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Bulletproof Monk**

It isn't every evening I get to see a movie whose first lines of dialogue are spoken in Tibetan--subtitled in English, needless to say. Bulletproof Monk, directed by Paul Hunter, commences in 1943. After a brief  martial arts demonstration  that takes place on a bridge stretched over a Himalayan chasm and that serves as as an overture to the main action, the abbot of a Buddhist monastery hands over its direction to his younger successor (Yun-Fat Chow), who has just given up his name as a condition of assuming this post. At the same time, the elder monk bequeaths to the younger a scroll with magic powers. No sooner has the this transmission of power occurred, however, than a bunch of Nazis arrive on the scene, demanding the scroll. The film never explains where these SS Männer, who look like they've been sent on a mission by Central Casting, came from, but their Sturmführer, the poisonous Strucker (Karl Roden) has no doubt what he's after.

When Strucker demands the scroll, the monks refuse. He then resorts to more forceful tactics, and storms into the monastery. But the abbot's successor has already taken it. Strucker pursues him; the monk flees to the edge of a precipice; Strucker fires on him, and the monk descends into the void below, apparently carrying the scroll with him. The action now jumps sixty years to a large American city where a sexy young pickpocket (Seann William Scott) is plying his trade at a subway station. Trying to escape the police, he collides with the monk, who is still being pursued by agents of Strucker. One thing leads to another, and the monk realizes the thief is destined to be his own successor. But not only are there all sorts of obstacles to be overcome--those leftover Nazis are still on the prowl--first of all, the monk must transform the thief into a more enlightened being.

Following a familiar convention of Asian action movies, the monk becomes the de facto guru of the thief. Yet the thief turns out to be no ordinary criminal, but an orphan who has taken the Chinese name Kar, and who knows all about martial arts moves from running a movie house called The Golden Palace, where he shows a fare of Hong Kong martial arts epics. Nevertheless, Kar is often a refractory subject, and the cliff-hanging adventures to which he is subjected during the reminder of the film considerably improve his skills as a fighter while providing him with a crash course in becoming a prospective bodhisattva. In reaching this goal, he is aided both by the monk and an attractive young woman, Jade (Jaime King)  the daughter of an imprisoned financier--read Ivan Boesky--who sizes up Kar's assets pretty quickly. 

Like a number of other recent films--X-Men and Spider Man to cite only two examples--Bulletproof Monk, as the end titles inform the audience, is based upon a comic book published by Flypaper Press and has been adapted for the screen by Ethan Reiff and Cyrus Voris. Since I am not familiar with the source, I am in no position to judge how much of the screenplay is directly taken from the original and how much is the invention of Messrs. Reiff and Voris. Under the circumstances, however, it seems reasonable to judge the screen version on its merits, and unless Reiff and Voris have transcribed the text of the comic books word for word, they deserve credit for providing a solid script with sporadic flashes of wit and with plenty of surprises to keep propelling the action forward. I only wonder who penned the lines in Tibetan.   

Although Bulletproof Monk's visual style and lightening editing hail from Hong Kong, its plot is Raiders of the Lost Ark decked out in Lamaistic regalia, with the magic scroll taking the place of the Ark of the Covenant. Yet the movie cannot be accused of a lack of imagination, since it adds a number of interesting touches to the basic action picture format it employs, starting with making Kar the proprietor of the Golden Palace. An even more interesting touch is the character of Nina (Victoria Smurfit), the granddaughter of Strucker, who provides a front for granddaddy's nefarious schemes by heading a human rights organization and curating a museum of atrocities.

Nina is no less depraved than old grand-dad, with a taste for whips, chains, and girls. But in spite of her blonde Aryan mien, she is no model of Teutonic efficiency. Instead, she carries on like Myrna Loy as Boris Karloff's daughter in The Mask Of Fu Manchu, sadistically relishing each moment of pain she inflicts on her victims. Bulletproof Monk has a PG-13 rating, but it contains a rather astounding shot in which Nina apparently opens the monk's fly, with a grin that only be described as obscene.

Bulletproof Monk has the advantage of working in a genre that has been polished to the last degree by craftsmen like John Woo--whose name appears on the credits as co-producer--and Tsui Hark. But the Americans show themselves to be no unworthy practitioners of the art. In his debut as a director, Hunter and his collaborators have come up with a picture that is a real model of resourcefulness and economy--virtues not always evident in motion pictures today. In one striking shot early on, Kar imitates the moves of a character on screen during the projection of a film at The Golden Palace. In a certain way, this attempt by a young American to become a martial arts contender might well serve as an analogy for what Bulletproof Monk itself is trying to do, although it is by no means the first American made imitation of Eastern action flicks.

Bulletproof Monk is no big budget production by today's inflated standards, but no one could fault its production values. The film has been well photographed by Stefan Czapsky, who comes up with some striking compositions of menacing nocturnal avenues. The no-nonsense editing is by Robert K. Lambert , and the production design, solid if unexciting for the most part, is by Deborah Evans. Eric Serra has contributed a score that is effective but never obtrusive.

