It’s not impossible to guess why producers Terence Chang and John Woo might think Paul Hunter was a good choice to direct Bulletproof Monk. His video for Mariah Carey’s “Honey” does include some actionish scenes, after all, and Michael Jackson’s “You Rock My World” dishes up a few shady characters. But for the most part, the resulting movie, adapted from the Flypaper Press comic book, doesn’t look slick and kind of burnished (like the video), but looks haphazard and silly, like it’s been assembled from fragments of other movies, with scant attention to sense.
The action begins with a brief setup in 1943 Tibet. The soon to be nameless Monk (Chow Yun-Fat) is training on one of those rope bridges over yawning abysses that martial arts movies like to feature. A little flipping and corkscrew spinning, a little pole-wielding, and yes, his Master (Roger Yuan) tells him he’s ready to take on the great responsibility of guarding the sacred Scroll of the Ultimate (which will grant whoever reads it aloud power over all the world). With that, Master must exit and Monk (who gives up his name in order to indicate his dedication to his task) is on his own. Wise and inscrutable beyond his years, Monk knows how to escape the Nazis who come looking for the scroll, by still more flipping and corkscrew-spinning, so speedy and nimble that he appears to be… bulletproof.
Needless to say, the Head Nazi In Charge, the weasel-faced Struker (Karel Roden), is determined to get his paws on that scroll. So, when he misses it this first time, rest assured he’ll be back when the film cuts ahead 60 years. This next part takes place in Any City 2003 (shot in Toronto), indicated by the establishing shot on a crowded subway platform, workplace for cocky pickpocket Kar (Buff Stifler, that is, Seann William Scott following several months of training). He and Monk meet cute while running from assorted adversaries (cops in Kar’s case, Nazis in Monk’s) and pausing to rescue a hapless black child who conveniently falls on the train tracks in time to provide Kar with a test of his moral mettle.
This subway setting allows for a brief and silly detour to a literally underground enclave, where Kar shows off his skills (learned, he insists, by watching kung fu movies at the Golden Palace movie theater, where he’s the projectionist for an owner played by the venerable Mako). Kar’s nemeses in this instance are a pack o’ thugs, led by the self-loving, hard-abbed, much-inked Mr. Funktastic (Patrick Hagarty) and including Mr. F’s lady friend, the kung-fu-fighting and exceedingly lovely Russian mafia princess Jade (Jaime King, Devon Sawa’s object of affection in the mostly depressing Slackers). Just why she’s in this underground is not so clear, something to do with hating her dad.
Monk (who, by the way, has not aged a mite, because of his special spiritual status as scroll watcher) hides so he can observe Kar, whom he thinks has “potential” (specifically, to be the next scroll watcher). Kar, in turn, gamely fights off the gang, kicking and flipping and pole-wielding. Aha, surmises Monk, nodding wisely and inscrutably to himself, Kar looks like the one.
Their second meeting provides the film’s most endearing scene: Monk stops by Kar’s abode above the movie theater, where he eats cocoa puffs while schooling the youngster, who has the temerity to pronounce, “I’m kickin’ your freaky ass back to wherever the hell it came from.” Um, this is Chow Yun-Fat he’s talking to.
So okay, Little Faux Grasshopper has a ways to go en route to what he terms “all that enlightenment stuff.” (And, from Raiders of the Lost Ark to Karate Kid to Kung Fu, from Subway to The Matrix, Bulletproof Monk has lots of homages to make.) Monk dutifully takes up the task of teaching Kar to be all he can be, by posing riddles (“Why do hotdogs come in packages of 10, while hotdog buns come in packages of eight?”) or fortune cookieish profundities (“You should be asking yourself, who you are: your mind is full of compassion, but your mind is also impure”). Understandably, Kar initially resists. But there’s no fighting the East-West buddy formula.
The plot jumbles up a little with the reappearance of Struker (now in a wheelchair and weighted by layers of plastic wrinkles), accompanied by his minions (now in suits rather than uniforms). Aiding in the quest for the scroll is his alarmingly Aryan granddaughter, Nina (Victoria Smurfit); she has devised the brilliant idea to disguise the Nazis’ general and apparently profitable nefariousness under the auspices of something called the Human Rights Organization.
While the boys are busy enlightening one another, Jade stumbles on the Human Rights Organization’s museum exhibit, featuring “art” that represents atrocities and abuses, and yes, someone even calls it “man’s inhumanity to man.” Don’t you think, muses Jade, that all these ugly pictures might give people ideas, like how-tos for murder and mayhem? Nina counters with her own philosophical conundrum: pointing to the photo of a soldier about to shoot a prisoner, she wonders whether this pretty little rich girl would rather be the shooter or the about to be shot.
The movie, in other words, has a couple of ideas rattling around in its head, ideas that are—or could be—strangely relevant (or perhaps just eternal): atrocities come variously packaged, some perpetrators understand PR, and privileged folks can use occasional wake-ups (even if they do revert to privileged willful blindness when push comes to shove, which it usually does). But the movie can’t quite get these ideas collected into a memorable shape. Eventually, Bulletproof Monk resembles a comic book that’s missing a few pages.
By the time Monk reveals that he’s written the scroll onto his body à la The Pillow Book, Bulletproof Monk is plainly struggling, caught between those rattling (perverse, somewhat interesting) ideas and its ostensible action-movie imperative. First Nina and then Struker must read him: she checks Monk’s nether regions as she “scans” the text off him, granddad prefers to read the characters off his monitor, perhaps less inclined toward the perverse sexual domination, at least until he’s made his transition back to Younger Struker, and poking needles in Monk’s head serves as his very own Nazi-experimenting-as-sex metaphor. This sort of unexamined allusiveness is, in the end, more tiresome than provocative.