The Replacement Killers
Director: Antoine Fuqua / Writer: Ken Sanzel / DoP: Peter Lyons Collister / Editor: Jay Cassidy
Cast: Yun-Fat Chow / Mira Sorvino / Michael Rooker / Kenneth Tsang / Jürgen Prochnow / Danny Trejo / Frank Medrano
Hong Kong Phoney…
It took years for Yun-Fat Chow to build a hard-earned reputation within the Hong Kong film industry, largely under the guidance of his mentor, John Woo. In films such as Hard Boiled, Full Contact and many others (not all directed by Woo), his balletic grace during intense gun-battle scenes (usually when wielding two pistols) earned him legions of fans. A move to Hollywood was therefore inevitable, though it took three long years of mulling over scripts and deals, before he settled on The Replacement Killers, as his calling card for a Western audience, apparently hungry to see him in one of their pictures.
To which, I’ll offer this response: Really? Mister Chow, with all the goodwill and influential capital you brought to the table, is this tripe really the best you could do? Good God, sir: What did the studio HAVE against you? Oh, yeah. I forgot: money. Chow might’ve been a huge star back in Hong Kong but, to a wider, Western audience, he was all-but unknown, so the studio (and I imagine any one of them would’ve made the same choice) commissioned a boilerplate script of the kind that a young, naive Woo might’ve directed, figuring (not unreasonably), that even if the Western release tanked, they could still make a profit from Asia…
To further save money, they decided they might as well give the gig to a new (read: cheap) Director, keen to prove himself. Step forward one Antoine Fuqua; an African-American, who’d cut his teeth on a series of rap and R’nB videos and now fancied the idea of ‘doing features’. What could go wrong? Let me count the ways…
For this reviewer, problems surfaced during the opening sequence and didn’t go away. Chow’s character strolls into a ‘NiteKlub’, with his approach to a particular table, intercut with Slo-Mo shots of clubbers as a monotonous techno-bass drones-on. Ugh. With no dialogue exchanged, he arrives at a table, around which sit a variety of goons and places down an engraved, decorated bullet: a calling card from The Man. Chow – The Man’s man – then shoots each one of ’em, in a display of clumsy-fumbling business, not helped by the soundtrack. I know what Fuqua’s going for, but this is his cold-open? THIS?
Cut To: Stock Location #17: The Docks. Amidst a blizzard of containers, we see drugs cop Zedkov ((Z) an under-used Michael Rooker) first observe, then break-up the delivery of a large shipment of cocaine. There’s then a lame chase, that ends with the death of the The Man behind it all. No, sorry, that’ll be The Man’s son (yer actual top banana, will be following-on in about eighty minutes or so).
Before then, we’ve got the funeral, attended by all the gang and observed at a discreet distance by Z. Unfortunately for him, he’s spotted by the gang and Mr Wei Sr: The Man in question. Wei decides to kill Z’s son, in-revenge for junior. So far, so another engraved bullet, but just as Chow’s got the shot lined-up, he chokes. He wants out of it, but that brings risks of its own, e.g. that Mr Wei (Kenneth Tsang) will kill Chow’s own family back in Shanghai, as punishment for his refusal to follow orders.
Still with me? Chow’s now a hitman with a conscience and is therefore a liability…
After a quick visit to his local Buddhist temple, in which he fails to clear this sudden burst of guilt, Chow touches base with Eddie, his local fixer (Frank Medrano) and owner of a friendly neighbourhood auto ‘chop-shop’. He wants to return to China ASAP to protect his family and hopes Eddie can get him a fake passport: this is how he’s led to Meg Coburn (the miscast Mira Sorvino). This girl bounces around a roomy apartment, carved out of a post-industrial workshop and makes a living forging passports.
We know she must be good at it, because Chow gives her ‘one hour’ to do his, as though scriptwriter Ken Sanzel once saw a booth offering ‘Holiday snaps in One Hour’ and thought ‘How Hard Can It Be?’ Still, Coburn’s on-the-case, taking a digital photo of John Lee (we now know the name of Chow’s character) that’s perfectly lit, cropped, in-focus and at a high enough resolution as to be useable (this, in ‘98, remember): and like the true multi-tasker she is, does it all while idly caressing a pistol that’s cradled to the underside of her desk: which is handy, as here come a few besuited, poker-faced Expendables with shotguns. Yawn. They’re all wearing shades too, as though Fuqua’s channelling Men-in-Black, but that’s giving too much praise. The reality is that this is just one more lobotomised trope that we’ve all seen in a hundred b-movie crime thrillers: there’s nothing new here. Literally. Nothing. New.
Fuqua then compounds his misjudgment, by trowelling-on another lump of stodgy techno and hitting Slo-Mo whenever the mood takes him during the ensuing gunplay. I did like one short sequence, as a shooter gropes his way through a red-lit darkroom festooned with strips of drying film-stock (a commentary on the Director’s contribution to the death of cinema? Or how he’s hanging the form out to dry?) but this was over all too soon; subsumed in a set filled with inexplicable, Chartreuse-green floodlighting and walls resembling the beaten-out wrappers from a thousand Terry’s Chocolate Oranges. Anyhow, Coburn escapes, is arrested and brought before Z, who confiscates a print-out from her (now-trashed) PC. This will herald a True Miracle in a short while: stay tuned.
