Ironically, the trailer for "The Replacement Killers," the first American vehicle for Hong Kong movie star Chow Yun-Fat, has a better idea of how to sell Chow as a movie star than the film itself does. Against glamorous images of Chow, a voice-over intones something like, "From a land where they make gods out of action heroes ..." The trailer is a way of introducing Chow to the American public (he's an enormous star in his homeland but is known only to cult audiences in the United States), but it's clever for another reason: It cements Chow as instant Hollywood royalty, a star whose iconography has already been written -- all that's left to do is fill in some blanks.
In some ways the trailer seems like a hard sell, and it may have left some moviegoers thinking, "Who cares who this guy is!" But to people familiar with Chow's Hong Kong movies (particularly those he made with his friend and collaborator John Woo, most notably "The Killer" and "Hard Boiled"), the fact that "The Replacement Killers" is Chow's first Hollywood feature is just a technicality. Chow, with his easy charm and suave good looks, is the old-fashioned movie star reborn for a modern pancultural audience. In his Hong Kong movies, he always seemed more Hollywood than any actor actually working in today's Hollywood -- a little Bogey, a little Elvis, a little Bond. Cowboy, gangster and sophisticate rolled into one, he was an American archetype with an Asian face who took us by surprise -- he knew our moves better than we did.
But not even a star like Chow can carry Antoine Fuqua's directorial debut, "The Replacement Killers." No one could carry "The Replacement Killers," because it's a movie that has no use for people. It's not that Chow's character, reluctant hired killer John Lee, doesn't have his share of pure, humanistic motives (he's forced to kill for an evil crime boss in order to protect his family); it's not even that his motives seem pasted onto the story (Woo's Hong Kong action pics are often guilty of that as well, and their plots are almost always too loopy to make much sense). It's that "The Replacement Killers" has a plot -- barely -- but no story. Looking around at all that action -- much of it shamelessly aping Woo's own work (and, incidentally, Woo is listed as one of the movie's executive producers) -- you wonder what the actors are doing there at all. They're paper-doll characters sacrificed to speed and movement. The action scenes even seem disconnected from each other: "The Replacement Killers" is like a porn movie that's merely a string of random sexual encounters, each one more forcedly exotic than the last. Sure, it might get you off -- but in the end it comes off as being a lot more desperate than sexy.
Written by Ken Sanzel -- over lunch, I'm guessing -- the movie putt-putts into action when John Lee chickens out on the hit he's supposed to make for crime boss Terence Wei (Kenneth Tsang). Wei's son has been killed by cop Stan Zedkov (Michael Rooker), and Wei wants Zedkov to pay. We see Lee locating Zedkov -- playing ball with his 7-year-old son -- in the cross-hairs of his weapon. What we're not told (until later) is that it's Zedkov's son Lee is supposed to kill. (Wei's MO is to make his enemies suffer by hurting their families.) Fuqua sabotages Chow's pivotal dramatic moment by withholding the plot point that explains his motivation.
"The Replacement Killers" is filled with "dramatic" devices like that -- little flourishes that don't serve any real purpose. And the plot holes are so obvious they seem to have been sandblasted right into the script: After his failed hit, Lee knows he has to leave the country immediately in order to reach his mother and sister before Wei does (which only raises the question of why Wei spends most of the movie trying his damnedest to kill Lee, when he could make Lee suffer more by killing his family first). Lee approaches forgery expert Meg Coburn (Mira Sorvino, who, despite her tattoos, silver jewelry and studied edginess, comes off like a spoiled sorority girl) to get her to make a fake passport for him. No sooner has she taken his photograph and scanned it into her computer than Wei's henchmen barge into her loft and shoot up all her equipment with those big fireball guns. Shortly thereafter, Zedkov, after taking her into custody, shows her a picture of Lee, supposedly retrieved from her computer. In case our intelligence hasn't been insulted enough, we later get yet another look at her crispy-fried monitor and accouterments.
Lee and Coburn spend the rest of the movie running from Wei's baddies, doing a good deed now and then and flirting mildly with one another but not in a way that amounts to even an eyelash flicker of eroticism. Fuqua seems to think he's translating the Hong Kong action-pic formula for American audiences, but he's really just bastardizing it. Woo's Hong Kong movies, for example, are wound around simple concepts -- they deal with loyalty, integrity and codes of honor among villains -- and there's an innocence to them that makes them appealing. He takes old Hollywood themes, recycled from the westerns and gangster pictures our parents enjoyed as kids, and dusts them off and shines them up for a new audience.
Woo's action pictures are essentially cartoons to begin with, but Fuqua -- who, as reported in Premiere, got his start directing videos for Propaganda Films, the training ground for a new breed of empty-headed action-movie directors that includes David Fincher ("The Game"), Michael Bay ("The Rock") and Simon West ("Con Air") -- seems to think he has to reduce and simplify them even further. His movie is all style, yet it's far from stylish. Woo fans will recognize trademark bits lifted wholesale: Chow ambushing a bunch of bad guys by sliding out of nowhere on a grease monkey's dolly, for example. Fuqua loves nighttime, rain-slicked city streets and neon reflected in car windows; there's lots of gloss on his images, but they never resonate. And as much as he obviously admires Woo's gift for filming action sequences, he hasn't been graced with it himself: His blocking is muddy -- it's often impossible to tell who's shooting from where -- and his choreography has an unpleasant choppiness.
Sadly, though, it's Chow who suffers most of all. It's not that Fuqua makes him look bad -- that would be impossible. And even Chow's line delivery -- reportedly, he had to work hard on his English for the role -- is at least adequate. It's just that Chow is lost in the movie's flashiness, when it should be wrapped around him, elegantly, like a silk trench coat. Chow's humor, his slyness, are nowhere to be found in "The Replacement Killers"; he's merely dour and sullen.
I used to have a poster for one of Chow's Hong Kong movies hanging in my office. An Asian-American woman I once worked with, a no-nonsense freelance copy editor who rarely cracked a smile, strode in one day and stopped short when she saw it. She was surprised, at first, that I knew who he was; after we talked about him a little, and both confessed that we had a crush on him, she dissolved into a fit of giggles. "He's so beautiful!" she said. She was clearly a woman who had lots of words at her disposal, and yet the only ones she could sift out for Chow at that moment were simple and fitting. He is beautiful, and Hollywood is lucky he came courting. Now it's just a matter of finding him the right date.