Bulletproof Monk: Special Edition
Film Length: 104 minutes
Aspect Ratio: 16X9 Enhanced Widescreen (2.35:1)
Subtitles: English, French, Spanish, Mandarin, and Cantonese
Audio: English - Dolby Digital 5.1; French & Spanish – Stereo Surround
For some time now, I have been hoping, maybe against hope, that Chow Yun-Fat will make it big here in the States. The man is a great actor, has a uniquely engaging screen presence, and is fantastic in fight scenes. For all of those reasons he is an icon in Asia, but inexplicably, he keeps ending up in hokey, second-rate American action films that are unworthy of either his acting ability or physical skills. Is BulletProof Monk, which is based on the popular Flypaper Press comic of the same name, the movie that will finally change all that? Read on to find out…
Perhaps best known around the globe for his appearances in the kinetic, high-body-count action films helmed by legendary director John Woo (Broken Arrow, Face/Off), Yun-Fat (in conjunction with Woo) helped usher in a new style of action films featuring inventive gunplay instead of just wild martial arts action. Unfortunately, groundbreaking Woo/Yun-Fat collaborations such as Hard Boiled and Once a Thief do not enjoy the mass appeal here in the States that they do worldwide, despite their influence on countless action films since that have followed. However, for all of his popularity overseas, Yun-Fat’s attachment to stylish but unsubstantial American fare like The Corrupter and The Replacement Killers has prevented “western” audiences from connecting with him. Ironically, American audiences finally took more notice of Yun-Fat after his spectacular turn in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which was not an American-made film.
When I saw the trailer for BulletProof Monk, I immediately recoiled, thinking this was going to be a blatant rip-off of Rush Hour or Shanghai Noon, with a skilled Asian martial artist paired up with a goofy, wisecracking American. Now that I have seen the film, I must say that my initial reaction was not entirely unfounded, but BulletProof Monk is not as bad as the trailers make it seem.
In BulletProof Monk, Yun-Fat stars as a nameless Tibetan monk who has served for 60 years as guardian of a scroll holding the secrets of the universe. In the slickly produced sequence that opens the film, we see how Monk vanquishes his master in a friendly but spirited duel on a suspension bridge to complete his training. Soon, we learn Monk has also fulfilled three prophecies, namely defeating an army with cranes circling overhead, battling for love in a house of jade, and freeing brothers he did not know he had. Having done this, he relinquishes his name and receives stewardship of the scroll. Granted special abilities by this powerful artifact, Monk remains youthful during his years of traversing the globe, but as the end of his 60-year tenure as guardian approaches, he seeks out his successor in a non-descript City (not New York, as some of the mainstream press stated).
Basically, Monk is awaiting the fulfillment of the same three prophecies, which qualify an individual to take possession of the scroll. Unfortunately, his only prospect is a jovial pickpocket named Kar (Seann William Scott), who also seems to be quite a humanitarian. Monk is first intrigued by Kar’s willingness to cast aside a day’s take to help him save a young girl who becomes entangled on a subway rail. Though Monk remains skeptical about Kar, his interest is peaked even more when Kar uses his martial arts expertise to fend of a small army of goons, led by a ridiculous gangster named Funktastic, as the two go deeper into the subway tunnels.
Of course we need a villain to have an action movie, and in this instance we get a former Nazi officer named Struker (Karel Roden, who is nicely over-the-top), aided by his evil granddaughter Nina (Victoria Smurfit) and requisite henchmen. Early in the film, Struker puts a bullet in Monk, and slaughters his brethren at a Tibetan temple, when trying to seize the scroll. For 60 years since, he has relentlessly pursued both Monk and the scroll for his own fiendish ends. Now, as his life draws to a close, Struker launches a final, desperate assault to obtain it, in order restore his youth and allow him to rid Earth of what he considers to be “impure races”. To prevent Struker from controlling the planet, Monk enlists Kar’s aid, and the unlikely duo finds additional help in the form of Jade aka “Bad Girl” (Jaime King), who took a liking to Kar during the subway battle with Funktastic.
The story continues to unfold from there via a series of busy, mildly entertaining action sequences that have simply been done better in other films. The stunts are creative, but nothing truly special, and the wirework and CGI, while not bad, is a tad obvious and definitely overused. Even worse is the choppy editing, which nearly ruins the fight scenes by making them seem claustrophobic and rushed.
Aside from the editing, my main issues with the film are the thinly written characters, and rather mundane dialogue provided by screenwriters Cyrus Voris and Ethan Reiff, who also wrote the awful Tales From the Crypt: Demon Knight. To put it mildly, most of the characters in the film are so lacking in depth that they are not worth caring about. Due to the script’s overall lack of intelligence, the villains are also pretty lame and fail to deliver any sense of real menace.
