Kill or be replaced.
The excellent DVD listing from HomeTheaterInfo.com lists three separate releases of The Replacement Killers (six if you count two-packs in which it appeared, and a UMD disc): a bare-bones release, a Special Edition, and this Extended Edition. Why so many releases? No clue.
The Replacement Killers tells the story of “John Lee” (Chow Yun-Fat, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), a badass killer. We know he’s a badass killer because the movie opens with him killing a guy in a badass way. He works for a badass Chinese mob boss (Kenneth Tsang, The Killer), who we know is a badass Chinese mob boss because he orders John to kill a little boy, which if you’ve ever seen an action movie, you know will go over with our hero like rotten dow see on Chinese New Year. The little boy in question is the son of badass cop Stan Zedkov (Michael Rooker, Cliffhanger), who we know is a badass cop because…well, because he’s played by Michael F***in’ Rooker, that’s why. And because he has a goatee. John knows that by disobeying the mobster, he’ll not only endanger his own life, but the life of his mother and sister back in China (since John’s working off a debt to the mobster for bringing him to America). So, he goes to badass forger Meg Coburn (Mira Sorvino, Mimic), who we know is a badass forger because her apartment looks like John Doe’s in Se7en. The mobster sends a few henchman to kill John, as well as Meg for having the audacity to help him, but the two badasses kill the lot of ’em. That forces the mob boss to bring in — you guessed it — replacement killers to kill his former killer.
The Replacement Killers was the first American film for Hong Kong superstar Chow Yun-Fat. It was supposed to make him as big a star here as he was in the rest of the world. Problem was, Americans weren’t ready for an Asian action star. Now, I’m not talking about you, who has three different DVD releases of Battle Royale and cherishes your OOP Hard-Boiled Criterion above all other discs in your collection. I’m talking about your typical moviegoing American, the ones that make movies like Scary Movie 4 hits at the box office. The Replacement Killers may have been ahead of its time, hitting screens a few months before Rush Hour made another Hong Kong hero — Jackie Chan — a household name. And I’m talking about households who hadn’t seen Rumble in the Bronx or Supercop, not the households like yours, where you’ve had The Drunken Master on VHS since VCRs were top-loading. That lack of preparedness has meant that Chow’s films — the ones that were American retreads of his HK coolness, not ones like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon — have grossed a combined figure that’s less than Rush Hour. Further, it was a style of filmmaking — the gritty, over-the-top Hong Kong action film that sprayed bullets like candy out of a pinata — that not even its chief director, John Woo, had been able to make accessible to American audiences thrice over, in Hard Target, Broken Arrow, or Face/Off. (And you know by now what sort of American audience I’m talking about.) That string of bombs is perhaps what made Woo exchange his director pants for his producer pants. The director instead was freshman Antoine Fuqua, who directed music videos for the likes of Arrested Development and Prince and has gone on to much higher acclaim for directing Training Day. Fuqua aped Woo’s style to the point of worship, when perhaps if he Americanized the film just a little it would have caught on with the filmgoing public — the ones who, only a year later, would make another film that did Americanize the Hong Kong filmmaking style and became a ravishing success: The Matrix.
Sadly, the filmmaking style loses something when it’s in English. Perhaps it simply lacks the high-falutin’ appeal of reading subtitles, or gains too much baggage by casting actors like Mira Sorvino, Michael Rooker, and even Jürgen Prochnow (who is surely known to any action film lover, even if it’s because he was in Judge Dredd) instead of nondescript foreigners. It can’t be because the film lacks in action; IMDb claims it set a record for the most bullets fired on-screen in an American film, and I don’t doubt that it’s true (at least until The Matrix and its sequels came along). Every hallmark of a John Woo-esque Hong Kong actioner is present, from slow-motion shootouts to balletic gunfighting to two-fisted pistols. (Oops, there’s no doves. Maybe that’s why it failed.) There’s the requisite philosophizing over the nature of life and death. There’s the unlikely bond between people thrust into the killing grounds. There’s the anti-hero — not a Hong Kong concept, to be sure, but one that they’ve elevated to an artform all its own. Who knows just why it didn’t catch on — the fact is, it caught on with neither the existing Hong Kong fans or the muliplex zombies. (And it bears mentioning that it did debut at #2 on the box office chart, sandwiched between two 1997 juggernaut carry-overs: Titanic and Good Will Hunting. With two-hankie competition all the rage, it’s no wonder a hardcore action film skulked out of the theaters with nary a trace.)
