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Blast San Francisco Bureau

The Replacement Killers
Starring Chow Yun-Fat, Mira Sorvino, Michael Rooker and Jurgen Prochnow
Directed by Antoine Fuqua
Grade: C

You've got a gun-toting Hong Kong god-of-actors Chow Yun-Fat, John Woo executive-producing, a big-ass budget and the hella fine Oscar-winning babe Mira Sorvino. So you tell me: How the hell do you screw up this recipe for slam-bang cinema? Blame director Antoine Fuqua. OK, OK, it's not that bad. "The Replacement Killers" is quite fun. Lots of bullets, lots of Berettas. Lots of shots of Chow being Chow, dressed to a T, well-armed, stone-faced. Cool. Cooler than cool. Kick-Clint-Eastwood's-ass cool.

And Sorvino looks great and sexy with her hands wrapping a handgun. Still, when you get past the murky script, the pyrotechnics, the needlessly acrobatic camera work, you get a less-than-satisfying cinematic feast. The film's plot goes something like this: Detective Stan "Zeedo" Zedkov (played by Michael Rooker) kills a Chinese crime lord's son during a drug raid. To avenge his death, this Triad boss Terrence Wei (Kenneth Tsang) hires a hit man. Enter Chow as John Lee, a killer for hire. He hides out atop a hill overlooking the Zedkov's home; when the policeman and his family are gathered in the driveway, Lee takes aim -- but his conscience keeps him from pulling the trigger. The hit is a miss.

Wei gets more peeved. He orders his right-hand man, played by Jurgen Prochnow, to round up some replacement killers to go after Lee. Seeking to flee the United States, Lee tries to get a fake passport, his ticket back to the mainland. This brings him to a professional forger, played by Sorvino, who operates her black market business in a dingy, abandoned building. But before they can get his phony passport processed, in come the Wei's henchmen. Bullets fly, windows shatter, all hell breaks loose. Lee and the chick find themselves forced into an alliance as they outshoot the bad guys.

Sorvino's character is taken into custody by police while Lee remains in hiding. She is questioned by Zedkov. It's a small world, I guess. Her business in ruins, she eventually finds herself teamed up with Lee. More shoot outs ensue.

Now Wei is really pissed because Lee reneged on a hit and his son's death remains unavenged. So he decides to kill two birds with one stone. He hires hit men to whack Zedkov's young boy and Lee. Our hero and heroine learn of the plot to kill the boy at a movie theater; they rush there and intercept the hit. Somewhere along the line, Lee's friend, a monk, hands him his passport before Wei's guys take the pious man out. (If this all sounds vague and uninteresting that's because it is -- the film's plot really meanders around at this point). Lee and the crime head-honcho finally meet face-to-face in the final minutes of the film. Guess who dies? When the audience is handed a dull plot like that, it's forced to look elsewhere for its thrills in "Killers." They're there. The gun fights peppered generously throughout the film are well-choreographed and effectively shot (no pun intended). Hand Chow a gun and the movie does no wrong.

In one fun scene, Chow guns down a few guys in the middle of a running drive-thru car wash. He rolls around, he leaps, he bang-bang-bangs his way amid soap and steam (and he doesn't get wet!), and he blasts away the bad guys. in the final shootout, our Asian leading man outguns anything he's done in his previous Hong Kong films. Forget the double-pistol action of "The Killer" or "A Better Tomorrow" -- here, he sports SIX Berettas, two in his hands and four stashed in his waistband.

As for his acting, Chow's presence translates well from the Chinese cinema to the Hollywood silver screen. Sure, the screenwriter's give him less dialogue than Stallone in "Rambo" (perhaps to hide Chow's lack of proficiency in English?) but his physical prowess remains strong here. When he performs a hit in the opening scene, he conveys a coolness and confidence; when he fails to kill the Zedkov's kid, he conveys a conscience and compassion. All told through his eyes.

Sorvino does an adequate job looking more than just a dumb-ass damsel in distress. She grabs a gun and goes with the flow.

The cinematography is fine, neither dull nor exceptional. Still, it manages to make Los Angeles look decidely un-L.A. At times, the film's setting has the urban grime of New York.

What really takes away from the film's thunder is the aimless plot, combined with unnecessary hyper-direction by Fuqua. His camera flies up and zips down in shots, display Fuqua's propensity for what cinematographer John A. Alonzo once termed "cinematic gymnastics." Where there's a shallow script, Fuqua (whose film background includes directing music videos such as Coolio's "Gangsta Paradise") brings needless flash. It's like he's trying to mimic Woo's style but Fuqua's film lacks the internal and external rhythm that underlies the Hong Kong director's best work.

In some respects the audience walks into "Killers" expecting a Woo-like movie, and that's what it gets: a movie by a replacement director, Fuqua. There's guns, Chow and crime, crime, crime. But that can all be found in "Hard-Boiled" and other Woo films.