With no charges against her, Coburn’s free to go: which she duly does, back to her apartment. On her release, she tells Z that the cops are free to tail her, but that ‘I’ll lose them by Sixth Avenue’. Fair enough, but to go STRAIGHT back to your gaff? That’s one level of dumb, but for Z and his colleagues NOT to imagine that’s where she might go? There’s a new low of foolishness, right there. And who should she meet there, but Lee: and he STILL wants his bloody passport! Trouble is, Coburn’s home and business have all been trashed, thanks to this guy, so why isn’t she refunding him or at least showing him the bird..?
To add more dumb to this sorry mess, we also get Lee explaining his position to Coburn, But At No Point have we had him asking Wei for more time to complete the job! Instead, Wei’s first impulse is to go to DEFCON-One and, now that his regular goons have all ended-up, err, dead, his own Chief Henchman, Kogan (more miscasting in the form of ex-U-Boat Kapitan Jürgen Prochnow) is hiring a couple of mute Replacement Killers to finish the job and kill Z’s boy as a bonus.
Now it’s time for the True Miracle. The police computer (a ‘97 Dell, looks like) reconstructs Lee’s mugshot from a printout with as much colour information as a Caxton-era woodcut… When Z congratulates the young Photo-Shoppernaut on his work, he’s falling somewhat short, as what he’s produced is little more than a Literal Miracle. Praise Be.
I digress. Now another damn shootout of little consequence: this time at Eddie’s shop. In a scene where Kogan taunts Coburn (hateful alliteration, btw), we get my favourite dialogue of the picture: ‘I beat my head against the wall, trying to anticipate your next move. Actually, I beat Eddie’s head against the wall, trying to anticipate your next move’. I can’t help thinking this was Sanzel’s own real-life cry for help…
Like I said, there’s little consequence other than (another) slew of wasted goons and a twisted knee for Coburn, that Lee will now re-set, in a sleazy, brashly-lit motel room, with rainwater trickling down a neighbouring wall that’s framed in an open window, like some actual water feature or something.
Bizarrely, it’s the chosen location for the second of two ‘character developmental’ exchanges between the leads. Make the most of it, because there’ll be nothing more between them. Then again, both actors exhibit symptoms of having undergone personality bypasses when it came to shooting the picture, as their dialogue allows for NOTHING that an audience can latch onto. Fuqua might’ve used shop mannequins for all the depth, empathy and charisma shown here; would’ve been cheaper, too.
Look: it’s not their fault. Both leads just happen to be miscast, in a movie that allows them no real character development. Had it done so, it might’ve ameliorated their lack of empathy towards each other. As it is, I literally couldn’t care less what happens to anyone in this picture. Yet, all the actors took their fees, didn’t they? Odds are, they weren’t ‘doing it for scale’. Therefore, one imagines that either their agents weren’t doing their jobs, or the actors just needed to fix faulty boilers or fill their cars with gas that month and sucked-it-up.
Oh, and when I say there are just two opportunities to develop characters here, I’m not joking. After we leave this scuzzy room, the picture shuffles through more pointless shootouts to the end credits, like a lobotomised zombie, if such a combo is possible; a victim of Fuqua’s casual dismemberment of form.
There’s just one Grace-note in the last, broken, sequence that works. Well, two. First, is when Lee’s standing on the bonnet of Wei’s Cadillac and pumping shots into its windscreen like there’s no tomorrow and second, when he’s on its roof and spinning-round, arms outstretched, looking for dangers unseen. Other than those few seconds when the Chow Yun-Fat of HK cinema turns-up to play, it’s ALL been derivative, lumpen and boring, with too many indiscriminate gunshots, fired from (often) never-empty magazines, with too little consequence or real-world kickback…
And Lee shoots Danny Trejo’s stonewalled killer OFF-SCREEN(!) which begs the question: why does this have an ‘18’ certificate? There’s no nudity, drug-taking, little graphic violence and blood: so what gives? If this were re-certificated today, my guess is, that it would be a comfortable ‘15’ at most, which almost suggests the producers wanted an 18, in the hope that they might get a less-discerning, hard-core audience?
Even compared to other films released in 1998, this has dated badly: I submit Saving Private Ryan, Enemy of the State and never-thought-I’d-say-this Armageddon as just three examples of action movies with brains. I KNOW this is little – or no – better than what had long been coming out of Hong Kong, but did the producers REALLY think that such fare would ever find a mainstream audience when compared to films such as that trio? Also, consider this: The Wachowski’s were just ONE YEAR from delivering The Matrix: a picture that would resurrect this genre’s twitching corpse for the benefit of an entire generation.
It’s telling, that although Replacement Killers was supposed to be Chow’s Hollywood breakout film, he returned to comfortable territory straight-after, with a Wuxia picture (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) that reinvigorated an old, tired genre in a way this brain-dead material never could, irrespective of the director. Opposite Michelle Yeoh and with a sparkling, layered and expressive script, at their disposal, Chow’s rehabilitation would be swift. Sorvino, too, would walk away from this project with her dignity largely intact, but what of Antoine Fuqua? A string of make-weight projects followed, culminating in his last release Olympus Has Fallen: a bombastic, air-headed actioner that claims direct lineage back to this twaddle: he must at least know his limits as a Director by now, if he’s still making the same rubbish twenty years on…
If you want to see something that’s aged well, check-out The Picture of Dorian Gray; but not The Replacement Killers: twenty years-on, it’s like watching Walter Donovan expire in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade…
You could save me time and put a bullet in your head. If the positions were reversed, I’d do the same for you.