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“Directed by Antoine Fuqua,” whooshes the announceris there only one announcer?at the end of the trailer for the John Woo-executive-produced The Replacement Killers, as if we can be expected to understand and be impressed. Turns out this Fuqua fellow is or was a music-video director, and his training shows in every frame of his big-screen directorial debut.
Movies have been learning from MTV for 15 years nowthey had better, since visual innovation in music videos is increasing exponentially, and the attendant cultural sophistication has mutated to the point that audience expectations and limitations are much wider and allow for more subtlety than they did three and a half minutes ago.
But with few exceptions (Julien Temple, the guys who did those Crow movies), crossover directors understand only the screen’s visual demands, not its visceral ones. The Replacement Killers is loud, fast, and impressively action-packed; things keep moving, even if it’s a bore to watch some of the propulsion. Its locations are hundreds of times more fascinating to look at than most of its actorsHong Kong action legend Chow Yun-Fat being the obvious exceptionand the action isn’t expressive or detailed, but it’s damn kinetic. Did I mention how loud the thing is?
The Replacement Killers falls into the trap of being hyped and portentous, sensitive to every aural and visual click and gleam but dense to the demands of story. Which is a shame, because it has a plot as good as any normal movie’s.
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Chow plays John Lee, a reluctant professional killer hired temporarily by underworld big guy Mr. Wei. (“Everybody works for Mr. Wei,” you hear at some point, and this would seem to be true.) Wei wants revenge for the shooting death of his own son by a detective, and the detached Lee seems just the guy for the job. But it’s a particularly ugly manner of vengeance, and Lee can’t bring himself to do it, so he plans to make for China, high-tailing it to the one document-forger working outside Wei’s web, street-smart punkette Meg Coburn (Mira Sorvino). The two of them shoot their way out of everything and everywhere before the final showdown and gentle ending. A nice and simple thriller plot, with a humanitarian twist and none of that pesky love stuff.
But Fuqua can’t help himself; The Replacement Killers is lip-lickingly high-pitchednot so much eye candy as eye red meat. There are acres of hard-clicking weaponry, lots of fireworks, slo-mo sea splashes, and enough leather outerwear to keep every dominatrix in Hong Kong warm all winter. Even the focusing of a telescopic rifle sight is accompanied by an exaggerated vrooming noise as it locks on to its target. The atmosphere of high drama is so consistent that Fuqua doesn’t have time to notice the lack of actual drama. Power makes way for the less riveting frenzy; the film has no expansion and contraction of rhythm. Some manner of ominoso folderol on the soundtrack is always pretending something’s afooteven when the foot’s asleep.
Hong Kong action flicks are telegenic by nature, and though The Replacement Killers isn’t set in Hong Kong, its return address is HK Action Flick Landa wire-strung, decaying, multicultural nightmare Los Angeles. The mix of ornate old and high-tech new is too irresistible: matte black guns, temple incense, sleek office buildings, abacuses, abandoned warehouses. There is something endearingly old-fashioned about this brand of action thrillereven musty old James Bond has updated his accessories drawer with more care. At one point, the title characters get off a plane and walk through the airport lounge, impenetrable shades on, black leather coats flappingthey might as well have stickers on their luggage reading, “Hi, I’m a paid assassin!”
But the movie negotiates this attractive intersection with great style and speed. L.A.’s Chinatown has the narrow alleys and duck shops of Shanghai, but every action sequence sports a twist. There isn’t just a car chase through places cars shouldn’t go (namely, the streets of L.A.), but a stalking sequence on foot in a working car wash, with Chow ack-acking suavely as he skates away supine on one of those low platforms on wheels.
Anyone who has even brushed by the cassette case of a John Woo movie knows how cool Chow Yun-Fat is. He needs no postmodern sense of self-mocking humor to get him through the day, nor Jackie Chan’s boyishness nor Bond’s class-anxious high-life trappings. John Lee is a good, serious man with a job to do; he isn’t particularly athletic, since all his speed is in his gunplay, although he might spin around before firing.
Sorvino plays the scrappy, felonious sidekick, thankfully with less mouth than usual. (Ken Sanzel’s terse script keeps a lid on the banter and makes the exposition crystalline.) She’s good with a gun but not as wised-up as she thinks, especially among the corrupt and targeted, both cops and outlaws. Her Meg doesn’t have much to do between blam-blamno sex, please: Chow’s courtliness is a reproof to the whole ugly business he’s in, including that of Hollywoodbut she does all right by omission: no whining, no girl tricks, no saucy one-liners.
Their partnership and their respectful attitude toward each other are nicely low-key compared with the vein-popping cartoon thugs who spring up like ducks in a shooting gallery. Chow is a modern man’s man in an old-fashioned movie: He’s humane and decent without being sentimental, and he’ll put a large hole in anyone he needs to prove it to. No wonder Meg sniffles when he gets on that plane to mainland China: She has never met a fugitive like him.CP