“The big challenge we faced in the beginning is that, in the comic book, the Bulletproof Monk really isn’t in the comic.” Quite the dilemma, considering that writers Cyrus Voris and Ethan Reiff were hired to write the script for Bulletproof Monk as a vehicle for Chow Yun Fat… as the Monk. As Reiff notes on their joint commentary track for MGM’s DVD, “He’s more of a legendary offscreen presence, this big mythical character from the past.” Their solution, according to Voris, was to “create an actual character for Chow Yun Fat from scratch.” Ironically, perhaps, or rightly, Monk is the most engaging character in the film, even if it turned into something of a vehicle for Stifler, Action Hero (Seann William Scott’s next adventure is The Rundown, in which the Rock says out loud that he looks like a weasel).
Produced by Terence Chang and John Woo’s Lion Rock, and adapted from the Flypaper Press comic book, Bulletproof Monk is a hybrid project, part buddy flick, part martial arts extravaganza, part comic book heroics, and part class-based melodrama. These pieces don’t all come together, but individual scenes offer simple pleasures, as much for their chaotic action as for their oddly charismatic pairing of Seann William Scott and Chow Yun Fat.
The action begins with a brief setup in 1943 Tibet. The soon to be nameless Monk is training on one of those rope bridges over yawning abysses that Chinese martial arts movies like to feature. A little flipping and corkscrew spinning, a little pole-wielding, and yes, his Master (Roger Yuan, whom the writers love a lot) 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.
The writers are appropriately fond of their B-movie dialogue, noting with glee at film’s beginning that the Head Nazi In Charge, Struker (Karel Roden) — who has just stormed Monk’s monastery in search of the magic scroll — shoots at his adversary, proclaiming, “You may be good, but you’re not bulletproof!” Voris adds, “I thought this was cool because look, Chow Yun Fat gets shot within the first five minutes of the movie.” Just so, Monk smirks a bit, then flies off the cliff, scroll tight inside his tunic.
Needless to say, Struker 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 (says Voris, “60 years later, all right! The Transplants on the soundtrack. And Stifler, ladies and gentlemen, the lean, mean…”). Picking pockets on a subway platform in Any City 2003 (shot in Toronto, mistaken for NYC), Kar (Scott, whom Hunter describes as having “a really good sense of humor”) first appears in a cool-inscribing, low-angle drama-zoom. 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 detour to a literally underground enclave: in a second commentary track, featuring producers Chuck Roven and Doug Segal and director Paul Hunter (who talk about green screen shots and stunts, but sound like they aren’t in the same room, but like their comments have been spliced together after the fact), Hunter says he wanted to show that “all the trouble was underground and the rest of the world didn’t know what was going on.”
This is not a bad idea, even if it has been done before, and it gives Kar a chance to show off his fighting 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 doesn’t even flinch when he’s surrounded by meanies, their leader the chatty, hard-abbed, much-inked, and Cockney-accented Mr. Funktastic (played by Patrick Hagarty, and a character whom the writers note was originally named Mr. Fucktastic, a choice prohibited by the desired PG-13 rating) who declares “zero tolerance” for any criminal who is not under his jurisdiction.
The contest looks serious, until Kar drops the pole he’s using to threaten his newfound adversaries. And with that goof (as well as his subsequent effort to cover it over), he reminds you that he’s a less idiotic Stifler and pretty much wins you over, even as he wins over Monk (watching from the shadows). The contest is also the occasion for Kar to meet his imminent girlfriend, Mr. F’s restless lady friend, a kung-fu-fighting and exceedingly lovely Russian mafia princess Jade (Jaime King), who hangs with these bozos for a reason connected to hating her wealthy dad.
Monk (who has not aged a mite, because of his special spiritual status as scroll watcher) decides that Kar has “potential” (specifically, to be the next scroll watcher). The kid, in turn, gamely fights off the gang, kicking and flipping and pole-throwing. 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.” Plainly, Grasshopper has a ways to go before he arrives at what he terms “all that enlightenment stuff.”
Monk dutifully takes up the task of teaching him, by instructing him in martial arts and discipline, and posing riddles (“Why do hotdogs come in packages of 10, while hotdog buns come in packages of eight?”) or offering fortune cookieish profundities (“Water which is too pure has no fish,” and “You should be asking yourself who you are: your mind is full of compassion, but your mind is also impure”). Kar initially resists this seduction (“I’m a pickpocket, not a hero!”). But there’s no fighting the East-West buddy formula, and soon he’s infusing such sagacity with his own snark.
The plot jumbles up 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 monstrously Aryan granddaughter, Nina (Victoria Smurfit); she has cleverly plotted to disguise the Nazis’ nefariousness under the auspices of something called the Human Rights Organization, which is attracting big-dealio donors.
On cue, Jade stumbles on the Human Rights Organization’s museum exhibit, featuring art that represents (but doesn’t “condone”) atrocities and abuses, and yes, someone even says the show reveals “man’s inhumanity to man.” Don’t you think, muses Jade, that all these ugly pictures might give people ideas, how-to encouragements to 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 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, and ends up resembling a comic book that’s missing a few pages.
By the time Monk reveals that he’s written the scroll onto his body, Bulletproof Monk is struggling, caught between those rattling 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-thrill-kill metaphor.
More subtle and resonant, if equally generic, is the evolving intimacy between Kar and Monk — their roles as student and teacher shift somewhat, owing mostly to Chow’s astute and generous performance, with which Scott mostly keeps up.