It should be obvious to all that handing over the reins of a multimillion-dollar action movie to a man whose experience extends as far as making Christina Aguilera videos is not going to produce great art. It's not even going to produce a decent Crouching Tiger rip-off. If you are looking for decent fight choreography you could do worse than just getting Iron Monkey from 1993 instead; Donny Yen is a bad ass in that movie. That movie, however, is not the unconscious (and self-conscious) product of a civilization searching for actualization. That movie is the 2003 suck-fest that is Bulletproof Monk.
The McGuffin of the movie is a magic scroll, protected by Buddhist monks in Tibet, which when read aloud grants the reader the power to make the world anew; a heaven in the hands of a good (super) man, or a hell in the hands of the weak, evil or corrupt. The monks have a single warrior who is the guardian of The Scroll of Good and Evil, and this man is granted great powers. Straight off the bat, we are talking about faith in particularly Christian terms. All of a sudden, Nazis!
It is apparently the 1940s, and the Nazis are doing Red Skull style searches for esoteric power. The Nazis are led by a man who knows of The Scroll and the power it contains and wants to take it all for himself. In my Nietzschean reading, I believe that this is the Word of God, left unattended by God post-mortem.
"Because human beings would no longer have a god to turn to, to absolve them of their guilt; but they would still be racked by guilt, since guilt is an impulse instilled in children when they are very young, before the age of reason. As a result, people would loathe not only one another but themselves.”
From Will to Power, Preface, 2nd Paragraph
"What I relate is the history of the next two centuries. I describe what is coming, what can no longer come differently: the advent of nihilism... For some time now, our whole European culture has been moving as toward a catastrophe, with a tortured tension that is growing from decade to decade: restlessly, violently, headlong, like a river that wants to reach the end, that no longer reflects, that is afraid to reflect."
Nazis in this meta-analysis represent the only culture Westerners have left so many decades later: variously, misplaced faith in the state, faith in society, and faith in technology. They are effectively a meme version of the totalitarian ideologies of the 20th Century, we may as well consider them to be stand ins for Communism and rampant consumerism also. The first act of the Nazis in Bulletproof Monk is to murder the monks with MP-40s; literally, 'we' destroy the faithful with our technological creations. You can even read this as a metaphor for the New Atheists of the late 20th Century, we have so much insight from technology that we can convince ourselves that there is no need for faith at all, easily we can dispose of their simple arguments- represented here by the brother monks linking arms, their show of faith and togetherness against imminent destruction. Still, State and Science are not enough for the avatar of human intellect, the evil Nazi Strucker (Karel Roden).
All are insufficient to grant Strucker life eternal- only true faith can do that, and as we know, God is dead. That's why he seeks the magic scroll, which has the power of great good and evil- that's a faith analog. Strucker and the Nazis are modern Western society writ large throughout the film; and you thought this was a bad popcorn flick with Stiffler from American Pie in the lead! In any case, the eponymous Monk ( Yun-Fat Chow) briefly kicks some Nazis in the head before Strucker shoots him in the chest. The Monk falls from atop the mountain, clutching the Scroll. It's a deliberate dive, a leap of faith; the parallel to Jesus in the desert when he is tempted by Satan (Luke 4):
8And Jesus answered him, “It is written,
“‘You shall worship the Lord your God,
and him only shall you serve.’”
“‘He will command his angels concerning you,
to guard you,’
“‘On their hands they will bear you up,
lest you strike your foot against a stone.’”
That probably means we have Stifler from American Pie as Jesus. Deal with it.
In the Joseph Campbell Hero's Journey reading, we have just witnessed a complete character arc- the Monk begins the movie as an apprentice, and by the end of the first scene has faced evil, taken the call to adventure, received supernatural aid and surpassed his mentor, and transformed in the abyss of death and rebirth. Quite a lot for an opening scene of a not-amazing film.
