Hong Kong action star Chow Yun-Fat follows the lead set by Jackie Chan and Hong Kong directors such as John Woo, Tsui Hark and Stanley Tong in attempting to cross over to the American mainstream. With The Replacement Killers, he has a vehicle that captures the style of a Hong Kong action-fest, but with none of the substance.
Chow Yun-Fat plays assassin John Lee. He’s indebted to a crimelord, Mr. Wei (Kenneth Tsang), and must perform three hits or his mother and sister will be killed back in China. John performs two of his three kills, but on the third the sight of a cop (Michael Rooker) playing with his young son makes him reconsider, and he abandons his task.
This, of course, greatly angers Mr. Wei, who calls in replacement killers to finish the job, and to finish Mr. Lee. He, on the other hand, has no intention on being rubbed out. He sets off to return to China, in order to save his family, but he needs forged papers to do so. To that end, he enlists the aid of rogue forger Meg Coburn (Mira Sorvino), and when her lab is destroyed by Wei’s henchmen, their fates are intertwined. So, John and Meg set out to nullify the replacement killers, protect their target, eliminate Mr. Wei, thereby saving Lee’s family.
The first problem with The Replacement Killers is with Yun-Fat. His hitman is a flimsy construct at best, and makes Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name seem wordy. We learn very little about him, but the worst part is we don’t want to know. With less emotional range than The Terminator, his hitman exists as merely a machine to expel bullets at the bad guys. Mira Sorvino fares better, but only slightly. She seems out of place here, but at least she’s given a meatier character than Yun-Fat.
Director Antoine Fuqua applies plenty of stylistic touches to the action sequences. Some of the setups, though, are too obvious. When the camera swoops majestically down a tile corridor and into some hybrid of a warehouse and an automatic car wash, you just know that a gun battle is going to take place on this terrain. When the bullets unavoidably begin flying, the resulting carnage is shot with relish. A wide variety of angles, lighting and camera speeds are employed to enliven the action. At some points, the technique works, but most of the time, the overbearing style is layered on too thickly. In the middle of an exciting action sequence, you shouldn’t be noticing the excellent use of discrete surround channels or the appropriately mysterious lighting used…those things should simply enhance the atmosphere. Here, they’re noticeable.
And the film is in serious trouble when it has to fall back on its plot to redeem itself. I was hard pressed to fill two paragraphs above with a plot summary. There are no twists and/or turns. Nothing unexpected happens. The plot is a vehicle to move from one shoot-out to another, nothing more.
It’s a pity. The best Hong Kong action films have plots that put most American actioners to shame. It’s not the most auspicious American debut for Chow Yun-Fat, and he deserves much better than this.