The Replacement Killers (1998)

Kill or be replaced.

Launching Hong Kong superstar Chow Yun-Fat’s Hollywood career, The Replacement Killers is the first American production to star the magnetic, highly acclaimed, Asian-born personality. Though, to many film buffs around the globe — and to those generally ‘in the know’ — Chow Yun-Fat was already quite a recognized figure, but to the average U.S. audience, he was rather unknown. Becoming an action icon within his own country, having worked with renowned Asian filmmaker John Woo in heroic bloodshed genre films such as A Better Tomorrow (1986), The Killer (1989), and Hard Boiled (1992), it was only a matter of time before American producers snapped up the rising star. Much like the movies that made Chow Yun-Fat a megastar abroad, The Replacement Killers is a high-octane, blazing guns action picture, paying homage to films of director John Woo, and apparently sets the record for the most bullets fired in an American production.

Everybody was Gun Fu fighting ...
Everybody was Gun Fu fighting …

In The Replacement Killers, Chow Yun-Fat plays John Lee, a professional killer, living in Los Angeles, who is sent by his patron, the ruthless crime boss Mr. Wei (Kenneth Tsang), to take the life a 7-year-old boy — son of police officer Stan ‘Zeed’ Zedkov (Michael Rooker) — as retribution for the killing of his own son. Witnessing the boy playing with his father, John Lee’s conscience gets the better of him and does not allow him to complete the hit. Failing to execute the child, Lee seeks aid from a forger to help him get papers to China in order to save the lives of his family, who will be victimized and punished by Mr. Wei for Lee’s betrayal. On the run, Lee soon makes his way to the office of Meg Coburn, a strikingly beautiful Mira Sorvino, who agrees to supply Lee with the forged documents he requires to flee the country and get back home to his family. Disappointed by Lee’s failure, Wei sends an army of ‘replacements’ to finish the job and assassinate the hit man in the process. It is here where the action picks up as both Lee and Meg find themselves targets of the replacement killers — who are constantly hot on their tail — as shoot-outs flare up and the assassins face off against one another at every possible moment.

A fierce and explosive action thriller, The Replacement Killers also marks the debut for the now acclaimed African-American filmmaker Antoine Fuqua, Training Day (2001), whose early career began in the world of television advertising and music videos, having worked with mega artists such as Prince, Coolio and Usher Raymond. Being the first feature helmed by Fuqua, he does a credible job in introducing Chow Yun-Fat to American audiences. Throughout the picture, Fuqua demonstrates a solid understanding of Chow’s roots, including many shots and trademark images that made him such an iconic cinema persona around the globe — Chow wielding a gun in each hand in particular became a vastly recognized image. In addition, Fuqua pays homage to Chow’s Hong Kong cinema background as the action scenes in The Replacement Killers are encompassed with bullet ballet or gun fu, a style of action that resembles a martial arts battle but is played out with firearms instead of traditional weapons — shooting from behind the back, firing a gun from each hand and the use of guns as melee weapons are commonly used combat techniques within this style of filmmaking.

Mira, Mira on the wall, you're the fairest of them all.
Mira, Mira on the wall, you’re the fairest of them all.

While staying true to Chow’s ‘heroic bloodshed’ origins, Fuqua encompasses some of his own distinctive MTV flare to the picture, adding a Western touch to an Eastern concept. Fuqua’s unique directional style exemplifies his roots, adding to the overall tone and atmosphere of the narrative. The vastly stylized lighting and camera work — making use of many visual techniques such as tracking shots, dolly-ins and slow motion — often helps build the tension and drama, and emphasize the action scenes wonderfully. The elaborate set pieces too are quite unique in concept, such as the overly destructive car-wash gunfight sequence and the theater shoot-out where silhouettes are beautifully set against the backdrop of a movie screen playing cartoons.

Being predominantly big on action, the able cast carry the picture well, playing it ‘cool’ throughout this over-blown 90-minute shoot-out. Portraying a sympathetic reformed killer, Chow Yun-Fat, Hard Boiled (1992), does a convincing job as John Lee, the assassin who grows a conscience. Not having fully mastered the English language while working on the film, Chow portrays the majority of the picture’s emotion through his expression, maintaining a quiet, stoic, and charismatic presence when delivering his limited dialogue — albeit his English is rather difficult to understand at times. The stunningly gorgeous Mira Sorvino, Mimic (1997), certainly holds her own — which is to be somewhat expected from an Academy Award winning actress — portraying tough-girl Meg Coburn with elegance, femininity and flair, helping counteract the cold masculinity of Chow’s John Lee — there are some rather tender moments shared between Lee and Coburn’s characters as their friendship and trust grows throughout the narrative. Michael Rooker, Cliffhanger (1993), is up to his usual tricks and antics, playing the cynical police officer Stan Zedkov as a stern but sensitive and kindhearted law enforcer and father. Be sure to keep an eye out for Danny Trejo — before his Machete days — and German superstar Til Schweiger, Inglorious Bastards (2009), who, like Chow, appears in his first American film — speaking a total of zero lines — as the titular replacement killers.

'This is how it's done ... Hong Kong style!'
‘This is how it’s done … Hong Kong style!’

Created with beautifully balletic action sequences, practical in-camera stunts, effects and a hint of emotion, The Replacement Killers is a good-old-fashioned shoot-em-up, void from the many inescapable complex plot devices or muddled narrative twists found in contemporary action-cinema, making it a simple, entertaining guilty pleasure. Though the film is not without its faults, the dialogue is often clichéd, and sometimes feels lacking as action plainly overrides the spoken word. Still, The Replacement Killers is a wonderfully directed action-packed film — enduring the test of time — that’s easy to sit through — it’s equally as enjoyable now as it was back when I first saw it in theaters. What more can one expect from a turn-your-brain-off, popcorn action flick?

3.5 / 5 – Great

Reviewed by S-Littner

The Replacement Killers is released through Sony Pictures Entertainment