The realization that there is something innately cockeyed about "The Replacement Killers" sets in with the awareness that the movie isn't about what its title indicates: The lead characters portrayed by Asian action hero Chow Yun-Fat and Mira Sorvino are actually the targets of the titular assassins.

The realization that there is something innately cockeyed about “The Replacement Killers” sets in with the awareness that the movie isn’t about what its title indicates: The lead characters portrayed by Asian action hero Chow Yun-Fat and Mira Sorvino are actually the targets of the titular assassins. A Westernization of the Hong Kong movies of Chow, here making his American film debut, and exec producers John Woo and Terence Chang, this mechanical effort is studied rather than heartfelt and will disappoint aficionados and thwart potential fans. Result will be tepid box office returns (it’s already considered a disappointment in the Far East, where it opened last week), with limited play. Follow-up in ancillaries should be OK, but it remains a niche genre item.

Chow is on familiar ground as John Lee, a hired gun with a debt to pay to Manhattan-transplanted Asian crime czar Terence Wei (Kenneth Tsang). His final mission is to murder the 7-year-old boy of the cop (Michael Rooker) responsible for the death of Wei’s son during a botched drug transaction. However, in a sequence that seems like a variation on the opening scene of Woo’s “Face/Off,” when he has the boy in his sights, a crisis of conscience prevents him from pulling the trigger.

Lee knows his decision will make him a target of whoever is brought in to finish the job. He also realizes that his mother and young sister back in Shanghai are living on borrowed time. On the way to the airport for his return to China, he contacts master forger Meg Coburn (Sorvino) to get a phony passport. But before the rush job is ready, Wei’s trigger men descend and Lee and Coburn begin their long flight, pursued through New York discos, restaurants and a car wash.

First-time feature director Antoine Fuqua, a hot musicvid and commercials helmer, and scripter Ken Sanzel have obviously studied every slo-mo sequence and violently choreographed ballet of blood Hong Kong has served up in recent years. While an apt homage, the set pieces here are technical but not visceral, feeling manufactured rather than organically integrated into the plot.

The performances, too, have a rote quality. Chow is shot much in the way that catapulted him to stardom in Woo’s films “The Killers” and “A Better Tomorrow.” He’s an elegant, soulful presence with a heart beating behind those cold eyes, a man who conveys the instincts and nine lives of a cat. But he still needs significant quality time with a voice coach to have a have a prayer of a career beyond the former Crown Colony.

Sorvino is once again in macha form, though for most of the pic’s running time she fires off rounds of ammunition without coming close to doing physical injury. She has the requisite humor but lacks the flinty quality necessary for the role. The supporting players are good in undemanding parts, but it’s a disappointment to see German star Til Schweiger’s talents squandered in the thankless role of one of the title characters.

Fuqua directs “The Replacement Killers” with the glee of a big, loud musicvideo that’s not particularly interested in content. It’s a rudderless style piece; as the old saw cautions, accept no substitutes.

The Replacement Killers

Production

A Sony Pictures release of a Columbia Pictures presentation of a Bernie Brillstein/Brad Grey and WCG Entertainment production. Produced by Grey, Brillstein. Executive producers, John Woo, Terence Chang, Christopher Godsick, Matthew Baer. Co-producer, Michael McDonnell. Directed by Antoine Fuqua. Screenplay, Ken Sanzel.

With

John Lee - Chow Yun-Fat Meg Coburn - Mira Sorvino Stan (Zeedo) Zedkov - Michael Rooker Michael Kogan - Jurgen Prochnow Terence Wei - Kenneth Tsang Ryker - Til Schweiger Collins - Danny Trejo Loco - Clifton Gonzalez Gonzalez Alan Chan - Randall Duk Kim
Camera (Technicolor, Panavision widescreen), Peter Lyons Collister; editor, Jay Cassidy; music, Harry Gregson-Williams; production design, Naomi Shohan; art direction, David Lazan; set decoration, Evette Knight; costume design, Arianne Phillips; sound (Dolby/ SDDS), Douglas B. Arnold; stunt coordinator, Allan Graf; assistant director, Jeffrey Wetzel; casting, Wendy Kurtzman. Reviewed at Sony Studios, Culver City, Jan. 30, 1998. MPAA Rating; R. Running time: 86 min.
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