I personally have a very rough time getting accustomed to modern animation’s transition into computer-animated territory. Every time I see an ad for a CG animation, even for positively-received features like the recent Pixar flick Inside Out, I tend to let out a pained groan. There’s a depth of artistry to hand-drawn animation that I just don’t believe translates to its computer generated counterpart. It may be curmudgeony of me to complain about the way things are shifting to the digital spectrum, but I just don’t connect to movies animated that way. It’s more of a matter of personal taste than a choice of critical conviction, but it still remains true.
The Irish animated feature The Secret of Kells did a great job of helping transition CG animation skeptics like myself into the digital realm. While the computer-animated aspects of the film were somewhat flat & uninteresting to me, they were also luxuriously fleshed out by intricate chalk line drawings & geometric framing that made the CGI more visually engaging. Like with classic story book illustrations, a lot of The Secret of Kells’ visual artistry lurks in its borders where expressionistic symbols & shapes are given space to flourish. In this way, the movie finds a fantastic middle ground between tradition and innovation, making the ancient palatable for young tastes while not losing sight of hopeless luddites like myself.
The story told in The Secret of Kells also looks back through Irish tradition & mythology for its inspiration, but rarely manages to match the heights of its visual accomplishments. It’s a simple tale about an impending Viking attack on a settlement run by Irish monks who must choose between protecting their people and preserving their own book-making traditions. Like with the animation, the story is most interesting when it allows itself to flow freely, musing about ancient spirits of the woods, reflecting on the constant struggle of man’s destruction of Nature, and a particularly fantastic tangent in which a house cat named Pangur Bán is transformed into an out-of-body spirit.
There’s an admirable quality to the film’s message about the balance between academia and “real” life, best captured in the exchange “You can’t find out everything from books, you know.” “I think I read that once,” but it’s truly the balance between CG and “real” animation where The Secret of Kells shines brightest. I suspect it was the technical aspects of the animation, not the film’s story, that earned it a nomination for a Best Animated Feature Oscar. Alas, it was a tough crowd to beat that year, since the other features nominated were Pixar’s Up (which won), Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mister Fox, Disney’s The Princess and the Frog, and Laika’s Coraline. Although The Secret of Kells may not have been the best of its peers in a particularly great year for animation, it did accomplish a balance between the old guard & the new that deserves its own accolades. It’s a compromise of forms I’d like to see explored a lot more often.
There’s a delicate balance at work in Bulletproof Monk (which easily could also have been titled Tibetan Punk! or Monks & Punks) that a lot of lesser films fail to achieve. Judging solely by the basic monks & punks premise and the cheesy early 00s imagery, it’s by all means a bad movie. At the same time, however, it resists nearly all negative criticism by being such a delightfully goofy bad movie that’s very much self-aware in its vapid silliness. In a lot of ways the film sells itself as a action-comedy cash-in on the cultural & financial success of martial arts choreography-fests The Matrix & Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, but it also has its own charms as a unique intellectual property, which are mostly dependent on the natural charisma of its costars Yun-Fat Chow (as the monk) and Seann William Scott (as the punk, naturally).
The story begins in a Tibetan monastery where an elderly monk plays right into the classic one-day-from-retirement trope and is brutally murdered in a hailstorm of bullets. What kind of a bastard would murder a kind, old monk, you ask? Why, a Nazi bastard, of course. In addition to the film’s already preposterous buddy dynamic of a Tibetan punk and a New York City punk, Bulletproof Monk also makes room for aging, power-hungry Nazis, a shirtless British rapper named Mr. Funktastic, and the red-hot daughter of a Russian crime lord. It’s a quite silly hodgepodge of mismatched characters, but they have more in common than you’d expect. For instance, both aging Nazis & shirtless British rappers enjoy hanging out in underground smokeshow lairs that split the aesthetic difference between steampunk & Hot Topic. Also, New York City pickpockets who inexplicable live in millionaires’ apartments above adorable single screen cinemas and pious Tibetan monks both share a deep passion for Crouching Tiger-type martial arts & Matrix-era bullet time, which the former learned from the movie theater and the latter from his lifetime dedication to protecting an ancient scroll that’s incredibly important for some reason or another.
The critical consensus at the time of Bulletproof Monk’s release was that it was a disappointing comedy saved from being a total wash solely by the virtues of Chow Yun-Fat’s martial arts skills. I’m not sure if its campy charms have just improved with time or if I’m just more able than most to excuse a movie’s faults sheerly for the purity of its goofy attitude, but it’s hard for me to fault a movie that features Chow Yun-Fat performing gymnastics on a mid-flight helicopter’s landing gear or the line “Lucky for you this crumpet’s come begging for some of my funktastic love.” Seann William Scott is also surprisingly convincing as a no-good punk with a heart of gold and there are some genuinely striking images of him learning/practicing kung fu in front of a movie screen. Bulletproof Monk may have been a disappointing development for Chow Yun-Fat’s fans after the heights of his John Woo collaborations & career-defining performance in the Oscar-winning Crouching Tiger, but for a fan of goofy buddy comedies, bizarre cultural relics, and Nazi war criminals getting their due, it’s quite a treat & surprisingly just as impervious to criticism as it is to bullets.