I think audiences like Yun-Fat the killer because he is a very honorable man who can hold two guns.
- actor Chow Yun-Fat
Most Western audiences are familiar with Hong Kong actor Chow Yun-Fat through his many roles as the quintessential gun-toting gangster, first seen in "A Better Tomorrow". However, in his native Hong Kong, his television and film acting portfolio encompasses all genres, from dramas (such as his Best Actor Award-winning role in "All About Ah-Long") to comedies ("An Autumn's Tale") to new genres (the film that ignited the dou san genre, "God of Gamblers") and to the more familiar 'heroic bloodshed' fare ("Full Contact"), which are all testaments to his dramatic range-- a claim that very few of the former Colony's actors could match (for example, Jackie Chan has never strayed from his action-comedy roots). Recently, this diversity was recognized at the CineAsia conference held in Hong Kong, with Chow Yun-Fat being bestowed the honor of being named "Star of the Decade".
Born in 1955 on Lamma Island, Chow Yun-Fat moved to Hong Kong and did odd several odd jobs before landing a role as an extra for TVB, Hong Kong's most popular television station. In 1973, he was accepted into an actor's training program at the station, which eventually led to his status as a television star following a breakthrough role in the television series "Shanghai Beach", that made him a household name in Asia. His film career took longer to develop, with a few unmemorable movie roles in the late Seventies. His first critically acclaimed movie role came in Ann Hui's "The Story of Wu Viet", but at the time, and for many years after, he was still known first and foremost as a television actor. But in 1986, with John Woo's "A Better Tomorrow", everything changed. Prior to ABT, he was not considered a bankable film star, which some theater owners had expressed to Woo and producer Tsui Hark. However, following the release of ABT, Chow Yun Fat had become the role model for young Hong Kong men, who could be seen hanging around the colony dressed in the long black coats and sporting the Alain Delon brand sunglasses that Mark wore in ABT (in fact, Alain Delon sent a thank-you letter to Chow Yun Fat for helping his brand of sunglasses to sell out within a week of the release of ABT). The fashion influences were not merely restricted to the colony-- after seeing ABT, future director Quentin Tarantino rushed out to buy a coat to emulate his new-found role model. After a string of successful films, Chow Yun-Fat looked towards establishing a career in North America. Discussions with Hollywood producers began in the summer of 1995, and finally now, in 1997, Chow Yun-Fat secured his first North American role, in a film tailor-made for him.
A child is irreplaceable, which brings us to your task.
It involves a cop. That's why we want an outsider.
After that, your obligation to me ends.
"The Replacement Killers" is Chow Yun-Fat's North American debute, and is executive-produced by the director that helped kick-start his career, John Woo. With a plot reminiscent of "The Killer", the best showcase for the combined talents of Chow and Woo, Chow Yun-Fat plays John Lee, a ruthless hitman hired by powerful crime lord Mr. Wei (fellow Hong Kong actor Kenneth Tsang, who also appeared in "A Better Tomorrow" and as the villain in Jackie Chan's "Supercop"). The assignment that Lee must carry out is a revenge hit on the young son of Detective Zedkov (Michael Rooker, last seen in "Rosewood" and currently in "Deceiver"), who was responsible for killing Wei's son following a sting operation. For Lee, this is the last hatchet job, that will forever pay off some undisclosed debt owing to Wei. However, when Lee has Zedkov's son in his gunsight, his conscience gets the best of him, and he cannot bring himself to pull the trigger. Though this moment of realization seems forced, it is marvelously portrayed by Chow Yun-Fat with the pained intensity he exhibited in "The Killer". This act of brazen defiance not only jeopardizes Lee's life, but also the life of his family back in China. Needing a forged passport to return home to protect his family from Wei's hired goons, Lee hooks up with Meg Coburn (Mira Sorvino, adding to her breadth of roles which include "Mighty Aphrodite", "Sweet Nothing", "Romy & Michelle's High School Reunion", and "Mimic"), a master counterfeiter. But before the transaction can be completed, they are ambushed and end up on the lam, from both Wei's men and the police. Meanwhile, two replacement killers (Til Schweiger and Danny Trejo) have been called in to take out Lee and Coburn, as well as to finish off the job that Lee never finished.
I went against Mr. Wei today. There will be consequences.
Director Antoine Fuqua, whose previous directing credit was Coolio's "Gangsta's Paradise" music video, has created a fast-paced and stylish ballistic ballet, full of visually-stunning cinematography that mixes lighting, colors, and textures in a fashion reminiscent of the films of Wong Kar-Wai, most notably "Fallen Angels", with its city streets awash with neon and fluorescent lighting. The action sequences exhibit extensive Hong Kong action cinema influences, and Fuqua emulates Woo's seductive slo-mo shoot-out chic with great competence, though they leave much to be desired in terms of originality. At the same time, TRK is a film bereft of an engaging story-line, resulting in a travelogue-plot that is emotionally-removed from the characters that populate it. Other than Li, the characters of the film lack little motivational basis for their actions-- instead, they are mere automatons whose actions serve the needs of the plot. You don't have to look far to see examples of shoddy character development in TRK: the intermittently-appearing Detective Zedkov, Mr. Wei, and the nameless enforcer of Mr. Wei's organization, played by Jurgen Prochnow ("Das Boot").
Zedkov's son for your family. Hell of a choice.
This is unfortunate, especially for Chow Yun-Fat, whose screen presence is impressive, exuding both confidence and charisma. His greatest roles have always counterpointed this ultra-cool exterior with the psychological vulnerabilities and internal conflicts of his characters, creating memorably-poignant roles. In TRK, the lazy plotting gives Chow Yun-Fat little to work with, but he still manages to please. His spoken English is also quite good, most notably in two expository scenes that Chow has, though in a few places his dialogue does come across stilted and abrupt. Mira Sorvino handles herself quite well in the role of action heroine, despite the lack of substance given to her character.
"The Replacement Killers", at its worse, is a re-hash of "The Killer", lacking very little originality, save for a few interesting action sequences. Chow Yun-Fat fans probably won't be disappointed if they don't look past the visual aspects of the film, but with the inherent weaknesses in the emotionally-flat narrative, it most likely will disappear quickly after the initial wave of curiosity seekers and niche-viewers (in Asian markets, where Chow Yun-Fat is a more bankable entity, the film has done less than stellar business). Hopefully, Chow Yun-Fat's next outings, such as Oliver Stone's "The Corruptor" with Timothy Hutton and John Woo's "King's Ransom", will be films worthy of his talent and screen presence.