The Replacement Killers
1998, R, 88 min. Directed by Antoine Fuqua. Starring Chow Yun-Fat, Mira Sorvino, Kenneth Tsang.
REVIEWED By Russell Smith, Fri., Feb. 6, 1998
An amazing number of people at the packed-to-the-rafters preview screening of The Replacement Killers were under the impression they were about to see a new John Woo movie. Bet it didn't take 'em long to realize how gravely mistaken they were. Apart from the presence of pug-faced superstar Chow Yun-Fat, there's not much here that truly recalls producer Woo's late Eighties and early Nineties action landmarks such as A Better Tomorrow I and II, The Killer, and Hard-Boiled. The responsible party is in fact Antoine Fuqua, a music video director (Coolio's Gangsta's Paradise) by trade. To put it as kindly as possible, Fuqua is a well-intended tyro who wrongly assumes that his obvious love for action movies qualifies him to make them himself. The most serious problem here isn't that Fuqua fails to reach the gold standard of prime Woo; not even Woo is managing that lately. It's more the grievous lack of basic action staples like suspense, emotional intensity, and the all-important dramatic foreplay leading up to the orgasmic release of the shoot-'em-up, burn-'em-to-cinders melees. The story is straightforward. Hit man John Lee (Chow) is sent by Chinese-American Triad boss Wei (Tsang) to assassinate the seven-year-old son of a cop who killed his own son. Lee can't bring himself to pull the trigger and has to flee Wei's wrath, inadvertently dragging fake-ID specialist Meg Coburn (Sorvino) into the fray as he tries to hightail it back to China. The Replacement Killers flouts buddy-movie convention by pairing two basically cool personalities rather than the usual zany hothead/by-the-book milquetoast duo, and both Chow and Sorvino have the charm and sex appeal to make this approach viable. Unfortunately, true to the classical video director stereotype, Fuqua is so obsessed with frameline-to-frameline visual virtuosity that humans often seem as much design elements as characters. That wouldn't be completely ruinous if the style were in any way distinctive. Alas, The Replacement Killers generally feels more like a “movielike” computer shootout game than an actual movie. Doomy, thudding beats pulse monotonously in the background. Walls are mottled with grimy, mustard-colored varnish. Indigo and pink lights emanate from every nook and cranny, giving sets the bizarre ambiance of Las Vegas tiki lounges. Dead-faced villains in black shades tromp shoulder-to-shoulder down hallways, big guns at the ready. It all seems so numbingly ritualistic that even the well-choreographed gun battles, probably the most Woo-like aspects of the film, lose much of their potential impact. Most disappointing, though, is the failure to give Chow, a uniquely soulful, ingratiating presence and one of the better actors in action cinema today, a chance to strut his stuff for mainstream American audiences. Rather than a worthy successor to Chow's full-bodied Tequila character from Hard-Boiled, the oddly restrained John Lee has more of a watery near-beer taste. Better Tomorrow? Here's hoping.