"Bulletproof Monk" produces strong reactions.
One might be "Oh, my."
Or how about "Hmm." Then there's always "My goodness."
Finally, the circumstances cry out for a heartfelt "Well, wasn't that something."
On a positive note, one might note the return of the great Asian star Chow Yun-Fat to the aegis of his discoverer, developer and mentor, John Woo, who helped produce this film. On a negative note, one might note that the great Woo didn't direct it; that task fell to Paul Hunter -- or should I say, that task fell on Paul Hunter.
This is another example -- the recent, unlamented "Dreamcatcher" being the most glaring -- of a movie chockablock with too many elements. What's it about? What's it not about?
It's about an ageless Tibetan monk protecting an ancient scroll from Nazis. It's about a young punk who talks out of the side of his mouth learning a craft and making a career choice. It's about a wicked blond gal who can fu some kung. It's about a director who clearly saw "A Clockwork Orange" at an impressionable age. It's about torture chambers, plots to control the world, kung fu movies, and so forth and so on. It's about one from Column A, one from Column B, one from Column 11, one from Column Thirteenty-ninety, one from Venus and one from the Core.
Chow gets to be charming, presumably his enticement for joining this rickety crusade. He reached world stardom as a stoic gun-toter, but in the American phase of his career he has tried to exile the nihilism in exchange for an actual personality. In this one, he's more like a combination of Jiminy Cricket and Miyagi, of "The Karate Kid," than he is like the hitman in "The Replacement Killers."
He gets to crinkle his eyes and make jokes and extend a hand to youth. The plot has him as a Tibetan monk whose sacred task is to guard that scroll thing, possession of which somehow yields world domination. The physics are a little hazy.
But now, 60 years into his task, he's wandering the world (the scroll isn't in a safe-deposit box, no, it's in that leather pouch he carries with him) in search of the next guardian. For some reason that has to do more with market forces than Eastern transcendentalism, that choice is one New York droog named Kar, played by Seann William Scott, that crooked-smile guy from the "American Pie" movies.
But meanwhile, that old Nazi (Karel Roden), his granddaughter (the blond Victoria Smurfit) and assorted thuggish henchmen in Armani suits are still trying to glom onto the scroll. Meanwhile, a chick named Jade (Jamie King) is hanging around, kung fuing it up, too.
Well, it never makes much sense. Okay, you say, it's martial arts, it doesn't have to make sense. Fair enough.
But I think the film would have been helped, even within the narrow scope of its ambitions, if instead of the genial Chow, it had starred an authentic martial arts practitioner. And it would have helped if instead of the angularly amusing Scott, the kid role had also gone to someone who knew a kung from a fu.
As it is, the fighting sequences are all computer-assisted. They're not young Jackie Chan exhibitions of blinding speed, grace, courage and stamina; rather, they're some kid sitting at a computer terminal, hitting keys that cause gravity and physics and logic to take a nap while Chow corkscrews through the air 17 times, does a double back flip and kicks somebody's teeth out.
Hey, Jackie Chan could do that for real.
Bulletproof Monk (105 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for stylized violence.