I didn't expect much from this movie. I enjoyed Chow-Yun Fat in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon but wasn't all that familiar with his other work. I expected a movie more in the vein of Jet Li's films… which is to say, not very good but with excellent martial arts acrobatics.
Fat's not really the martial arts kind of guy, though. He's a Gun Fu type, capable of firing two pistols while sailing through the air. And in this film, he's John Lee, an expert assassin who balks at retaliating against a cop, Stan Zedkov (Michael Rooker).
The plot is interesting: John performed two other successful assassination attempts, but he has a mother and sister who will die if he doesn't complete the third. When he realizes the third job requires him to kill Zedkov's son, he disobeys the crime boss' (Terence Wei, played by Kenneth Tsang) orders. The only way John's family will survive is if he kills Wei before the crime boss gives the order.
So suddenly, the bad guy becomes the good guy. The director (Antoine Fuqua) wisely realized that watching Fat shoot people gets boring after awhile. So he cast Mira Sorvino as Meg Coburn, an expert forger who creates passports. John gets embroiled with Meg when Wei's thugs show up at her apartment to kill them both.
Sorvino's character is a curiosity as much as she is a sidekick. She can have her kneecap busted and recover in minutes. She can cap a bad guy with a perfect headshot. And yet she can't seem to actually wear any clothes correctly. Her dresses are always partially zipped up or unbuttoned. I'm not complaining, mind you. It's just that Meg comes off more as a walking distraction as opposed to a character that's integral to the plot.
There's some implication that a romance might be burgeoning between the white girl and the Asian guy, but the film doesn't have the guts to go there (shades of Romeo Must Die). The most we get is a hug and a stroke of the cheek.
The rest of the film is people shooting other people. About midway through the movie, Wei hires the bad guys that give the film its moniker: replacement killers. These killers (Til Schweiger and Danny Trejo) are supposed to be really mean and nasty, but their only distinguishing character is that they have more powerful weapons than everybody else. And dress better.
These days, it's difficult to show that a character is an expert killer with firearms. It's one thing to throw a knife and skewer someone at 50 paces in the throat. It's another to pull off a successful headshot in a film when everybody, including the cute chick, kills everybody else with one shot. Danny Trejo in Desperado was a scary bounty hunter with mad knife throwing skillz; Danny Trejo in Replacement Killers is just a guy with a big rifle.
What makes the movie worth watching is Fuqua's direction. He knows what he's doing and he does it well. Music is well timed and appropriate (scored by Harry Gregson Williams), even during an exchange of gunfire. There are inventive and acrobatic shots of Fat diving, rolling, shooting, and sliding. If it weren't so spattered with blood, the choreography might be considered beautiful.
Replacement Killers makes no excuses for what it is. That doesn't make it a great film either. But I enjoyed it for what it was: Gun Fu ballet at its finest.