John Woo has generated plenty of American disciples in the decade since his Hong Kong action movies started 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. Almost as early was prolific B-movie director Albert Pyun, whose 1993 Nemesis had some of the best imitation Woo on record.
But there were others who tried a more a difficult feat -- emulating Woo's bravura camera and editing style. The most successful was Robert Rodriguez in Desperado (1995), even if his film lacked the overall dramatic vision that underlies Woo's best work. 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.
1986's A Better Tomorrow made both Woo and Chow 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) by killing Zedkov's 7-year-old son in his presence. (Zedkov killed Wei's adult son in the line of duty.) When Lee, a family man himself, 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 away, 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 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 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 a thin framework to justify those scenes. The film makes gestures at the sort of melodramatic, emotional underpinnings that give Woo's work its deeper 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, straight drama -- just about everything except for period martial-arts films. (Like Grant, who looked positively ridiculous in the Revolutionary-era setting of The Howards of Virginia, Chow is somehow irrevocably modern-looking.)
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. It's part of what makes him the hero every man (and some women) wants to be and every woman (and some men) wants to get close to. For whatever reason, 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. One need only compare the opening sequence to its obvious model, the "flowerpot" scene in A Better Tomorrow. In the former, Lee goes about his unpleasant work without the trace of a grin; in fact, he barely cracks a smile until the very last scene. To cast Chow as broodingly troubled (rather than jauntily troubled) is a bit like casting Robin Williams and then forcing him to ... talk ... very ... slowly.
Some of the problem may result from Chow's discomfort with English. Like many Hong Kong arrivals in Hollywood, Chow is self-conscious about his English, more self-conscious, in fact, than he has any reason to be. He spent two years in Los Angeles working on the language, but the script still feels as though it's been pared down to spare him anything but the most indispensable dialogue.
Whatever the reason for the tone of Chow's performance, the result gives no more than a glimpse of the qualities that have made him one of the three biggest stars in Hong Kong (along with Jackie Chan and Stephen Chow), second only to Chan in the rest of Asia, and handily (no disrespect to Chan) the most versatile of the lot. On a scene-to-scene level, the film will please most action fans; Fuqua does the best Woo pastiche this side of Rodriguez. (Two shootouts -- one in a carwash, the other in a crowded movie theater -- are particularly nifty.) And Sorvino is excellent as Lee's tough-babe sidekick, even though the script doesn't allow much sexual chemistry between them.
But, for those who look forward to Chow taking American audiences by storm, it's hard not to be disappointed by this less-than-dazzling American debut. What's really needed -- besides for Chow to relax more -- 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.