As I mentioned earlier, since this is a comic adaptation, I was willing to give the film more leeway than I otherwise might have, but some of the plot points were downright absurd. The things that immediately come to mind are the way Kar becomes an expert martial artist by mimicking an old kung-fu film, the way the bad guys are always in the right place at the right time (how the heck do the thugs in the helicopter find Kar and Monk in an abandoned warehouse?), and the annoying fact that almost everyone in the movie is a lethal martial arts expert.
As for thinly written characters, Jade is a good example. She is the filthy rich daughter of a Russian mobster who happens to be into human rights, yet gives Kar and Monk a short, B.S.-laden speech about why she runs the streets beating people up for “respect”. By the way, she just happens to have a fully armored SUV and a large arsenal of military explosives in her garage. Oh, I almost forgot to mention that she is a master martial artist.
I could keep ranting forever, but I will wrap it up by saying despite all of these problems, BulletProof Monk does have some good things going for it. Paul Hunter clearly has much to learn, and certainly has not crafted a masterpiece here, but his debut effort exhibits a wonderful sense of style, and he shows promise as an action-adventure director. His whimsical approach makes the comic-inspired fantasy palatable, if not particularly memorable, and he manages to bring some decent performances out of his cast. Yun-Fat is excellent as always, owning the role of Monk with his beautifully understated, almost regal performance. Seann William Scott was the biggest surprise though, coming across as both very likeable and very believable, in terms of the physical aspects of his role. In fact, Scott manages to overcome the less then complete character Kar and turn in a performance that is rather delightful. I would even go out on a limb and say that Yun-Fat and Scott’s chemistry was so good that it helped push the film out of the doldrums and into mediocrity.
So, it seems I have answered my query, and that this the film is not the one that will help Chow Yun-Fat finally “get over” in the good ol’ US of A. Though BulletProof Monk has its moments, its shortcomings undermine them. For that reason, I fear this will go down as yet another disappointment in the hearts and minds of Chow Yun-Fat fans. Directed by renowned music video director Paul Hunter, this film is definitely stylish, and the storyline is decent (if somewhat implausible), but it falls short in the “heart” and character development departments. Since this story is based on a comic book, I was not expecting a masterpiece, but while I was not entirely put off by the film, I could not help feeling that the end result should have been something better. Chow Yun-Fat certainly deserves it.
So, How Does It Look?
Given Paul Hunter’s grand sense of style and the fact that this is a recent production, it is little surprise that BulletProof Monk looks great. Presented in anamorphic widescreen (2.35:1), this transfer is very well done. Colors are bold and saturated, flesh tones are true, and blacks are black, leading to excellent shadow delineation. The picture is also very sharp, with plenty of fine detail. Compression artifacts never reared their ugly little heads, and edge enhancement is so minimal it should not be the least bit distracting. Again, I can’t say I am surprised, since the picture quality on MGM’s catalog releases is so good, but the studio has certainly given this ho-hum film a pretty slick transfer.
What Is That Noise?
Since BulletProof Monk is an action-heavy film, you may be thinking “Even if the movie is not so great, there might be some good sequences to demo my home theater with, right”. Well, although the mix is not terrible, my answer would be no. Frankly, this Dolby Digital 5.1 mix is almost as uneven as the film, with both good and bad elements.
What is good about it, you ask? Well, the surround use is pretty aggressive, which drew me into the movie pretty much throughout. In particular, I really liked how the score was worked into the entire soundstage, with Eric Serra’s compositions being strengthened by output from the rear channels. Further, Serra’s score comes across as huge, and this mix emphasizes his excellent work. Dialogue is also clear, and largely free of any sonic anomalies, although the high end sounds like it is rolled off ever so slightly.
Now for the bad news: The low end, particularly LFE response, is pretty active, but muddled and imprecise. Also, as I mentioned, the high frequencies just don’t sound as “airy” and open as they should. Since Eric Serra’s score comes across as huge, the sound effects work is occasionally obscured, and it comes close to muffling dialogue in spots. Lastly, the soundstage seems very narrow, and the overall mix was pretty low, so I had to turn my receiver up quite a bit to obtain good dynamic range.
Overall, as I said, it is not terrible, especially since Eric Serra’s score blends so well with what is transpiring on-screen, but I was left wanting more from this mix than I got.
