Kar (Seann William Scott) is a New York City pickpocket who makes a meager living working at a cinema devoted to old Chinese kung fu and Wuxia (wizards and warriors) films. In secret, he practices martial arts techniques in time with his heroes onscreen, until the day he encounters the nameless Guardian (Chow Yun-Fat), a monk who seeks a successor in his quest to protect a supremely powerful scroll from the forces of evil, particularly ex-Nazis who crave its power.
It's apparent that everyone involved in Bulletproof Monk loves those old films equally as much as Kar, and that love pushes this film ahead of the likes of Cradle 2 The Grave and Shanghai Knights, but mediocre execution keeps it from joining the ranks of the great films it emulates.
Lately, Hollywood has picked up the annoying habit of making martial arts stars more palatable by teaming them up with comic relief buddies, which is why Jackie Chan so rarely works alone and Jet Li keeps getting stuck with gangsta rappers. Generally, the buddy ends up getting in the way: slapstick when we really want chop-socky.
Bulletproof Monk manages to overcome that particular curse by dressing itself up as a buddy movie, but in reality strictly adhering to the rules of Wuxia master-passes-torch-to-student films, and dropping them into modern-day New York. Scott, a gifted, natural actor who's limited himself with Dude, Where's My Car-type roles, is expanding into better territory here, and manages to be less annoying than Chris Tucker or Owen Wilson, but he's still got some distance to go. He's not helped by a script that offers little in the way of cleverness or sharp dialogue.
Yun-Fat himself, who could do this part in his sleep, is a hoot and clearly having fun unwinding from his string of overly serious roles (did he smile even once in The Replacement Killers?). His English is greatly improved and it's a pleasure seeing him carry on with the trademark grace and poise he exhibited in his early work with John Woo. And, of course, it wouldn't really be a Yun-Fat action movie without at least one shot of the Hot Headed God of Action Cinema standing in the wind with a gun in each hand.
Paul Hunter's direction is particularly lacking in the action scenes, which are too frenetically edited. He indulges in camera contortions that obscure the onscreen acrobatics and betray his roots as a celebrated MTV director. The best of the old kung fu movies used long single takes to focus on the action rather than the direction.
As it stands, the action in Bulletproof Monk is disappointing. The Guardian tells Kar: "You are the most undisciplined youth I have ever laid eyes on," and he might as well have been talking about the production: plenty of potential misspent by poor discipline.