Even in a Hollywood debut that barely qualifies as a pale imitation of his roles as Hong Kong’s modern knight in John Woo’s The Killer, A Better Tomorrow and Hard Boiled, Chow Yun-Fat is a legend in the making. The Replacement Killers casts him in a familiar part: a hit man with a conscience. This time, though, Chow is acting in an unfamiliar language (English) opposite an American star (Mira Sorvino) in a film shot in Los Angeles and directed not by a fellow Asian – such as Woo, Ringo Lam or Tsui Hark – but by an African-American from Pittsburgh named Antoine Fuqua, whose experience so far has been limited to music videos (Coolio, Prince, Heavy D and the Boys) and commercial spots for Seiko, Honda and Toyota.
Not surprisingly, Chow rises to these challenges. For those who dismiss Hong Kong cinema as a haven for chop-socky freaks and Bruce Lee wanna-be’s, be alerted that Hong Kong is moving in on Hollywood, big time. Woo scored a certified smash directing John Travolta and Nicolas Cage in Face/Off; Jackie Chan topped the box-office charts with Rumble in the Bronx; and Michelle Yeoh is the hottest attraction in the latest James Bond blockbuster, Tomorrow Never Dies.
With Hong Kong suffering a recent drop in film quantity and quality, coupled with business interference from Chinese underworld figures (triads) and the threat of censorship that has come with the former British colony’s return to Chinese sovereignty, America holds much promise for artists such as Chow Yun-Fat. His image as the epitome of killer cool – long coat flapping as he chews a toothpick and blows away his enemies with a gun in each hand – was established by Woo in 1986 with A Better Tomorrow. But Chow’s range extends to drama (The Story of Woo Viet), farce (Diary of a Big Man) and pathos (God of Gamblers). Chow is the best and most versatile actor in the Hong Kong wild bunch, with more than 70 movies to prove his skills. The problem? Except to critics, cultists and the entire Pacific Rim, the remarkable Chow is still an undiscovered treasure.
That puts a lot of pressure on The Replacement Killers, even with Woo and Terence Chang, Chow’s astute manager, aboard as executive producers. How can one movie show Chow’s range and establish a beachhead on these shores? Fuqua and screenwriter Ken Sanzel, a former New York undercover cop, have come up with a desperate catchall concept. Notably lacking in coherence and artistic vision, this $26 million production plays less like a fully realized film than a medley of Chow’s greatest hits.
Fuqua opens the film in the heat of battle. Chow’s John Lee, a hired assassin, enters a nightclub, pauses long enough for cinematographer Peter Lyons Collister to establish that he looks elegant in a suit, and shoots his first victim, played by Carlos Leon, father of Madonna’s child.
The scene establishes John as a badass before the exposition begins. It seems that an American cop, Stan Zed-kov (Michael Rooker), has killed the son of Chinese underworld king Mr. Wei (Kenneth Tsang). In retaliation, Wei hires John to kill Stan’s 7-year-old son, instructing that Stan must witness the murder. John, hiding in the bushes outside Stan’s house, gets the boy in his sights just as Stan lifts the tyke for a hug. But John can’t pull the trigger. There’s the crisis of conscience that marks so many of Chow’s films, and the camera moves close in on Chow’s expressive face in torment.
For defying Wei, John knows that “there will be consequences.” To return to China to protect his mother and sister from Wei’s vengeance, John visits Meg Coburn (Sorvino), a forger who has set up shop in an abandoned building. Meg leans over her doctored passports with a lover’s erotic intensity. An outlaw since she was 14, Meg gives off a “Go fuck yourself” chill, which John is just starting to thaw when Wei’s replacement killers bust in and the real shooting starts.
Sorvino, a Harvard grad who majored in Chinese studies, seems to enjoy going gun crazy in a Hong Kong genre championed by her Chow-hound boyfriend, Quentin Tarantino. That’s just in case you’re wondering what attracted the Oscar-winning star of Mighty Aphrodite to this bullet ballet. There have been rumors of offscreen tension between Sorvino and Chow; whatever the reason, romantic sparks between the two fail to materialize.
The Replacement Killers, timid about sex, also undercuts the violence. Fuqua apes Woo’s choreographed gunfights down to the slow-motion camera work and Chow’s blasting the bad guys with a gun in each hand. Bullets fly in a video arcade and even a carwash, but Fuqua never takes the leap into the wild blue of savagery, eroticism and sentiment that make Woo such a risk-taking original.
It’s no accident that boldness is at a premium in this compromised film. A toe-in-the-water approach has long been the Hong Kong way to enter the American market. Woo, Ringo Lam and Tsui Hark all made their U.S. debuts directing half-baked vehicles for Jean-Claude Van Damme. The dilution of Chow in The Replacement Killers often reduces the gifted 42-year-old actor to showing off his good looks and great tailoring.
Still, enough of Chow’s star power comes through to make you understand what the fuss is about. Chow can touch Sorvino’s cheek with a tenderness that expresses emotions not in the script. And in a tensely staged shootout in a movie theater – the film’s most exciting scene -John risks his life to save the cop’s son as the audience laughs at the cartoon antics of Mr. Magoo onscreen. This comic-tragic blend is as close as The Replacement Killers comes to distilling the invigorating essence of Chow Yun-Fat. The rest is Hong Kong homogenized.