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Metro Pulse Killer Fat

Hong Kong star Chow Yun-Fat makes a decent Hollywood debut with "The Replacement Killers."

By Zak Weisfeld

FEBRUARY 16, 1998:  The first time I saw John Woo's Hong Kong classic The Killer, the movie was hidden behind a veil of bad VHS tape and worse dubbing. But even through the static and unintentionally hilarious English dialogue, The Killer was gripping. With its stylish and beautifully choreographed violence, cheesy code-of-honor plot, and charismatic star, Chow Yun-Fat, The Killer transcended all technical and cultural barriers.

Then came Woo's epic Hard-Boiled, again starring Chow Yun-Fat, and the questions started: How long before these guys come to Hollywood and teach those chumps how to have a gunfight?

Woo made it first, directing the execrable Hard Target with Jean Claude Van Damme, before graduating to John Travolta and Broken Arrow and last year's highly-successful Face/Off. But Fat was still languishing in Hong Kong, waiting while his cozy little colony was returned to the Chinese. Waiting for his plane ticket to Hollywood.

Like Jackie Chan before him, Fat is already a huge star virtually everywhere in the world except North America. But for some reason we like our action heroes to be white and speak English (or a form of it) even if they are charmless, slack-faced, and muscle-bound. Historically, that's left very little room for the Chinese. But that's changing.

Jackie Chan's latest multi-pronged assault on American movie audiences began two summers ago with the co-produced Rumble in the Bronx and was followed up with several Chan re-releases. All of them were delightful movies, but none were box office smashes.

And it is apparent by now to everyone, Chan included, that his physical comedy and zany charm just aren't going to have American audiences lined up around the block. Despite the visual appeal of his movies, and my great personal affection for them, they just don't have the meanness that American audiences seem to demand in their action movies.

Enter Chow Yun-Fat. With John Woo's success, Fat is poised to become the first Asian action superstar in America. For one thing, unlike Chan, Fat never resorts to kung fu. In fact, in all the movies I've seen him in I don't think I've once seen him punch anything. Fat goes straight for the violence tool of choice, the prop that has built an entire industry—the gun. It is Fat's two-gun style that has become the iconic stance of the modern movie killer.

But it's more than just his shooting style. Fat has the kind of dead-eyed grimace that made a movie star out of Clint Eastwood. Regardless of cultural differences, Fat's cold, unsmiling face says that he's going to kill you. In short, Fat has that rare, classic cool that just might make him popular here in the land of the $300 million gross.

For all it's flaws, The Replacement Killers is a pretty good first vehicle for Fat. In it he plays, not surprisingly, a hitman by the name of John Lee. After Lee's sentiment forces him to abandon a job, he's hunted by an army of assassins hired by his former employer. Mira Sorvino is a forger who gets trapped into helping him and does an admirable job as the only person in the movie with any dialogue.

The plot is classic John Woo, reduced to the point of almost total inconsequence—a killer, a matter of honor, and bring on the gunplay. Plot is about as important in a movie like The Replacement Killers as it is in a Busby Berkeley musical.

What's also unimportant, apparently, is dialogue. There are probably fewer than 10 minutes of dialogue in the entire film. This is particularly advantageous to Fat, who only learned English in time to make The Replacement Killers, and to the producers who will find it exceptionally easy to prepare for a foreign release. An interesting side effect of this lack of talking is that it forces The Replacement Killers to rely completely on pictures to tell the story. With the exception of the steadicam and helicopter shots, it could have been made by D.W. Griffith.

Instead, however, it was made by Antoine Fuqua, whose claim to fame is Coolio's "Gangster's Paradise" video. And while "Gangster's Paradise" is a fine video, the tastes and techniques of music video direction are a little too apparent here.

With no dialogue and scant story to sustain his movie, Fuqua falls back on the old MTV trick of just keeping the camera moving. And while this can make a three-minute video seem energetic and exciting, in a feature film it is deadening, even nauseating. Fuqua directs The Replacement Killers as if it were a Ponzi scheme—if it ever stops moving, the whole thing will just come crashing down.

It doesn't come apart, but it never quite goes anywhere either. Not that The Replacement Killers is a disappointment—in fact, it performs exactly as expected. But it never steps beyond the clichés that John Woo established almost a decade ago in The Killer.

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