Epitomizing how boys’ fantasies have taken over much of the action-adventure genre, “Bulletproof Monk” tells the unbelievable saga of a Tibetan monk passing on the source of all-powerful knowledge to a couple of callow American youth. Not surprisingly based on a comic book series by Brett Lewis and R.A. Jones (whom pic fails to credit), pic hurtles along at a pace designed by vet music vid and ad helmer Paul Hunter to engage short attention spans. Only adults will likely object to the innumerable plot question marks coming off the screen like so many kung-fu kicks to the head. Solid pre-teen and teen turnouts are assured in early weeks, but MGM is shrewd to trot this one out before it is upstaged by “The Matrix Reloaded.”
Equally shrewd is Chow Yun-Fat making a return to English-language movies after his last role in “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.” But there’s little that’s memorable about his perf here as the Monk With No Name. Chow seems to be deliberately playing to a much younger crowd, marking a long drop for him from his great, blistering roles under helmer John Woo, who (along with partner Terence Chang) serves here as one of the many producers.
As if to recall the “Crouching Tiger” connection, action erupts in 1942 Tibet, where the Monk carries on some vertiginous, martial arts practice with his Master (Roger Yuan) on a rope bridge. The Master chooses the Monk to be the next guardian of a scroll with immense powers (of a kind never fully explained), and passes the mantle on to him. A nice perk for any scroll guardian is that the task stops the aging process. Downside, however, is that the job involves being constantly hunted down by lots of bad guys.
The prime hunter is a real doozy, lending pic some unintended camp appeal. Even though, historically, Nazi troops never invaded the Himalayan territory, here the Storm Troopers, led by the ruthless Struker (Karel Roden), appear and gun down the Master. However, they are unable to grab the scroll away from the Monk, who escapes by leaping off a cliff.
Sixty years later, the action continues in the streets of an unnamed North American city (savvy viewers will correctly recognize it as part Toronto, part Vancouver), cutting between the Monk being pursued by henchmen — who look like they’re out of central casting — and Kar (Seann William Scott), a pickpocket being chased by cops.
With their script already loaded with signs that narrative cohesion is on holiday, writers Ethan Reiff and Cyrus Voris set up a strained situation in which Kar actually knows martial arts. It’s an especially awkward adaptation of the original comic, which depicts Kar as a teenage Tibetan exile whose subsequent response to the needs of the Monk follows naturally from his character.
In this version, an inordinate amount of time is spent with the Monk just trying to convince Kar that he has gifts and is capable of confirming the prophecies that make him the next rightful carrier of the scroll.
Just as strained is how Bad Girl (Jaime King), actually a good little rich girl named Jade in the daytime, interacts with a suspicious Aryan blonde woman named Nina (Victoria Smurfit) at an exhibit of the Human Rights Organization, which turns out to be a front for the diabolical schemes of the now-wizened Strucker, still lusting for the potent scroll.
Pic ends up sampling bites from several dishes, including teen movie staples, American-style (read: subdued) versions of H.K.-style fighting and a Baroque demonstration that Hollywood has come full circle in its gallery of evildoers, returning once again to the old Nazi chestnut.
Chow’s patented brand of action heroism is absent here, and instead, he is always imparting wisdom and motivation to Kar, who doesn’t seem worth all of the fuss. King, having changed her first name from James to the oddly spelled Jaime, completely grabs the spotlight away from Scott with her sizzling glances and self-sure attitude.
As always with Asian-inspired American actioners, there’s a trade-off: Staging and editing of the fights (choreographed by Wong Wai Leung) is quite tame by H.K. standards, but visual effects — with a few exceptions — are aces. Production designer Deborah Evans pulls out all the stops with Struker’s high-tech torture dungeon, but Eric Serra’s score is a poor blend of cutesy ditties and mock-Chinese licks.