If you’re of the opinion that half a decent movie is better than none, you might give “Bulletproof Monk” a try. The first hour or so of the martial-arts adventure is fairly enjoyable comic-book stuff, balancing humor and flamboyant fighting decently enough and staying–to use an appropriate image–reasonably light on its feet. Unhappily, the feature debut by Paul Hunter, yet another veteran of commercials and music videos seguing into big-screen work, then loses its way, getting grimmer and nastier as it reaches much too hard for a big fate-of-the-world finale; in the process it resorts to devices that turn out to be unintentionally funny.
On the surface the picture might seem a sort of contemporary continuation of the “Shanghai Noon” franchise, teaming an Oriental icon with a blonde Hollywood slacker dude in a buddy jokes-and-jumps combination. But the mood of this Chow Yun-Fat and Seann William Scott effort isn’t anywhere near as farcical as that of the Jackie Chan-Owen Wilson series. Though it has, especially in the more successful first section, some droll bits of dialogue (usually in the form of gently mocking lines delivered shrewdly by the smiling Chow), the picture is more straightforwardly action-oriented. In plot terms there’s a great resemblance to Harlan Ellison’s “Paladin of the Lost Hour,” which was made into a superb episode of the second series of “The Twilight Zone” back in the mid-eighties. In that story, an old man who protects the final hour of the universe in a magical watch must find a new champion to replace him. Here, a Buddhist monk (Chow) is chosen in 1943 to become the latest in a long line of guardians over a magical scroll containing a text which, if recited, will give the speaker dominion over the world–for good or ill. (The office endows him with the gift of remaining ageless until he lays it down, and for some reason runs for exactly sixty years.) No sooner does The Monk With No Name (as he’s called, perhaps with a nod to Clint Eastwood’s spaghetti westerns) take up his job, however, than his monastery is attacked and its inhabitants slaughtered by a band of vicious Nazis led by the maniacal Struder (Karel Roden). The Monk escapes, wounded, and turns up looking much the same but for his apparel in an (equally unnamed) American city in 2003, pursued by platoons of bad-guys. Before long he encounters Kar (Scott), a boyish pickpocket who, we soon learn, is also adept in martial arts by reason of working in a decrepit kung-fun movie palace and learning the moves from the screen; and he comes to suspect, at first incredulously but with increasing certainty, that Kar is the chosen one who is to be his successor. First, however, the newly-minted duo must save the scroll from the grasp of the villain behind The Monk’s pursuers–none other than the ancient Struker, who’s aided in his evil quest by his equally wicked granddaughter Nina (Victoria Smurfit), who runs a Human Rights museum as a front for the family’s nefarious activities. Our heroes are eventually aided by a sexy street thing called Bad Girl (Jaime King), who turns out to be a rich Russian named Jade with a substantial arsenal of her own.
In the initial sixty minutes, “Bulletproof Monk” gets good mileage from the gradual development of the association between the title character and Kar: Chow’s affably inscrutable manner and physical dexterity mesh nicely with Scott’s square-jawed earnestness; the chases and fights are gracefully choreographed and skillfully executed, too. But a bit more than halfway in, everything grows more effortful and strained. By the last half hour the desire to build to a big conclusion leads to a succession of miscalculations. Struker reappears as a wheelchair-bound old man who might have been made into a send-up of Dr. Strangelove but instead is played sadly straight; a hydraulically-powered torture machine is introduced, only to look ludicrously like the device that Christopher Guest, as the evil Count Rugen, employed in “The Princess Bride”; a sympathetic secondary character is needlessly knocked off; and an utterly gratuitous cat-fight is arranged for King and Smurfit (presumably for the “Charlie’s Angels” crowd). The topper comes with an absurd “change of guard” scene that has the hitherto reluctant Kar quickly kneeling to be dubbed as the new protector by The Monk. Of course, since this is the twenty-first century, he can’t ride off into the sunset alone; happily there’s a romantic interest around to become his equal partner.
It’s really a pity that the script by Ethan Reiff and Cyrus Voris takes such a wrong turn in the final act, because for the first hour “Bulletproof Monk,” though hardly the class of the genre (especially in comparison to its Hong Kong models), is–thanks mostly to the redoubtable Chow–moderately enjoyable. Unfortunately, what starts out as a stylish bit of hokum has degenerated into a bloated, banal farrago of cliches by the end.