What I contend is happening is unintentional on the part of the moviemakers- either that or for reasons inexplicable, the director Paul Hunter managed in his sole feature film credit to construct a near perfect Nietzschean metaphor. There is also the likelihood I'm reading too much into pop-culture, but this is my column and I will do what I want; and if I want to tell you that trash Hollywood movies are warnings against nihilism and exhortations to a new cultural awakening, I will.
We then flash forward sixty years or so, to meet the true protagonist, Kar (Seann William Scott). Whereas the Nazis represent the Will to Power, the civilizational malaise caused by a lack of faith in a higher power, Kar is Western Civilization in modernity. He has no family, no history, and no interests other than himself. This is the elevation of consumer capitalism to the status of religion, expressed in his early scenes as Kar robs the Monk of the Scroll (unwittingly, of course) and then attempts to bargain it with the bizarre gang-leader Mr. Funktastic (Marcus Jean Pirae) in exchange for a peace treaty. Funktastic, a testosterone-driven Billy Idol clone who speaks only in cockney rhyming slang, attempts to literally castrate Kar for insulting him with a gift of faith that is condensed into the most powerful artifact on Earth. Freudian! Ignorance reigns on all sides, but in a fight -and with the assistance of a mysterious love interest- Kar manages to escape by using his martial arts skills. The Monk sees the fight and approves grudgingly.
There's a lot going on in that scene, and none of it has to do with the layer of proto-philosophical schmaltz that has the routine fulfillment of prophecy trope playing out in the overt storyline. This is Nietzsche's “total eclipse of all values,” based on the rise of what Tom Wolfe described as “barbaric nationalistic brotherhoods.” Nationalistic brotherhoods in the real world would be groups like ISIS, Boko Haram, rather than any sense of Nationalism as we understand it in the West today. Funktastic and his crew are one such brotherhood who threatens Kar/The West; who just wants to be left alone to steal from others. One might consider this to be a jab at Westerners who culturally appropriate, or act in stereotypically Black or Asian manners -see Eminem or Weeaboos. Kar is definitely a Chinaboo.
Kar is raised by a Japanese Man (Mako) who looks after a Chinese cinema. The reason is never explained. My reading of this is that Westerners have become so ignorant of other cultures (and by extension, ourselves in relation to other cultures) that all cultures are thus interchangeable. I think that this is where the ideas of multiculturalism and to a certain extent the criticism of cultural oppropriation comes from.
Kar trains himself in martial arts by copying old kung-fu movies, in a montage. We now have 3 Eastern archetypes training the West in learning re-connection to our collective soul- even William Scott's character named himself "Kar" Cantonese for family, so he will never be without one. Adorable! All he knows is theft and looking out for himself, very much the antithesis of faith or enlightened behaviour. Even the love interest Jade (Jaime King) is a metaphor; the daughter of a gangster -Russian, of course!- who leads a double life. We might consider her to be, variously, all three Brothers Karamazov, as she is ignored by her father (jailed for being a mobster) and leads a double life. Like Dmitri Karamazov, she spends her nights courting attention -with Mr. Funktastic of all people- but is, in reality, spiritual, like Alyosha; and also a skeptic, like Ivan, when it comes to Kar at least. That's an interesting lens to view this movie through, too. Dostoyevsky had his own criticisms of civilization that appear to have been proven true.
And they both get into the Ethnostate! Yay!
Strucker and his grand-daughter ( Victoria Smurfit) show up to continue their pursuit of faith/Monk to transform themselves into supermen. Strucker is now very old, wizened by time. Their faith in the state to conquer and provide meaning has proven insufficient. These Nazis are so evil they even set up a highly leftist SocJus "Human Rights Organization" to hide their true motives. Another unintentional reveal of the underlying faith in society of the progressives/communists. This front company claims to denounce man's evil to man, but in fact, is hiding the worst evil of man; that we are faithless and self-serving. I found it quite cute in retrospect that we have literal Nazis propping up social justice causes here.
