulletproof Monk” is based on a little-known, underground comic, as opposed to a spiritual best seller endorsed by Richard Gere. In any case, despite the wise words spoken by none other than Chow Yun-Fat, the guy who redefined Asian Cool, “Bulletproof Monk” never delivers a quasi-religious experience (though you might be left needing a yoga session to calm your jangled nerves).

Chow plays the Monk with No Name, a super-dude holy man who has traversed time (being a gorgeous, ageless fortysomething for many decades) and continents (he has spent all of that time in Tibet) to come to New York. His mission is to find a new Protector for an ancient holy scroll that has the power to empower any bad guy who steals it. The Monk has been guarding this scroll for 60 years and, according to the instructions written on the back, once those years are up he must relinquish the scroll’s safekeeping to someone else. Why he goes to the United States remains a mystery — I mean, couldn’t he just hand it over to some other guy in the monastery? I guess the Monk just wanted to see the Statue of Liberty and buy some I Love NY T-shirts.

Anyway, as soon as he hits the Gotham subway, the scroll is pickpocketed by Kar (Seann William Scott) and the Monk sees right away through Kar’s irreverence and Noo Yawk attitude that here is a man who has what it takes to be the new scroll guardian. Together they fight the forces of evil (an aging Nazi and his granddaughter are after the scroll) and Kar inexplicably proves himself adept at martial arts maneuvers. Along the way, Kar falls in love with a street princess who goes by the name of “Bad Girl” (groan), but whose real name is Jade (Jaime King), and who, it turns out, has a heart of gold. Natch.

Having come this far, you might be tempted to crack a beer bottle over your head to trigger temporary amnesia, and go back to a time when Chow’s appearance in “Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon” was fresh in the memory. But alas, yet another action sequence has started, only to end in a couple of seconds, followed by the next sequence that seems to lead nowhere.

The problem seems to lie in the fact that the Monk has the distinctly holy ability to shoot guns out of people’s hands, upon which they come at him with more guns, and the procedure is repeated. You wistfully wish for a long, drawn-out action scene in the glorious tradition of Hong Kong B-cinema, in which Chow had always machine-gunned his foes with a cigarette dangling from his mouth, watching solemnly as they fall to the floor in various degrees of gut-splitting agony, as blood sprays in slow motion over pieces of furniture. Though, admittedly, one’s enlightenment levels are deplorably low.

There’s one recurrent spiritual question at the heart of the Monk’s indefatigable attempts to enlighten Kar: “Why do hot dogs come in packages of 10 while hot dog buns come in packages of eight?” The Monk seems so keen on this problem, you start to suspect this has got to be what’s written on that scroll. And remember: Any lame bad person who gets it gets to rule the world.