That raises the question: Should The Replacement Killers have found a wider audience? Well, sure. Hard-R action films are seemingly a thing of the past in the U.S. of A, and The Replacement Killers fits the bill. While it’s very derivative of the Hong Kong films of Woo et al, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s stylish and gripping, and far from boring. Chow is a great actor, the Asian equivalent to American strong, silent types like Clint Eastwood or Charles Bronson, except far more dynamic a gunfighter. He’s a lot of fun to watch blast the stuffing out of the baddies. Mira Sorvino has never lived up to her potential, but she’s never been more watchable than here. When you consider that she speaks three languages and is a Harvard grad — not to mention an Oscar winner — it almost seems beneath her to play such a street-smart chick of limited vocabulary. But, never has she looked hotter, or kicked as much ass as she does here, so I’m not complaining. Fuqua plays well in the HK sandbox and makes a sharp-looking film. Like he did with Training Day, he effectively brings out the seedy underbelly of Los Angeles, where the film was shot on location. Try as it might, Canada simply cannot muster the sort of squalor necessary to play stunt double to any American metropolis. Fuqua came to big-screen filmmaking from the worlds of commercials and music videos, where it’s all about looks and your personal filmmaking aesthetic often plays second fiddle to the artistic demands of your employer. Here, he’s trying to make a film that looks and sounds as much as possible like John Woo, and he does a bang-up job.
As for this triple-dip DVD release, if you continue the ice cream analogy, it’s three scoops of vanilla with maybe a couple jimmies sprinkled on top. The draw — such as it is — is the “extended cut.” I can’t comment on what’s changed, since this is my first viewing of the flick. From what I can gather, the added 11 minutes are the five deleted scenes included on the previous Special Edition. The film is presented in 2.40:1 anamorphic widescreen. The mix of dark scenes and daytime scenes, stylized backlighting and high-contrast shots, makes transferring this a challenge. The image effectively translates the film to 0s and 1s, though it’s not without problems. Blacks are sometimes a bit washed out, particularly in darker scenes (like the opening shoot-out in the club). Edge halos are pronounced at times, absent at others. The car wash shoot-out in chapter 11 is particularly well done; though there’s some edge halos, the clouds of steam exhibit very little pixel break-up. What’s even better is that the DVD image gives you that cheap film stock look, which makes the film seem even more like an HK production instead of an American one. Audio is Dolby Digital 5.1, in either English or French. There’s terrific surround placement during the shoot-outs, though the LFE doesn’t kick in that often.
Unfortunately, gone from the Special Edition is the commentary track by Antoine Fuqua. For shame, Sony. Ported over is a 20-minute featurette produced for the old DVD called “Chow Yun-Fat Goes Hollywood.” It gives a variety of personalities — Antoine Fuqua, producer Terence Chang (who produced the John Woo/Chow Yun-Fat team-ups Once a Thief and Hard-Boiled), Mira Sorvino, the man himself, and even laypeople like a video store clerk and the editor of Giant Robot magazine — the chance to tell you why Chow is so flippin’ cool. Another 10-minute EPK piece from the film’s release, “The Making of The Replacement Killers,” is your typical promo puff piece. The ubiquitous trailer gallery showcases other Sony multi-dips (The Patriot, Black Hawk Down), more-or-less-direct-to-video action films (The Detonator, Dirty, End Game), a Jean-Claude Van Damme movie that probably was direct to video (Second in Command), and curious of all, a red-band trailer for a Sam Shepard old-coot comedy (Don’t Come Knocking). Curiously, no trailer for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or Bulletproof Monk (an MGM film, which should now be distributed by Sony).
As a comparison, let’s take a look at what I would argue is the greatest action film ever made, Die Hard. To borrow a slightly different French term than’s usually applied to films, it has excellent mise en place: as defined by epicurious.com, it’s “having all the ingredients necessary for a dish prepared and ready to combine up to the point of cooking.” Die Hard sets up everything you need to know about the people, the setting, and the situation. When those first shots are fired, the terrorists begin their dirty business, and John McClane starts fighting them, the audience is prepared for what’s about to happen. The Replacement Killers, on the other hand, has terrible mise en place — there’s already a fire under the sauté pan, but it’s running off to the pantry every time it needs a new ingredient. I was being flippant in the Facts of the Case when I kept saying “who we know is this because of this,” but it’s not far from the truth. We learn details about John and Meg after we’re expected to identify with them as action heroes, not before. We’re just supposed to instinctively understand that they’re badasses. We’re introduced to new villains halfway through the film — the titular replacement killers — well after the bad guys should be established. In fact, we already had Jürgen Prochnow; why did we need Danny Trejo? (Not that I mind Danny Trejo in a film, but still…) It’s cluttered storytelling that keeps going “oh yeah, by the way…” and throwing you off balance.
While far from perfect, The Replacement Killers really should have found a wider audience than it did. It’s a shame that it didn’t fulfill its intention of making Chow Yun-Fat a big American action star. It’s too bad that it was the last marginally successful film Mira Sorvino has made. It’s really a shame that Sony just keeps churning out marginal DVDs of their films instead of truly caring about the films and doing them justice.