John Carpenter's Big Trouble in Little China (1986) was the first American film to recognise that strong wind blowing in from the East: the phenomenal creativity and energy contained in Hong Kong's wildly popular action films, costume fantasies and extravagant comedies. Ever since, Hollywood has gingerly tried to incorporate the stylised violence, melodramatic fancy and giddy humour of the Hong Kong model – a model that was itself a radical reworking of American forms from gangster movies to slick music videos.
Antoine Fuqua's The Replacement Killers is the latest flowering of this trans-national exchange program. It is designed essentially as a vehicle for Hong Kong star Chow Yun-Fat, in his first English-speaking role. On board as executive producer is John Woo, director of Chow's finest action vehicles (The Killer , Hard Boiled ). Unfortunately, the result is a washed-out imitation of a Woo film, intriguing but rarely exciting.
Chow plays John, a cold-blooded killer who is handed an unsavoury assignment that pricks his moral conscience and prompts him to skip town. As John waits for Meg (Mira Sorvino) to fake his papers, the minions of the highly displeased Mr Big (Kenneth Tsang) show up, blasting. John and Meg become an odd couple on the run – and they run even faster when two "replacement killers" arrive to finish the clean-up job.
Sorvino's Meg is a bizarre and not especially interesting creation. As a supposed emblem of post-feminist, sub-cultural, bad girl style, she is as vague and unconvincing as the violent femmes who populate such Australian action films as Redheads (1992). Sporting a razor blade around her neck as a fashion statement (it's a pity she never gets to wield it against the bad guys), Meg takes a stand at regular intervals to declare: "No man tells me what to do!"
Apart from one fetishistic flash of Meg changing clothes, and an obligatory, HK-style touch of ritual sado-masochism (when John cracks Meg's leg bones back into alignment), The Replacement Killers is surprisingly devoid of any erotic or romantic spark between its lead players. Such coyness is standard in popular Chinese cinema, but it punches an odd hole in the centre of a Hollywood spectacular.
Like many of the films so far made by Chinese directors in America (from Woo's Hard Target  to Tsui Hark's Double Team ), The Replacement Killers registers as an uneasy, mid-way compromise between two national styles of filmmaking.
Although the endless violent clinches are pumped-up with every crazy camera angle and loud sound effect available, they possess neither the visceral kick of the best American action movies, nor the strange, lyrical poetry of Woo's home-grown classics.
However, seen more in the tradition of Tsui Hark, the film does offer some remarkable (and rather detachable) sequences worth studying closely. Fuqua moves with dexterity in his action scenes between schematic relations and an ecstasy of abstraction – cued especially by the momentary obscurings of vision prompted by fog, steam, water, tall grass.
Maybe these moments are not enough to redeem the film as a whole. Fans of Chow Yun-fat will certainly want to see his strong, silent, elegant, tough-guy act in a new context – but even the star's substantial charisma is pretty wasted.
© Adrian Martin March 1998/January 2003