Meanwhile, Kar and the Monk become friends after a scene in which Kar tries to make the Monk leave his house by fighting him- and failing to do so, of course. The Monk is literally faith incarnate. Once that takes root in a civilization it seems hard to root it out.
An enlightened man would offer a weary traveler a bed for the night, and invite him to share a quiet conversation over a bowl of Cocoa Puffs. ~ The Monk
If Western Civilization were enlightened, it would understand that faith itself is not something to be fought against, but to be conversed with. I think that's what is going on there at least. In any event, Kar and the Monk go on a buddy-cop adventure in which, shock and horror, the Scroll is lost to the Nazis. Fortunately, it transpires that the Scroll is actually a recipe for noodle soup! That message is expanded on when the Monk talks pure Greek Philosophy while teaching Kar about fighting. Martial arts itself in this movie is a metaphor for internal struggle.
It's not about anger - it's about peace. It's not about power - it's about grace. It's not about knowing your enemy - it's about knowing yourself. ~The Monk, channeling the Temple of Apollo at Delphi. nosce te ipsum.
Without going scene by scene I think you can catch the point I am trying to make. The Nazis are so evil they kidnap a bunch of Buddhist Monks to literally suck the spirituality out of their minds using some device involving rushing water, Strucker achieves part of his goal by reading the words of faith from the scroll which had been tattooed onto the Monk this whole time. He is resurrected and dons his Nazi uniform once again to proclaim his evil nature. In the Nietzschean reading, he is not the superman- he is what the Nazis believed Nietzsche meant by the superman.
You have to admire his commitment to Hugo Boss if nothing else.
The Monk, wise as ever, keeps part of the secret in his own mind. Strucker is incomplete, as he lacks the true humility of faith that the brotherhood of monks knew at the start of the movie- the literal Word of God cannot be wielded by man; any man. That understanding is faith in the creator, that understanding is what the Nazis and Communists failed to comprehend, leading to mass murder on a scale never seen before in history.
Air is as real as you and me. You have to step on it as if it were a stone, swim through it as if it were the sea. All you have to do is truly believe. -The Monk
And then Kar kicks the Nazi-Superman off a building with his righteous belief. Deus Vult!
If we affirm one single moment, we thus affirm not only ourselves but all existence. For nothing is self-sufficient, neither in us ourselves nor in things; and if our soul has trembled with happiness and sounded like a harp string just once, all eternity was needed to produce this one event—and in this single moment of affirmation all eternity was called good, redeemed, justified, and affirmed. — Nietzsche, Will to Power
Alright, it's not a perfect analogy and I think the Nietzschean idea of the Superman does not come to fruition with Kar's ascension to protector of the scroll; in fact, Jade also ascends, to provide a true, living Tao element to the movie. What my reading thus concludes is that this story is one of Western Civilization rediscovering faith, through the rejection of the failures of the 20th Century; state worship, society worship, self-worship and ultimately the rejection of minority-worship and multiculturalism also.
Kar through his transformation into the Guardian of the Scroll defeats the Nazi Spectre- the very real threat of supremacy ideology- that is his negation, the opposite of the life force he represents throughout the whole film. He also is bound to his divine feminine counterpart "for life" through faith, essentially restoring conservative idealsof marriage and family- the same family that Kar felt he never had and so adopted the concept of family from Cantonese. Now dressed in superfly leathers, Kar and Jade wish the Monk a happy retirement; a symbolic passing of the torch so to speak, from the ancient spiritual philosophies of the East to the still relatively new and immature Christendom.
So, maybe I've read too much into a movie which is objectively trashy and it reveals more about me than anything else; but that was fun. I'd like to think that the Western culture that we inhabit is alive, more than just a few hundred million points of consciousness screaming into the void. If that is true, then the collective song of our people will throw out strangely prescient pop-culture that embeds hidden meanings, without the active intent of anyone involved. In all honesty it could only be in a truly nihilistic and lost culture that Bulletproof Monk could ever be made. This movie sucks, but I love it anyway.