The Replacement Killers (1998)
Imitation being the sincerest form of flattery, *The Replacement Killers* flatters the "Hong Kong-style" action movie to death. As directed by music-video director Antoine Fuqua, *The Replacement Killers* slavishly apes the visual look of Hong Kong action movies -- noirish sets, hyper-violence, unlimited firepower and chaotic gunfights shot in slow motion -- but leaves out the emotional and moral content. *The Replacement Killers* is a designer knock-off, with no pretense of originality.
Two of the designers actually aided and abetted this bit of movie surimi. John Woo is executive producer of the film (although judging from his three American films, his edge has been successively blunted by Hollywood homogeneity). Chow Yun-Fat, a Hong Kong mega-star and veteran of over 60 movies, makes his Hollywood debut in this film, and basically walks through it, simmering, but never generating any heat. Chow is given little opportunity to exercise his newly-learned (and quite competent) English, as *The Replacement Killers*, written by Ken Sanzel, offers him about 20 or 30 words to recite. Mira Sorvino, playing Chow's surly sidekick/potential love interest/hostage, has a few more lines than that, but she, like Chow, is essentially a hired gun, squeezing short bursts of acting in between gunfights.
John Lee (Chow), the taciturn hero-hitman of *The Replacement Killers*, works for a Chinese mobster named Wei (Kenneth Tsang). Wei wants Lee to kill Stan Zedkov (Michael Rooker), the cop who killed Wei's son. He also wants Zedkov's son killed, and he wants the cop to witness the murder. In a fit of conscience, Lee can't kill the boy or the father, so Wei, being the ruthless sort of fellow who would hire Jurgen Prochnow as a henchman, orders Lee and *his* family killed by the killers hired to replace Lee in killing Zedkov and son. So, Lee, in order to get back to China to protect his mother and sister, turns to document forger Meg Coburn (Sorvino) for the necessary papers. When assassins come looking for Lee, a fierce gun battle ensues, destroying Meg's atmospheric, heroin-chic apartment, her expensive computer, and her ability to forge a passport. Lee takes Meg hostage, more or less, rather than find another forger, and the pair flee to an assortment of dimly lit locations (apparently in search of a passport), the assassins always right behind them. Zedkov pops up from time to time as well, ostensibly because he's after Wei, but mostly to run out the clock in this brief but content-free movie. Eventually, the killers-chasing-the-killer plot loses steam, so Meg convinces Lee that he has to save Zedkov's boy, which allows for a few more bloodbaths and a tidy veneer of redemption.
There are a few imaginatively staged scenes, such as a gunfight in a car wash, and a nifty little movie-within-a-movie-within-a-movie piece set in a cinema (showing Mr. Magoo!). The plot, however, is clunky and transparent, and utterly devoid of the emotional and ethical complexity of an authentic Woo-Chow film. In *The Killer*, or *Hard Boiled*, for example, Chow, fueled by a variety of frequently conflicting motives, kills with regret and has a few hobbies on the side. Woo's narrative style is more leisurely than that of his frenetic imitators, and he stages his gun fights in slow motion not so much for the aesthetic effect, but to amplify the consequences of violence: as geysers of blood erupt from bullet-riddled bodies in hellish scenes of chaos, innocent bystanders often die in great numbers. Slow motion violence in *The Replacement Killers* paradoxically amplifies the violence while muting its effects. The shattering glass, the flying bullets, the cool glint of black steel -- it all has a numbing, soporific effect, an instant, just-add-water poeticism without any mental engagement.
Chow, with his upper lip curled into a permanent sneer, and his suave good looks, physical grace and signature two-gun shooting style, is about the coolest thing on two feet, when those two feet are on his own turf. In *The Replacement Killers*, he's just a ringer, a bit of authentic Hong Kong in a mock Kong movie. There is no discernible wit or intelligence to Lee, nor any complexity to the hitman who is really a big softy when it comes to kids and family, and who was only a good assassin because his targets were always bad guys. Meg doesn't fare much better as a hard-edged, smart-mouthed toughie with a heart of gold and, predictably, a soft spot for Lee. Both characters are as simplistic and unsatisfying as the connect-the-dots, faux-motion rendering of a "Hong Kong-style" movie.