Bulletproof Monk (2003)

A cartoony martial arts movie that's mostly fun, but over-dependent on rickety clichés. It opens with a classy pull-back from inside the cocoon of a hatching butterfly to reveal two Tibetan monks pole-fighting on the traditionally perilous plank bridge over an even more traditionally deep valley, then gets to sketch in a set-up: there's a scroll which if read aloud confers ultimate power on the reader, and an order of monks are entrusted with its protection. After some prophecies are fulfilled, the master of the order passes on the duty to his nameless pupil (Chow Yun-Fat) and the new guardian gets to stay young for sixty years. Then, some nasty Nazis led by the evil Strucker (Karel Roden) show up and gun down all the monks, though the hero gets away. Sixty years later, in New York, the monk is looking for a new pupil to take on the burden and is still being chased by Nazis, who now pretend to be an international human rights organisation and whose chief hit-person is Roden's blonde fetish-suited granddaughter Nina (Victoria Smurfit). The obvious heir to the tradition, as in all those Cannon films of the 1980s (Enter the Ninja, American Ninja, etc), isn't another oriental but an anglo suffering from cultural confusion - Kar (Seann William Scott), a pickpocket who lives in a martial arts cinema and has picked up fighting moves by watching the shows all these years. The smug master-reluctant pupil bit goes as expected as the baddies chase the goodies all over, and Kar also gets together with an unlikely heroine (Jaime King), daughter of a Russian mafia boss who spends her days in high society and her nights running with a street gang and who can match Kar in martial arts prowess (in the end, they both inherit the scroll-guardian gig). Strucker (any relation to Baron Strucker, arch-enemy of Marvel's Nick Fury?) reads some of the scroll, which is now tattooed on the bulletproof monk's torso, and is rejuvenated for a final battle, while a bunch of monks are hung up on torture machines and everyone kicks everyone else until the good guys prevail.

Casting actors and comedians rather than martial artists means debuting director Paul Hunter has to use fancy editing as well as fancy footwork, but at least ensures that the wry, knowing genre-bending gags are properly delivered. It suffers from that fakey look of too much CGI- or wire-assisted action, with no sense that there's any real peril in the frankly ridiculous Lost Ark knock-off aspects. Some of the supporting players - notably Marcus Jean Pirae as a cockney-accented, tattooed NYC gang-boss called Mista Funktastic - are just terrible as opposed to almost-endearingly enthusiastic in their embrace of cliché roles, which is the generous interpretation we'll put on the flamboyant perfidies of Smurfit and Roden.
KIM NEWMAN

First published in this form here.


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