On the lam

John Woo has generated plenty of American disciples in the decade since his Hong Kong action films began playing film festivals in the West. Even before he began his Hollywood career with 1993's Hard Target, bits of his action shtick started showing up in the work of savvy young filmmakers, most notoriously in Quentin Tarantino's 1992 Reservoir Dogs.

Now we have The Replacement Killers, the first feature from music-video director Antoine Fuqua. Much as Badfinger's appearance on the Apple label marked them as the "official" Beatles clone, so is The Replacement Killers the closest thing to an "official" John Woo knockoff: It was executive produced by Woo and partners Terence Chang and Chris Godsick as the American debut of Hong Kong star Chow Yun-Fat, whose career has been inextricably linked with Woo's since the mid-1980s.

It was '86's A Better Tomorrow that made both Woo and Chow (his surname, for those unfamiliar with Chinese name order) leading figures in H.K. cinema, and Chow went on to star in all but one of Woo's remaining Hong Kong films, always playing either a crook or a cop. It's not surprising, then, that The Replacement Killers casts Chow as hired killer John Lee. In the opening sequence, Lee saunters into a crowded club, takes out two guns, and stylishly dispatches a tableful of gangsters.

We soon learn that this is the second of three jobs Lee owes powerful triad boss Terence Wei (Kenneth Tsang). His third assignment is to exact revenge on cop Stan Zedkov (Michael Rooker), who killed Wei's adult son in the line of duty, by killing Zedkov's 7-year-old son in his presence. When Lee, a family man, is unable to bring himself to carry out this loathsome task, Wei puts out a contract on him as well.

Wei's hired killers catch up with Lee in the office of passport forger Meg Coburn (Mira Sorvino). Coburn helps Lee to blast them all to hellandgone, making her yet another target of Wei's vendetta. The rest of the film has Lee and Coburn on the lam, avoiding both the cops and the mobsters, while trying to protect Zedkov's son from the replacement killers--weren't you beginning to wonder?--Wei hires to finish the job.

It's surprising that The Replacement Killers, even with Woo's involvement, falls down in some of the same ways that all the other Hollywood Woo imitations (save Woo's own Face/Off) have. Fuqua has done an admirable job staging the action scenes, but the script is little more than a thin framework to justify those scenes. The film makes gestures at the sort of melodramatic, emotional underpinnings that give Woo's work its resonance, but they never feel like anything more than gestures.

Some of the trouble, strangely enough, comes from Chow's performance. Like Cary Grant, to whom he is most often compared, Chow is both an extraordinary actor and a great movie star: In his 70-some H.K. features, he was equally adept in gangster films, farce, sophisticated comedy, and straight drama.

But one of the crucial traits that runs through almost all his work is an effortless sense of "cool"--a devil-may-care charm that surfaces even under the worst circumstances. Chow's character is almost relentlessly grim in The Replacement Killers, and it's a decision that serves him poorly, particularly in his big introduction to American viewers. To cast Chow as broodingly troubled (rather than jauntily troubled) is a bit like casting Robin Williams and then forcing him to...talk...real...slowly. The result gives no more than a glimpse of the qualities that have made him one of the three biggest stars in Hong Kong.

On a scene-to-scene level, the film will please most action fans; Fuqua does the best Woo pastiche this side of Robert Rodriguez. (Two shootouts--one in a car wash, the other in a crowded movie theater--are particularly nifty.) And Sorvino is excellent as Lee's sidekick, even though the script doesn't allow much sexual chemistry between them. But it's hard not to be disappointed by Chow's less-than-dazzling American debut. What's really needed is for Woo himself to direct the star in a vehicle that brings out the real Chow. In an era when movie stars are a precious and increasingly rare commodity, Hollywood can ill afford to let the likes of Chow go unused.

The Replacement Killers.
Directed by Antoine Fuqua. Written by Ken Sanzel. Starring Chow Yun-Fat, Mira Sorvino, Kenneth Tsang, and Jurgen Prochnow. Opens Friday.

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