A kung-fu Indiana Jones? Charismatic performances from the leads make this more enjoyable than you may expect.
There is a scroll containing a spell that grants the reader unimaginable power to create paradise or hell on earth, depending on their inclination. It was decided that humanity is not yet ready for this power and the scroll is locked away from the world, guarded by an order of Tibetan monks. One monk is chosen in particular to be protector, who must lose his name for no adequately explained reason. It's not all bad, in return for the nomenclature the scroll protects the protector, healing wounds, preventing aging, enhancing powers and dry-cleaning underwear. We join the film in 1943 with an almost impressive fight on a rope bridge over a crevasse between Monk (Chow Yun Fat) and his Master, marred only by some awful green-screening. Monk wins, and Master declares his training complete. A ceremony passes the powers over to Monk just as a wandering troupe of Nazis appear to lay waste to the temple and claim the scroll, having had sub-optimal returns on their Lost Ark and Temple of Doom expeditions.
Monk escapes the carnage after dispatching of all the Krauts bar their leader, the dodgilly accented Strucker (Karel Roden). He shoots Monk, causing him to plummet off a cliff. This simple act of obeying gravity seems to inordinately puzzle Strucker, but as we find out later given the powers afforded to Monk it wasn't entirely unreasonable to expect to find him hovering in mid-air.
The next we see of Monk is in present day American City, probably supposed to be New York although director Paul Hunter seems to have gone out of his way to ensure it's as generic a city as possible. Nefarious agents are still chasing him, and he's still running. One other character running is common pick-pocket Kar (Seann William Scott), from more common law enforcement types. Their accidental collision in a subway station throws a small child onto the rail tracks, somehow getting trapped. The two clearly feel guilty about this and join forces to save the girl, Kar being suitably impressed by Monk's funky telekinetic bolt undoing powers. As the two wander down the subterranean tunnels, Monk starts busting out the mystical fortune cookie homilies to Kar's annoyance, including the "You should not be asking me who I am, you should be asking yourself who you are" rubbish.
This annoys Kar so much he nicks the scroll from Monk's bag on their parting, which unfortunately he doesn't keep for too long before stumbling into Mr. Funktastic's (Marcus J. Pirae) underground lair, which for sanity's sake we'll lightly skip over. He's peeved that Kar has been lifting on his territory and promptly orders a beating from his crew. This allows Kar to show off his fairly impressive chop-sockey mastery, learnt from a seemingly improbable source. He lives above and works as projectionist for the Golden Palace cinema, devoted to kung-fu, and practices along to the movies once the cinema has emptied. Seems odd, but seeing as almost every other action movie seems to have people learning advanced kung-fu from the ether it's nice to see some attempt made to explain it away logically.
As all this action unfolds, for the most part well captured by motion picture first timer Hunter, Monk sneaks back and retrieves the scroll. He hangs around watching for a while, making some references to the same prophecies that saw his ascent to the protector. He sees enough potential in Kar to follow him around after the fight comes to it's conclusion, bothering him about his thieving lifestyle choice, peeving Kar yet more.
Given the quality time they're spending it's inevitable that Kar gets caught up in the chase for Monk, which we find out is being orchestrated by the age-ravaged Strucker and his grand-daughter, the equally unconvincing Nina (Victoria Smurfit). This little pair is easily the worst flaw in the movie, doing nearly everything wrong. It's difficult to become involved in a movie when the heroes are struggling against evil-doers totally void of charisma, so it's surprising that the remarkable chemistry displayed between Scott and Fat manage to mostly counteract this. It does make for a disappointingly flat final act however, as all the action in the world can't make up for an awful nemesis.
Monk and Kar are aided on their quest to safeguard the scroll by Jade (Jamie King) a daughter of a jailed Russian mobster and love interest for Kar. She'd feel out of place if she didn't know kung-fu, so we should be thankful that she does. Astonishingly, she also establishes a good rapport with Fat and Scott, which is one of the reasons this film works. As a strict kung-fu, wire-based fighting film it falls on it's face. There simply isn't enough fighting and what's present wouldn't be good enough to carry it. What it does have in spades is a great, almost buddy-comedy relationship between the leads which is rarely seen outside of Owen Wilson movies.
This isn't quite enough to forgive it its failings. Smurfit and Roden are utterly appalling in their roles, and the aging makeup applied to Roden is of the four inches thick latex variety, which masks any emotion he may have been trying to get across. There are some astonishingly overblown images, including Monk being strapped almost crucifix life to a torture machine, which is inexplicably and frankly idiotically water powered.
This is a shame as it irretrievably damages a movie that manages to have more than it's share of innovative scenes to what could easily have been an entirely by-the-numbers flick. There's a great scene where a disgruntled Kar attacks Monk while he's eating a bowl of Kar's Coco Puffs, dodging his attacks easily while balancing and flipping the bowl, never spilling a drop. There's a great touch when Monk disposes of a few henchmen by dropping the clips from his dual handguns and kicking the clips at them. There's a sort-of twist at the end, which despite being plainly laid out in retrospect I didn't see coming. The plot and dialogue is for the most part above the expected norm for this fare, possibly stemming from it's comic book adaptation. Having never seen any of the books I'm not best placed to comment. The script wisely downplays the more mystical elements of Monks calling, treating them in a light-hearted manner that stops proceedings from becoming entirely too silly.
Seann William Scott could easily have retreated too far into the wise-ass street punk character of Kar and made him too annoying to be sympathetic, but he adds just the right blend of humanity to the role to stop this. Chow Yun Fat struggles with a few of his lines, but not badly or noticeably enough to detract from a good performance. Jamie King is likeable too despite her character being a little glossed over at points.
It's not enough to balance out its flaws though. Treated on it's own, the movie is fun but altogether entirely average, at best. However looking at the upcoming releases, it's difficult to recommend you back this particular movie horse, with both X-Men 2 and The Matrix Reloaded hanging about in the stables ready to bolt. (Incidentally if you hear anyone calling this a Matrix rip-off feel free to smack them, there's little to no bullet time effects in this and that's about the only truly original thing Matrix brought to the table.) Anyone wanting a burst of action may be better served waiting for these to arrive, but if you're desperate for a bit of chop-sockey action it's certainly a better choice than Cradle 2 The Grave.
Were I in the business of passing quantifiable judgements, I'd award this 3/5 TippyMarks.
Seann William Scott (Kar)
Jamie King (Jade)
Karel Roden (Strucker)
Victoria Smurfit (Nina)