Sunday, 3 April 2016

DEBUT FEATURES: Bulletproof Monk (2003)

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Bulletproof Monk (Canada/ USA, 2003)
Directed by Paul Hunter
Starring Chow Yun-fat, Seann William Scott, Jaime King, Karel Roden

In my review of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, I spoke about the ability to enjoy the physical spectacle of a film even if the story isn't able to hold your attention. I said that much of the appeal of martial arts films lay in their physicality and skilful choreography, with many people going to see the likes of Enter the Dragon and The Raid because of how fantastically Bruce Lee or his modern-day equivalents could move.

If you could picture a graph with 'substance' on the vertical axis and 'style' on the horizontal axis, Ang Lee's film would be perched near the top right, possessing plenty of both. Slightly further down you would find the likes of Hero and House of Flying Daggers by Zhang Zimou, which are utterly breathtaking to behold but somewhat thinner in the brain department. Bulletproof Monk belongs below this group of films, having next to nothing between its ears but holding our attention with a pulpy style and plenty of silliness.
One of the first things you can say about Bulletproof Monk is that it is testament to the lasting influence of Indiana Jones. More than 20 years after Raiders of the Lost Ark was released, filmmakers throughout Hollywood were still being influenced by it, borrowing from it, and trying to recapture its magic in their own action sequences. Some films from this period, like Dungeons and Dragons, borrowed from Steven Spielberg in a very candid way, with the maze sequences blatantly ripping off whole scenes from the original trilogy. But in a more general way, the films set the template for light-hearted pulpy adventure stories, just as the James Bond series had created the default style for escapist spy films.
The best section of Bulletproof Monk is the first 20 minutes, which play out like an Indiana Jones film with martial arts. I spoke in my review of The Boys from Brazil about how Nazis have become the go-to bad guys for Hollywood films, and this opening sequence is an excellent demonstration of how this still holds true. As with Raiders of the Lost Ark, the nationality of the soldiers is irrelevant: it's funny to see narrow-minded racist bigots get their arses handed to them whatever their creed or colour. This section is what Big Trouble in Little China always should have been like, and the open air setting also brings out the best in debut director Paul Hunter.
When I reviewed Atlantis: The Lost Empire, I criticised the fact that the plot of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade could be "easily transposed" onto its own, such was the laziness of its writing. Bulletproof Monk isn't in the same league in terms of narrative similarities: its plot does revolve around an ancient McGuffin and fighting Nazis, but the beats of its narrative are more entrenched in the buddy movie genre. Additionally, the film differs from Disney's disaster in the attitude it has towards its audience. While Disney displayed active contempt for the audience's intelligence, the film is as least partially aware of how silly it all is and invites those watching to relax and share in the silliness.
From this perspective, a more accurate (albeit general) comparison would be with Highlander, and again this film comes out pretty well. Both Russell Mulcahy and Paul Hunter come from a background in music videos, and both display this lineage in a way which affects the cinematic quality of their respective films. But while Highlander devotes most of its first hour to falling short in its exploration of potential-laden ideas, this is very clear how pulpy and trashy it is from the outset. The action sequences in the opening segment are nicely paced, and while there are no instantly memorable moves to speak off, we do at least get to see things play out without too many distractions.
Where things start to go awry is later in the film, where the fight scenes are predominately set indoors and there is a lot more talking to be done. Hunter's filmography as a pop video director includes videos by the likes of Snoop Dogg, Notorious B.I.G. and Busta Rhymes; rap and hip hop are genres visually distinguished by fast, flashy cuts and often distracting angles. It is possible to use these techniques in a way which enhances the storytelling - Requiem for a Dream is a very good example - but Hunter lacks Darren Aronofsky's skill with composition and lighting, and the action becomes increasingly hard to follow or invest in.
Outside of the action sequences, there is the small matter of our central pairing of Chow Yun-fat and Seann William Scott. Both were in the peak of their careers at this point, with the former riding a new wave of Western recognition after Crouching Tiger and the latter soaking up the fame (or infamy) generated by the first two American Pie offerings. It's hardly the most original pairing under the sun, riffing far too heavily on The Karate Kid for comfort and with not a shred of memorable dialogue between them. But considering how closely associated he has become with Stifler, Scott is surprisingly decent here, or at the very least isn't so overtly obnoxious that we wish he would just go away.
Once its opening sequence is out of the way, Bulletproof Monk quickly settles down into a by-the-numbers action movie-cum-buddy comedy. In terms of effort expended, it's only a hop, skip and a jump from Cradle 2 the Grave from hereon in, and had you missed the first 20 minutes and caught this on late-night TV, you could be forgiven for not remembering anything about it. None of it is offensively bad or overtly irritating, and moments in the script is vaguely witty as it takes the mickey out of pop-Tao philosophy. But beyond its desire to occasionally poke fun at generic convention, it's nothing to write home about.
This feeling of middle-of-the-road decency is reflected in the cinematography. Stefan Czapsky has had a very interesting career, lensing Tim Burton's Edward Scissorhands, Batman Returns and the terrific Ed Wood, as well as working with acclaimed documentarian Errol Morris (The Thin Blue Line) and oddball Todd Solondz (Fear, Anxiety and Depression). This work, however, is much closer to his work on Child's Play 2: the colours are bland and uninspiring, the compositions are generic and the workmanlike camerawork is ultimately compromised by Hunter's penchant for rapid editing.
Hunter has not made another feature film since this effort, and the explanation for this is more complex than may first appear. He clearly has a number of obvious gaps in his filmmaking lexicon which don't do Bulletproof Monk any favours - he's not great with character development, his visuals are shallow and uninspiring, and his camerawork has no distinctive style. But equally his fate is one of many who are parachuted into Hollywood on the basis that they can shoot quickly and handle big-name talent. The script isn't exactly first-rate, and Hunter deserves some credit for marshalling what could be a total borefest into something which is entertainingly risible.
Because Bulletproof Monk has made clear how silly it is early on, it is entirely possible to overlook its technical shortcomings and just let it wash over you as a perfectly acceptable piece of escapist tosh. Whether it is in on the joke or just trying hard to win us over, there is a fair bit of humour to be found which ultimately sees us through the running time, even if we don't care about the story. As with Highlander and Logan's Run before it, it becomes most enjoyable at the very point where we cannot take it seriously, and while it's not spirited or boisterous enough to be considered a romp, it is a pleasant hour and forty minutes' excursion.
The one further similarity that this film has with Highlander is its anticlimactic final battle. The battle combines the search for the ultimate prize (itself a lift from Raiders) and elderly Nazis getting their comeuppance from The Boys from Brazil - and like the former, the final fight from Bulletproof Monk fails to deliver on anything like a satisfying level. The setting may be more ornately pantomime than Mulcahy managed to deliver, and it is more visually impressive than two elderly hams and their stunt doubles rolling around on the floor. But having built up Strucker to such an extent, having him fall off a building and be electrocuted is  both cartoonish (in a Disney way) and disappointingly brief.
Bulletproof Monk is a divertingly silly debut feature which is nothing like as bad as critics at the time made out. Hunter's only film to date has plenty of technical shortcomings which together conspire to make it unmemorable after the first 20 minutes, and the weak script generally leaves its reasonably talented cast with precious little to go on. But there is enough both in its glee-inducing opening and the odd pockets of energy dotted throughout to pass the time and leave a smile on your face.

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NEXT REVIEW: Still Alice (2015)

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