*½/**** Image A Sound A- Extras B+
starring Chow Yun-Fat, Mira Sorvino, Michael Rooker, Jurgen Prochnow
screenplay by Ken Sanzel
directed by Antoine Fuqua
by Bill Chambers Chow Yun-Fat, the Asian Cary Grant (even their jawlines are similar), is so suave that he wore a white tuxedo to last year's Hong Kong Awards, a black-jacket affair akin to the Oscars. And did the ladies swoon! (I got a little flush myself.) Since catching said awards show on a multicultural TV station, it has been my desire to revisit The Replacement Killers, because an initial viewing challenged the Will Rogers philosophy I have about Chow Yun-Fat movies: I never met one in which he disappointed. This man at the podium was too cool to have ever earned my apathy, wasn't he?
Brother Chow's English-language debut, The Replacement Killers also marks the first feature from commercial helmer Antoine Fuqua (read: Few-kwah); that both worked in Hollywood again is a minor miracle, not for the picture's deficiencies, but rather because The Replacement Killers doesn't demonstrate much promise. It looks sleek, as does Chow, yet neither the film nor its star has a personality that keeps our attention focused on the screen.
A gloss on John Woo's breakout vehicle The Killer (making the title somewhat ironic), where Chow played a penance-seeking assassin, The Replacement Killers involves a cop (a constipated Michael Rooker) who killed a Chinese smuggler--the grandson of mob boss Mr. Wei (Kenneth Tsang)--in a raid and the hit-man, John Lee (Brother Chow), assigned by Mr. Wei to rub out the flatfoot's own much younger son in revenge. John has a crisis of conscience, natch, and goes to passport forger Meg Coburn (Mira Sorvino, revealing a sultry side) with the intention of skipping town before his bosses can teach him a lesson in loyalty.
"The replacement killers" are the gunmen (Til Schweiger and Danny Trejo, reduced to silent, phallic cameos, both--not unlike Brother Chow, come to think of it) brought in to do what John Lee couldn't stomach; Meg, realizing they're only halfway through the movie, suggests to John that he switch allegiances by offing his substitutes to protect the marked child. That's the wonderful thing about Chow: he's always up for a shoot-out. I suppose that's the wonderful thing about Fuqua, too, as his subsequent efforts Bait and Training Day demonstrate. The Replacement Killers tests our patience, however, by opening with not one but two consecutive action sequences.
Fuqua's glossy style is so portentous it requires of everyone to act like a monotone depressive, far from the ideal environment for Brother Chow. The telltale moment arrives in the midst of a bullet orgy at a car wash: Chow rolls out from under a vehicle, blasts away at the unsuspecting thug standing over him, and then...returns to his original position. No wink, no toothpick, nothing any old Asian superstar couldn't have done. Any time Chow's charisma bleeds through in The Replacement Killers, it's not by invitation, as Fuqua's uninterested in that which gives a movie levity. The most dispiriting thing about The Replacement Killers is that it proves Chow's charisma can be contained.
Columbia TriStar has reissued The Replacement Killers on DVD, replacing their catalogue version with a Special Edition that cooks to the extent it can. Abandoning the optional full-frame transfer of the previous disc, the SE presents the film in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen and the quality of the image dazzles. Detail is crisp without obvious edge enhancement, the stylized colours are foxy, and contrast is brilliant. The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio fulfills the proverbial promise of rocking the house (thick bass here), though I expected a little more verve from the surround channels, which are reserved for texture--mostly car alarms and the like get diverted to the rears. A terribly annoying malfunction of the SE: At last, Sony has left a film's burned-in subtitles intact, but it was all for naught as the DVD automatically superimposes yellow Spanish text over the English translations of The Replacement Killers' few, brief Cantonese exchanges.
Supplements begin with a hospitable screen-specific commentary from Fuqua wherein he's nostalgic for working with Chow and outlines the largely intuitive "visual place" from which he directs. Moving on, we have a pair of featurettes: HBO's "Where the Action Is" (10 mins.), with Matt Baer, executive producer of The Replacement Killers, opening up an enormous can of worms by saying, "If [commercial directors] can tell a story in thirty seconds, imagine what they can do in two hours!"; and Jeffrey Schwarz's "Chow Yun-Fat Goes Hollywood" (20 mins.), which includes interviews with the man himself (circa 1998), Fuqua, GIANT ROBOT MAGAZINE editor Erik Nakamura, and others and improves as it goes along. For instance, once pleasantries are out of the way, Terence Chang, the Chinese Jerry Bruckheimer, relates the terrifying incident that cemented Chow's decision to embark on a Hollywood career, and several key members of The Replacement Killers' production team dollop praise on Brother Chow by citing specific, fascinating examples of his collaborative tendencies. Alas, the video climaxes with a montage of Chow walking around the set of The Replacement Killers calling everybody "boss," an unfortunate note of obsequiousness on which to end.
Four throwaway extensions and one omitted monologue of sorts delivered by Chow comprise a section of Deleted Scenes. A separate alternative ending, cut for dubious reasons (bi-racial couplings so often remain platonic in studio releases that one remains suspicious even after Fuqua defends its removal in his feature commentary (on the grounds of keeping sexual implications out of Meg and John's motive for joining forces)), filmographies for Chow, Fuqua, and Sorvino, and trailers for The Replacement Killers, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and The One round out the disc. Originally published: March 5, 2002.