Here is one that comes from a very different time in my past. Shortly after I graduated with my Bachelor’s degree, and thinking there was no way I would be rejected by every school to which I applied, I moved to a suburb of Chicago in preparation for starting my graduate school career. As it turned out, I did not get into any of those programs, but in the meantime I decided to take up kung fu lessons because why not? During that time, the film Bulletproof Monk (2003) premiered, and our entire martial arts school attended the local movie theater fully kitted out in our uniforms. For weeks after this, our instructor would endlessly quote the film to us, particularly at moments when we were feeling those tweaks of muscle strain that come with such strenuous activity. In hindsight, it was all kind of silly. Not the lessons, mind you, but the film itself and why it would have been so memorable. Still, it is a bit of a nostalgia piece for me, reminding me of a happy time in spite of the delay in my educational goals.
The MacGuffin in Bulletproof Monk is a scroll protected by Tibetan Buddhist monks that grants the reader the power of God. When I say “protected,” I mean that quite literally as there are a series of monks that are tasked with training in martial arts and are given special powers (including immortality, apparently) by the scroll in order to keep its secrets safe. What could be more secure than a remote temple in the Himalayas, and superhuman kung fu artists? At the time I did not think much of it, but the idea of Tibetan Buddhists fighting in any capacity is laughable, Shaolin excepting. Still, this is what they went with, and the main Monk With No Name (Chow Yun-Fat), as it is literally credited in the film, is attacked by Nazis led by Colonel Strucker (Karel Roden) who wish to take the scroll and the power. Monk escapes and the film fast forwards sixty years into the future and shifts to New York City. There Monk bumps into Kar (Seann William Scott), a pickpocket who lifts the scroll from Monk but not without being noticed. Monk follows Kar, who is then attacked by a gang whose leader goes by, I kid you not, Mr. Funktastic (Marcus Jean Pirae). Kar would have been in serious trouble had Jade (Jamie King) not intervened and saved him from being beaten. It is during this fight that Monk begins to realize that this petty criminal could be fulfilling prophecies that would point the way to his inheritor. Thus Monk decides to take on Kar as a pupil. Complicating this transition is the fact that Strucker is still alive and after the scroll, using his granddaughter Nina (Victoria Smurfit) as his main henchman (person?). They eventually manage to capture Monk, and Strucker reads part of the text and has his youth restored (for some reason). Wanting to save his teacher, Kar teams up with Jade and together they defeat Strucker. As it turns out, though, both Kar and Jade fulfill the prophecies and they become the next protectors of the scroll.
Did that sound weird? Bulletproof Monk is certainly unusual, and that is not just fighting Tibetan monks. How the producers landed on Seann William Scott playing Kar is baffling. If you are at all familiar with Scott’s career, he made a name for himself playing Stiffler in the American Pie series of films. For those who do not know about them, they are basically about the desperateness of teenagers to get laid, and Stiffler (while not the main character in any of them) was perhaps the raunchiest of them all. His character is crass and irreverent too. In short, he would have been the last person one would expect to play somebody destined to defend mystical wisdom. Still, his performance was not that bad, it was simply a case of cognitive dissonance for me. It was the material that made it stranger. After all, the film expects the audience to believe that he learned to fight by watching old kung fu movies at the cinema where he lived.
Nonetheless, there is a bit of philosophy in Bulletproof Monk that keeps me coming back every few years, and what led me to purchase it recently. In trying to explain truth to Kar, Monk asks, “Why do hot dogs come in packages of ten, while hot dog buns come in packages of just eight?” Initially, the young man finds the question dumb, and it kind of is on the surface. But after he had assumed the mantle of co-protector of the scroll, he finally answers it well by talking about how life does not always work the way we expect, but to relax because you can always get a hot dog. I appreciate that sentiment, not only because I like hot dogs, but because that is a fairly good representation of the Spiritual life, including a Christian one. There is mystery, of course, to Faith that takes a years on end to contemplate, and only by surrendering can you even begin to understand them. Kar must forget what he thinks he knows in order to truly fulfill the prophecies. As with knowledge of self, as a Christian I truly believe that I can only do so by only first knowing God. Another tenet that Kar is taught is that this new way is about peace. It reminds me of Matthew 5:9 where Jesus says, “Blessed are the peacemakers.” Yes, there is a whole lot of violence involved, but these characters have it thrust upon them rather than seeking it out.
If you can get past the odd premise and casting choices, and some clunky dialog, Bulletproof Monk can be a fun little movie. It is an action film, so there is violence involved, and with a PG-13 rating there is some material not suitable for younger viewers. Still, it remains pretty light hearted with a good core, and there is no blood or guts. And if you start watching it and find it is dumb, there are plenty of opportunities to riff on it throughout its run time.