Film

Bulletproof Monk (2003)

Cynthia Fuchs

Has a couple of ideas rattling around in its head, ideas that are -- or could be -- strangely relevant.


Bulletproof Monk

Director: Paul Hunter
Cast: Chow Yun-Fat, Seann William Scott, Jaime King, Karel Roden, Victoria Smurfit, Mako, Patrick Hagarty
MPAA rating: PG-13
Studio: MGM
First date: 2003
US Release Date: 2003-04-16

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.

Music


Books


Film


Recent
Television

'Everything's Gonna Be Okay' Is  Better Than Okay

The first season of Freeform's Everything's Gonna Be Okay is a funny, big-hearted love letter to family.

Music

Jordan Rakei Breathes New Life Into Soul Music

Jordan Rakei is a restless artistic spirit who brings R&B, jazz, hip-hop, and pop craft into his sumptuous, warm music. Rakei discusses his latest album and new music he's working on that will sound completely different from everything he's done so far.

Reviews

Country Music's John Anderson Counts the 'Years'

John Anderson, who continues to possess one of country music's all-time great voices, contemplates life, love, mortality, and resilience on Years.

Music

Rory Block's 'Prove It on Me' Pays Tribute to Women's Blues

The songs on Rory Block's Prove It on Me express the strength of female artists despite their circumstances as second class citizens in both the musical world and larger American society.

Music

The 50 Best Post-Punk Albums Ever: Part 3, Echo & the Bunnymen to Lizzy Mercier Descloux

This week we are celebrating the best post-punk albums of all-time and today we have part three with Echo & the Bunnymen, Cabaret Voltaire, Pere Ubu and more.

Books

Wendy Carlos: Musical Pioneer, Reluctant Icon

Amanda Sewell's vastly informative new biography on musical trailblazer Wendy Carlos is both reverent and honest.

Music

British Folk Duo Orpine Share Blissful New Song "Two Rivers" (premiere)

Orpine's "Two Rivers" is a gently undulating, understated folk song that provides a welcome reminder of the enduring majesty of nature.

Music

Blesson Roy Gets "In Tune With the Moon" (premiere)

Terry Borden was a member of slowcore pioneers Idaho and a member of Pete Yorn's band. Now he readies the debut of Blesson Roy and shares "In Tune With the Moon".

Books

In 'Wandering Dixie', Discovering the Jewish South Is Part of Discovering Self

Sue Eisenfeld's Wandering Dixie is not only a collection of dispatches from the lost Jewish South but also a journey of self-discovery.

Music

Bill Withers and the Curse of the Black Genius

"Lean on Me" singer-songwriter Bill Withers was the voice of morality in an industry without honor. It's amazing he lasted this long.

Film

Jeff Baena Explores the Intensity of Mental Illness in His Mystery, 'Horse Girl'

Co-writer and star Alison Brie's unreliable narrator in Jeff Baena's Horse Girl makes for a compelling story about spiraling into mental illness.

Music

Pokey LaFarge Hits 'Rock Bottom' on His Way Up

Americana's Pokey LaFarge performs music in front of an audience as a way of conquering his personal demons on Rock Bottom.

Music

Joni Mitchell's 'Shine' Is More Timely and Apt Than Ever

Joni Mitchell's 2007 eco-nightmare opus, Shine is more timely and apt than ever, and it's out on vinyl for the first time.

Music

'Live at Carnegie Hall' Captures Bill Withers at His Grittiest and Most Introspective

Bill Withers' Live at Carnegie Hall manages to feel both exceptionally funky and like a new level of grown-up pop music for its time.

Music

Dual Identities and the Iranian Diaspora: Sepehr Debuts 'Shaytoon'

Electronic producer Sepehr discusses his debut album releasing Friday, sparing no detail on life in the Iranian diaspora, the experiences of being raised by ABBA-loving Persian rug traders, and the illegal music stores that still litter modern Iran.

Television

From the Enterprise to the Discovery: The Decline and Fall of Utopian Technology and the Liberal Dream

The technology and liberalism of recent series such as Star Trek: Discovery, Star Trek: Picard, and the latest Doctor Who series have more in common with Harry Potter's childish wand-waving than Gene Roddenberry's original techno-utopian dream.

Music

The 50 Best Post-Punk Albums Ever: Part 2, The B-52's to Magazine

This week we are celebrating the best post-punk albums of all-time and today we have part two with the Cure, Mission of Burma, the B-52's and more.

Music

Emily Keener's "Boats" Examines Our Most Treasured Relationships (premiere)

Folk artist Emily Keener's "Boats" offers a warm look back on the road traveled so far—a heartening reflection for our troubled times.

Music

Paul Weller - "Earth Beat" (Singles Going Steady)

Paul Weller's singular modes as a soul man, guitar hero, and techno devotee converge into a blissful jam about hope for the earth on "Earth Beat".

Games

On Point and Click Adventure Games with Creator Joel Staaf Hästö

Point and click adventure games, says Kathy Rain and Whispers of a Machine creator Joel Staaf Hästö, hit a "sweet spot" between puzzles that exercise logical thinking and stories that stimulate emotions.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews
Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.