“An enlightened man would offer a weary traveler a bed for the night, and invite him to share a quiet conversation over a bowl of… Cocoa Puffs.”
A martial arts action-comedy film starring Chow Yun Fat in a rare comedic role, Bulletproof Monk belongs in the same general category as Big Trouble in Little China and Galaxy Quest – comedies that rely on making affectionate fun of the genre they are in, while taking their story seriously in the context of the film itself. As such, it is a tremendously fun movie, with all sorts of references to the action and martial arts movie genres, with enough seriousness to allow us to invest something into the characters and their struggles.
The overall plot is – deliberately – constructed of some of the most durable and reliable clichés of action cinema. The film opens in 1943 with a young monk passing his final tests and becoming the keeper of a scroll of immense power – for 60 years it will make him nigh-invincible and capable of superhuman feats as well as maintaining his youth. But just as the transfer is complete, a force of Nazis arrives seeking the scroll; they kill almost everyone except the young monk, who escapes.
The tests the young monk passed are those which must be passed for each new holder of the scroll: he must fight an army of enemies while cranes circle above, he must fight for love in the palace of jade, he must rescue brothers he never knew he had, and once chosen he gives up his name. Thus the Monk is only known as “Monk” throughout the film.
Already we can see some of our favorite clichés being distilled into a single movie: ancient master passing on his power, a secret of world-shaking power that must be protected, Nazis trying to capture a supernatural power during WWII, the old master being killed in front of the young apprentice, and so on.
Sixty years pass, and it is time for the Scroll’s power to be passed on. The Monk is looking for his successor… but there is someone else looking for the Monk, as they have been for sixty years…
… as one might expect, these elements collide (literally) in New York City, when a young man whose name is only given as “Kar” runs into the Monk in a subway; the two save a girl who falls from the platform onto the tracks, which shows the Monk that Kar is, at heart, a good man (although he is also a thief).
The following sequences are quietly hysterical at times. The Monk becomes an implacably cheerful stalker, following Kar to see if he might possibly be the successor the Monk is seeking. When Kar ends up fighting the entire set of enforcers of a ganglord in a loading area, the Monk suddenly looks up, then down, and realizes that Kar is “fighting an army of enemies while… cranes… circle above”. He follows Kar to his home and discovers Kar’s martial-arts prowess comes from… studying martial-arts movies, and tests Kar’s patience and resolve by remaining in Kar’s home regardless of Kar’s objections (uttering, at one point, the line quoted above). There is of course also a girl, named Jade, who was one of the ganglord’s group but who had some sympathy for Kar… and is also more formidable than she appears. Kar and Jade are actually pretty much equally matched and as the Monk observes them, he starts to wonder which of them might actually be the one he seeks.
The Nazi, named Strucker, is meanwhile revealed to be still alive – ancient but no less vicious, and one who has coordinated huge efforts to preparing the technology and resources to use the Monk’s power to allow Strucker to achieve what Hitler failed to. Yes, we now have Nazi SUPER-SCIENCE added to the plot! And to top off our “Nazi Tropes” order, his right-hand person is an icily beautiful blonde named Nina – who is of course also a very badass martial artist in her own right.
I won’t spoiler the rest of the plot – although, given that this is a completely deliberate play on a every martial arts and thriller movie ever made, you can rest assured there’s last-minute escapes, shocking betrayals, reversals of fortune, desperate last chances, the power of love, and because this is also a comedy there are occasional embarrassments, dramatic failures, and bon mots scattered throughout.
This is one of those movies where I look at the box office and reactions and wonder if other people were watching the same movie I was, because I love this movie. I’ve watched it several times with my wife and others, and Chow-Yun Fat demonstrates superb, understated comedic timing and delivery, something twice as funny coming from the guy more known for angst-filled dramas like The Killer. Is this one of the great masterpieces of the ages? No, but it’s a hell of a lot of fun and well worth getting to see. Go see a couple of modern misfits save the world alongside a (sort of) immortal monk against a bunch of super-science Nazis!