Professional assassin John Lee (Chow Yun-fat) is nearing the end of his service to local crime boss Terence Wei (Kenneth Chang). When he is given one final mission to complete – the murder of a police detective’s young son – Lee’s conscience kicks in and he cannot undertake the assignment. On the run from Wei’s gang, he enlists forger Meg Coburn (Mira Sorvino) to provide a false passport and escape home to China.
The Replacement Killers is, to be candid, not a great film. It is a relatively generic and by-the-numbers American ode to Hong Kong action cinema, adopting many of its structural and aesthetic conventions but failing to include any of the charisma or distinctiveness of those earlier and much better Hong Kong productions. Not that film lacks in Hong Kong pedigree: it is co-produced by superstar action director John Woo and stars Asian cinema legend Chow Yun-fat. Its ordinary narrative (from a screenplay by Ken Sanzel) and simplistic characters simply let it down. Why watch a photocopy after all, when the original films are so widely available?
Why, indeed. I hold a soft spot for The Replacement Killers, almost entirely because of its pairing of leads: Chow and Sorvino. They are both exceptional performers. Sorvino comes to The Replacement Killers hot off the success of Romy & Michele’s High School Reunion (1997; a dumb comedy for smart people) and Mighty Aphrodite (1995; it won her an Academy Award). Chow arrives in his first-ever English language picture as perhaps the most widely loved Asian dramatic actor in the world (there may have been better actors, like Leslie Cheung and ‘the two Tonys’, but none of them shared his international profile). The Replacement Killers may be a B-grade movie, but it has lucked out with an A-grade cast. Even the supporting actors have a particular level of cache, including the likes of Michael Rooker, Jürgen Prochnow, Danny Trejo, and Kenneth Tsang.
Visually the film works in a solid and attractive fashion. It is the work of debut director Antoine Fuqua, who like many American action directors cut his teeth shooting pop music videos. From The Replacement Killers he jumps from Bait to the Oscar-winning Training Day, and then a long series of action films and thrillers including King Arthur, Brooklyn’s Finest, and The Equaliser. He does good work here, and captures the visual vibe of pre-Handover Hong King cinema very well.
Unfortunately the screenplay is the Achilles heel that lets the whole production down. All other individual ingredients are well chosen and serviceably delivered, but it is ultimately for a failed end. People with particularly indiscriminate taste in action cinema will enjoy The Replacement Killers on its own merits, and Chow and Sorvino fans will take away some enjoyment from watching them perform together. All other viewers would be best served by copying the theatrical audience back in 1998, who all stayed away.