A nightclub in Los Angeles, and the patrons are enjoying their evening out, but one man is not there for pleasure, he is there for business. John Lee (Chow Yun-Fat) steps through the crowd and advances on the gangster who is lording it over the dancers, seated at his personal table with his henchmen all around - you would have to be crazy to try anything here, wouldn't you? But Lee is not crazy, he's purely determined, he has a lot at stake and will have to carry out his hitman role if he wants to save his family back in China, so walks straight over to the gangster, places a bullet with a symbol on it on the table in front of him, and before the man knows what is happening, he is blown away by Lee's handgun.
So far, what you would expect from a Chow Yun-Fat movie, he has the suit, he has the gun, he has a bunch of bad guys to eliminate, but The Replacement Killers was not your ordinary effort from the great action star. It was his attempt to make it big in Hollywood movies, and proved a tricky proposition, far trickier than the studio anticipated as while director Antoine Fuqua did his level best to stick with the style of the Hong Kong classics that had made Chow's name, those were not what American audiences were used to watching. It did not matter that many of the rest of the world who lapped up the action from out of Hong Kong were quite happy with what he got up to on the big screen, the test audiences in the States effectively sabotaged this.
After extensive re-editing that reduced this to the bare bones of gunfight setpieces interspersed with the minimum of plot, the studio was happy - then they released it and it flopped thanks to them not allowing Fuqua, who by all accounts would have been fine left to his own devices, to have his way and trust Chow to deliver his definitive cool (though he was obviously struggling with English). One of the elements those test audiences insisted on removing was the love interest, a forger called Meg, played by Mira Sorvino, who in the final cut, and even the extended cut, was left to participate in the gunplay and service Lee with passports and documents, but nothing you get the impression that was vital to the story, certainly not what justified Sorvino, a recent Oscar-winner, showing up.
If a romance had been allowed, it would have bolstered the relationship between Lee and Meg, while adding that ingredient that left Hong Kong action with its je ne sais quoi: the romanticism. There was little space for that unironic element in American genre efforts, or if there was it was purely included to leave no room for doubt in the audience's minds the hero was no homosexual, but remove it and you were left with a significantly shallower experience. Watching The Replacement Killers was not a rich experience, it was about as deep as your average computer game adaptation, and though Fuqua managed some accomplished scenes of violence that prevented it from growing dull, there was a feeling you were sitting through the cinematic equivalent of a rock tribute act.
As far as that plot went, a try at sentiment was elicited in the reason the bad guys were after Lee: not because he had offed that gangster at the beginning, that was what he was supposed to do, but what he was not ended up targeting him. Detective Michael Rooker was proving a problem for Lee's boss Kenneth Tsang, another criminal boss, so Lee was ordered to perform a hit on the cop's young son, something he cannot bring himself to do once he has the boy in his crosshairs, therefore must go on the run. To do that he needs the passport, which was where Sorvino entered the picture, the sole significant female character and not really that significant when it came down to it, so more or less the sole motive to settle down with this was those action sequences, though they too felt like a careful copy rather than a living, breathing original, even with John Woo as one of an army of producers. The following year, The Matrix proved Hong Kong techniques could succeed in Hollywood, and this was left as a footnote. The music by Harry Gregson-Williams is pretty decent, however.