The cast is by no means weak; however,  the performers collide head on with the limitations of the genre. Generally speaking, in movies like this only Heroes and Villains get the juicy roles, and everyone else is just there to decorate the set. Bulletproof Monk is sadly enough no exception to the rule. Jaime King and Victoria Smurfit are quite attractive young women. They might even be good actresses in different roles and with a different script, but they have no opportunity to display their talents in this showcase. As the evil Strucker, Karl Loden is adequate, but no more. He has a propensity to chew up the scenery which is not justified by his modest abilities--at least as he displays them in Bulletproof Monk. To be credible, a part like this requires the talents of a larger than life actor like Armin Mueller-Stahl.

Fortunately, the day is rescued to a degree by Yun-Fat Chow and Seann William Scott as the dual heroes. Yun-Fat Chow has so much experience behind him that he is a positive pleasure to watch. He seems to know quite well how just preposterous his role is, but he only betrays that awareness by an enigmatic amused smile. Scott is about as different an actor from Chow as anyone could imagine, nervy and nervous in a classically American style. But surprisingly, this yin-yang piece of casting, which could either ignite or fizzle altogether, furnishes a reasonable blaze to illuminate the action. The pair may not exactly burn with a hard, gem-like flame like refugees out of The Renaissance, but Scott serves as an astonishingly apt foil for Yun-Fat Chow.   

It would be nonsensical to read more into Bulletproof Monk than the movie contains. It has its origins in a comic book, and only a thirteen year old would take seriously pearls of Oriental wisdom put into the monk's mouth that have all the profundity of a message in a fortune cookie. Chow Yun Fat is a sage enough performer to deliver these gems with exactly the right expression on his face, somewhere between dead pan and a smirk. Bulletproof Monk is no Buddhist fable to be classed with Kon Ichikawa's The Burmese Harp. Yet like another highly entertaining action movie from last summer, Rob Cohen's XXX, starring the estimable Vin Diesel, this film illustrates a fascinating paradox: Why isn't it possible to apply this kind of talent to a more promising subject?

A glance back over the last five years reveals a cinematic turf littered with the corpses of dead white elephants. Of course, it's always possible to find an explanation for this sad state of affairs. When Michael Bay screws up an assignment like Pearl Harbor that Michael Curtiz or Delmar Daves--neither one among the first rank of directors in American cinema history--would have tossed off in the old days at Warner Bros. with the aplomb of Rossini penning a minor comic opera, the failure can be chalked up to  woefully inept direction. Similarly, when Baz Luhrman's Moulin Rouge! starts off as pseudo-Lubitsch and ends up as faux Fassbinder, the problem can be attributed in part to the difficult status of the musical genre.

But the comparison of a straightforward action picture like XXX or Bulletproof Monk with more ambitious projects like A.I., Minority Report, or Gangs of New York is far more damning--and far more depressing. It is difficult to know how a director with such shrewd instincts as Steven Spielberg could let the last third of A.I. drag on so painfully that watching it becomes a form of refined torture. Minority Report is, on the surface, a better piece of film making than A.I., but all the pieces Spielberg has been playing with for over two hours never come together at the end of the movie. And I would be willing to bet that only a handful of  science fiction aficionados managed to understand the whole business about the precogs.

The story with Martin Scorsese and The Gangs of New York is quite different. Spielberg is almost the only director working today who could qualify as an auteur and who also has the ability to make films for a broad audience--crudely speaking, to occasionally come up with the right mixture of art and commerce. But Scorsese's most important films like Raging Bull or more recently Bringing Out the Dead are indubitably the personal statements of an artist. Although Bringing Out the Dead starred Nicholas Cage, no one could have imagined that Scorsese expected the picture to be a big hit. If the movie flopped at the box office, it was not because the director had failed to realize his intentions, but because he had succeeded all too well. Bringing Out the Dead is a bona fide art film, and it's difficult to know how much of an audience still exists for works of that kind.

Yet Scorsese is a good deal closer to mainstream production in his mastery of the mechanics of putting together a movie. Some sequences in Good Fellows, for example, could serve as textbook illustrations in a film school editing class. But it is just at this level that Gangs of New York fails. The film is much closer to an old time historical spectacle like W.S. Van Dyke's San Francisco or Henry King's In Old Chicago than it is to any kind of art film. But Scorsese doesn't know the tricks that were second nature to directors like Van Dyke or King, and when he works up to the grand finale that combines Oedipal rivalry with the Draft Riots of the Civil War, the whole edifice he's been constructing comes crashing to the ground. Which leaves us with the melancholy reflection: in the future are we going to be doomed to choose between ambitious but embarrassingly clumsy movies like Gangs of New York on the one hand, and perfectly executed schlock like Bulletproof Monk on the other?

Production data courtesy of The Internet Movie Database


E-mail Dave: davecl@pacbell.net