** Audio Commentary (Director and Producers):
This commentary track, featuring Director Paul Hunter and Producers Doug Segal and Charles Roven, was extremely disappointing. Specifically, it is sterile, un-involving, and lacks much in the way of interesting content. There are many periods of prolonged silence, and the producers of the film are absent for most of the track. Strangely, although Hunter comes across as passionate about his first feature film, he offers very little in the way of non-incidental behind-the-scenes information and his delivery is far from exciting. In the featurettes, Mr. Hunter seems to be a fairly quiet person, so his bland delivery may just be his way of speaking, but the fact remains that he spends a lot of time pointing out the obvious (“That broken leg was a prosthetic” or “There is some snow on that house” are some choice examples). There are also many pointless and tedious comments about him adjusting to a feature film’s shooting schedule and having to learn how to schedule pick-up shots, to name a few.
The reason I was so disappointed in this commentary is that in the featurettes, Paul Hunter has a lot of interesting things to say, and the featurettes are so packed with detail you have to really pay attention or you might miss something. Ultimately this commentary track fails because it doesn’t expand on anything already covered in the featurettes, in spite of its almost two-hour length. In fact, the featurettes provide much more detail than this commentary, which is too bad, because Hunter could have really opened up on his outstanding sense of style. Listen only if you must!
Nevertheless, there were a few highlights, including:
---Paul Hunter pointing out most of the “wheel of existence” images, some of which were of the blink-and-you’ll-miss- variety.
---A discussion about the scene where the Monk kicks his ammo clips into enemies paying homage to John Woo’s collaborations with Chow Yun-Fat.
---A story (almost the only funny thing in the whole commentary) about Seann William Scott receiving a rather painful massage from Chow Yun-Fat for a sore back he suffered doing a stunt.
---Comments about how many different endings there were, and how the filmmakers waffled back and forth between them.
**Audio Commentary (Writers):
Now we are talking! This commentary track was well above average, offering substantial information on the construction of the story, discarded ideas, and the evolution of the film as shooting progressed. Writers Ethan Reiff and Cyrus Voris, coming across as mellow and relaxed, were a joy to listen to, frequently mixing in jokes about the on-screen happenings with their insightful commentary. In fact at times, I almost felt like I was watching Mystery Science Theater! If you only have time for one commentary track for BulletProof Monk, make this the one!
Among other things, these jovial fellows discussed:
---The fact that it was Chow Yun-Fat’s idea to include the butterfly at the beginning of the film, as a symbol of rebirth (shortly thereafter his character receives the scroll).
---Fascinating historical facts, including Hitler’s obsession with the occult, and the Nazi party’s travels to Tibet in search of their ancestry.
---Visual and dialogue tributes to previous action films.
---The fact that the BulletProof Monk is not in the comic (he is a legendary, unseen presence).
---Seann William Scott was originally the third choice for his role, as Paul Walker and Heath Ledger also expressed interest.
---The many differences between the original screenplay and Director Paul Hunter’s vision for the film.
---Reiff and Voris played a part in the casting of several roles in the film, including Mako (who is awesome) from Conan the Barbarian and many other films.
---How the movie paid very careful attention to the subtle differences between Asian cultures.
**Deleted Scenes / Alternate Ending:
Note: These are available with or without commentary with film editor Robert Lambert, as is the alternate ending.
There are five deleted scenes (two of which are extensions to scenes in the film):
---“Monk flashes Kar to the monastery” – a pretty good scene where the Monk uses his powers to show Kar the Tibeatan monastery, where man and nature come together in harmony. He also fills Kar in a little more on what the scroll is capable of.
---“Tugboat” – Monk opens up a little about his life before accepting his responsibility, and shows Kar a picture of the woman he was to marry.
---“Crew Plan” – Part of a discarded stroyline, where “The Crew” is recruited to help rescue the Monk, who has been abducted by Struker.
---“Crew at the Human Rights Organization” – An eliminated scene where the Funktastic’s Crew helps Jade and Kar break into the Human Rights Organization to rescue Monk.
---“Crew Battles Monk and Funk” – In this scene, a continuation of #4, the Crew helps Kar and Jade reach the “nerve center” of Struker’s evil operation.
Just a side note: These scenes were not completed, and appear to be non-anamorphic. There are missing sound effects and music, and the images contain stair-stepping and motion artifacts.
In this version of the ending, Funktastic’s Crew helps rescue the monks that were subjected to Struker’s overly elaborate torture mechanism. After a brief battle, Monk forces Struker into one of his own contraptions, and he is exterminated. Wisely edited out after test audiences disapproved, it is much less climactic than what ended up in the final product.
