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Bulletproof Monk By Matt Singer
Along with Daredevil, the second major comic book adaptation of the cinematic year is Bulletproof Monk, an obscure book from the mid-90s from an independent company called Flypaper Press. It makes you pine for the averageness of Daredevil and hope that the numerous other comic book movies coming out this year (most immediately X2) are a lot better. Monk is one of the most depressingly bad movies I’ve seen so far this year. And I saw Kangaroo Jack.
Chow Yun-Fat, who has made enough good movies to forgive this indiscretion, stars as a nameless Monk who is charged with defending “The Scroll of the Ultimate” which, we are told early in the film, will give anyone who reads its full text the power to control the world, be it for good or for evil. The Monk is just another in a long line of protectors who spend 60 ageless years keeping this scroll from falling into the hands of those who would wish to exploit its powers. In 1943, Nazis fit the bill of “exploiters” and they try unsuccessfully to get the scroll from the Monk.
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60 years later the Monk is in America for unexplained reasons, and he runs afoul of a thief named Kar (Seann William Scott). The precious little thirty-year-old kid has so much potential, we are endlessly reminded, that the Monk takes him under his wing and allows him to stand around him while an endless supply of generic evildoers fire guns at him with little effect. The scroll nearly falls into the wrong hands numerous times, of course, and Yun-Fat and Scott beat lots of people - including themselves - up.
It’s a bit ridiculous, but that doesn’t matter, most kung fu movies require significant suspension of disbelief. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t like the concept of kung fu trained Monks versus Nazis - frankly I’d have made the whole movie about that stuff. It probably would not have made much of a difference, since this is a kung fu movie with terrible kung fu. Director Paul Hunter (on his first movie) hacks up the fight scenes to the point that they’re at best choppy and unexciting and at worst incomprehensible. The pacing and movement are totally off; seconds seem to be missing from key moments as people are on the floor, then jumping around the next. The editor of Bulletproof Monk is Robert K. Lambert, who worked on excellent films like Three Kings and terrible films like Ed. Either he was off his game or Hunter shot things so poorly that he had nothing to work with when it came time to put the scenes together (The lack of experience in the genre for both might also play a part).
When the action in this type of movie is good, other problems tend to fade away. When the action stinks, like it does in Monk, they come into glaring focus. The script, by Ethan Reiff and Cyrus Voris is filled with moments that are so clichéd I thought we’d seen the last of them in movies not produced by the Zucker brothers. For example, Monk marks the comeback of the old routine where a cop one day away from retirement says “Time for a vacation” and is then immediately mowed down in a hail of bullets. When something is mocked in a “McBain” segment of a Simpsons episodes, doesn’t that mean it’s time to retire it officially? Some moments seem fresh at the start of the film - like the villains who surprise Kar and the Monk in a tender moment by opening fire on the building they are in - and turn into a cliché by the end of the film when they’ve been done four or five times. Somethings just don’t make sense, like having the superpowered heroes flip and fly through the air to avoid the bullets even though they are bulletproof. If the bullets can’t hurt them, what’s the point of avoiding them? The dialogue doesn’t help matters; a gun-toting Nazi screams “You may be good, but you’re not bulletproof!” Jeez man, pay attention to what movie you’re in.
I love little bits in movies where the characters comment on the viewing experience without realizing it, and Bulletproof Monk has a bunch of these. “This is America, we don’t have enlightenment!” Kar shouts at the Monk on a street somewhere in Toronto. So it goes for the whole movie: superficially a big fun kung fu movie, but empty and hollow underneath. This is the sort of movie that is as entertaining as the really good trailer that screens before it (In this case Shaolin Soccer). During the final battle, the lead villains remarks, “You know, this is getting very annoying.” You’re telling me.