Bulletproof Monk is American Pie for the kung-fu set.

Reviews of the latest films.
April 18 2003 2:33 PM

Slouching Tiger

Bulletproof Monk is a kung-fu version of American Pie.

Fists of Stiffler
Fists of Stiffler

As a rule I don't like to attack other critics, but how in hell did the pedestrian Bulletproof Monk (MGM) get such warmly tolerant reviews? The movie means to be Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) for the American Pie (1999) audience—which wouldn't be so bad if it had any decent kung-fu or funny lines. There were 10-year-olds at the theater in back of me who knew the movie reeked: I could sense their bodies slackening as they sadly marked time until The Matrix: Reloaded.

Seann William Scott, the guy who played Stifler in American Pie, is an acrobatic pickpocket who becomes the protégé of a century-old Tibetan Buddhist monk (Chow Yun-Fat) with supernatural powers. The odd couple banters dully ("This is America!" the kid tells the monk—on what is clearly a Toronto avenue), then fights off an elderly (but still kicking) Nazi (Karel Roden) and his blond-bitch daughter (Victoria Smurfit), who'll stop at nothing to get a sacred scroll that somehow has the power to cleanse the world of "inferior races."

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From its opening, in which two monks (and their obvious stand-ins) somersault over each other on a rope bridge over a painfully fake gorge, the movie has the feel of an afternoon Japanese kiddie series—or it would, if the sequence didn't end with a line of Tibetan monks getting machine-gunned by Nazis.

The director, Paul Hunter, is another A-list music-video director who can barely cobble together a Grade C movie. He has no idea where to put the camera for dramatic impact or how to move people around in the frame: Every set-up is flat and two-dimensional, and every fight is chopped into scores of little kicks and punches and leaps that don't cut together. (I felt sorry for the good editor, Robert K. Lambert, whose credits include Three Kings [1999]—I don't know how he managed to keep from sneaking out and getting on a plane.)

The leering Stifler—I mean Scott—is rather amusing as an action hero, but after a great entrance (he picks the pocket of an undercover cop, then, when nailed, picks the key to the cop's handcuffs), he isn't given any witty moves. He tells the monk that he learned to fight at the "Golden Palace," which turns out to be a crumbling Chinese movie theater where he works as a projectionist (and lives on a mattress). That might have been the cue for him to showcase (and parody) old fighting styles from Bruce Lee to Jackie Chan to Jet Li. But his fighting—what you can see of it in the millisecond cuts, anyway—is no different from anyone else's.

He steals the show, though, from Chow Yun-Fat, whose English diction is so horrible he makes Arnold Schwarzenegger sound like Henry Higgins. Why not just let Chow speak in Cantonese? Or give him fewer lines? Or dub him, even? Anything would be better than hearing one of the coolest actors on the planet ask a onetime teen-sex-comedy co-star, "Kong you sepmyporogy?" (i.e., "Can you accept my apology?"). The amazing thing is that this shambles was co-produced by John Woo—who must want to destroy the career of the actor whose career, in A Better Tomorrow (1986), he helped to launch. Yeah, they made a ton of junky movies in Hong Kong, but those were dazzlingly fluid and high-flying junky movies. This American retread has the same sort of hack plot but none of the bravura. It makes them look like monkeys, and not bulletproof ones.

David Edelstein is Slate's film critic. You can read his reviews in "Reel Time" and in "Movies." He can be contacted at slatemovies@slate.com.