**“Tao of the Monk” Featurettes:
---“Fists of Fury”
This featurette focuses on the martial arts rooted action sequences and fighting styles present in BulletProof Monk. All of the participants, including Paul Hunter (Director), Stephen Tung (Fight Consultant), Wong Wei Leung (Fight Coordinator), and stars ChowYun-Fat, Seann William Scott, and Jaime King are entertaining and enthusiastic, and the piece covers the care taken to bring new fight experiences to the screen in depth.
Specifically, the group elaborates on their effort to mix wirework, street fighting, and traditional Hong Kong martial arts to establish both realism and a “wow” factor. As you might expect, there are plenty of neat behind-the-scenes segments involving the movie’s use of wirework, and even a split screen comparison of footage being shot against the green screen to the completed product.
---“Enter the Monk”
This piece centers around the story development, which began with the submission of a BulletProof Monk comic book to Terence Chang (Producer) by Michael Yanover (Executive Producer). In this long featurette, members of the production team and cast offer their thoughts on the casting process, costume design, grueling shooting schedule, and how the film’s style evolved. The “wheel of existence” idea is also given treatment, specifically the significance of the Kar character seeing all 12 of its images.
In addition, there is more information on the set design, Seann William Scott’s wirework (and how ill the repeated corkscrew takes made him), and the desire of the filmmakers’ to tone down the gunplay in accordance with the Monk’s philosophy “It is not about anger, it is about peace.” There really is a lot of detail here, much of it interesting, but at some points there is almost an information overload. Overall though, it is very informative, and well done, slightly better than the typical EPK type filler in many featurettes.
Here, Doug Segal and Paul Hunter go into much more depth on the visual design and the 5 color schemes present in the movie. They also provide fascinating insight into the construction of the suspension bridge for the opening fight scene, and how they were able to remain true to the religion and spirituality portrayed in the film, even in the smallest details. The design and construction of the torture devices, the scroll holding the key to the universe, the construction of the gang’s hideout, and the intricate plexiglass “art” in the lobby of the Human Rights Organization is also covered. This featurette is shorter than the others, but very good.
---”Smoke & Mirrors”
This is another piece on the creation of the visual effects shots used in the film, with even more details on the construction of the suspension bridge. The secrets behind the motion control shot of Kar and Monk running past windows being riddled by bullets, and the rooftop sequence with the collapsing satellite dish are also covered in depth.
---”Art of Score”
Composer Eric Serra discusses his compositions that are featured in the film, and the process of creating the individual themes for each character. There is also some commentary about how the soundtrack, effect track, and dialogue are blended to give the film life. A couple scenes from the film are played repeatedly, first with dialogue only, then with the effects track only, and so forth to help establish a feel for how each works both independently and in conjunction with the other tracks. Maybe it is my musical background speaking, but I really enjoyed this featurette as well.
**“The Monk Unrobed” Featurette:
This is a brief, interesting segment on the process of developing of the BulletProof Monk film from the Flypaper Press comic. The creators of the comic describe how it was designed to incorporate a new type of hero into classic comic storytelling. They also describe how their proactive efforts led to this three-issue series getting made into a feature film.
Approximately 20 still color photos of either on-screen action or behind-the-scenes work.
The original theatrical trailer, which is pretty cool, and makes the movie look much better than it really is, has been included. In addition, previews of the Bulletproof Monk video game scheduled for release in October, The Great Escape video game, and the super-lame promo for the Bulletproof Monk soundtrack are included. Check out this really short latter promo for a laugh (the narrator’s voice sounds almost like a Speak-and-Spell toy).
MGM serves up a heaping helping of additional trailers for us, including:
--“MGM means great movies”
--Bond Special Edition DVD trailer
--Dead Like Me TV trailer
--Out of Time trailer
--Terminator: Special Edition trailer
--Die Another Day trailer
--Dark Blue trailer
--Agent Cody Banks trailer
The Score Card
The Last Word
BulletProof Monk is a mediocre action yarn that is held back by its inability to decide whether it wants to be silly or serious, weak characters, and haphazard editing. Still, although the movie is not great, MGM has put together a pretty nice package for its release on DVD. With a couple of notable exceptions, the supplements are generally interesting, informative, and well produced, and the disc features a hot-looking anamorphic transfer, and a boisterous (although disappointing) surround mix. Still, you can put all the supplements you want on the DVD release of a mediocre movie, and you will be left with a disc you never watch that happens to have good supplements on it. Not a bad rental, but only worth a purchase to die-hard fans of Chow Yun-Fat or Seann William Scott!
September 9th, 2003