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Monk rises from the muck

Dim vehicle at least has Chinese star

Talk about your high-concept summer flick. Not only is it based on a comic book, but it's about a dopey white guy who teams up with a wise, martial-artsy Asian fellow! Bring on the popcorn!

Except that it's not summer, it's only mid-April. We're still slogging through the annual post-Oscar, presummer dead period Ñ that none-too-magical time when studios dump their dogs into theaters with minimal fanfare, in the hopes of cashing in on moviegoers' lack of options. This week, it's 'Bulletproof Monk,' starring international megastar Chow Yun-Fat and Seann William Scott ('Dude, Where's My Car?' and 'American Pie').

Chow plays a nameless Tibetan monk who's been entrusted for 60 years with the protection of a sacred scroll (one byproduct of the artifact is a kind of mystical Botox action that stops the scroll's guardian from aging), and it's time for him to find a successor. So who better to take his place than some weasel who picks his pocket in a subway station?

The thief, Kar (Scott), doesn't give a fig for the monk's Eastern philosophies because he's learned all his own martial arts moves from watching Bruce Lee movies Ñ but, hey, he seems to be fulfilling those wacky ancient prophecies, so maybe he's 'The One.'

'Bulletproof Monk' is another in a recent trend of action movies custom designed to appeal to video-game playing, comic-reading adolescents. Who else is going to cheer on a thieving doofus who learns kung fu from the movies, wins over a pretty girl by stealing her necklace (then wrestling with her) and has to battle a curvaceous, black-clad, Nazi Ÿberbabe to save the world? The whole thing seems as if it was written by middle-school boys playing with action figures in the back yard.

But if you're OK with that sort of thing, there's a lot here to enjoy. Chow isn't a worldwide superstar by accident: He's funny, handsome and so charismatic you practically need sunglasses when he smiles. Although known here mostly for John Woo action pictures such as 'The Killers' and 'Hard Boiled,' Chow has made a lot of movies playing the suave heartthrob in his native China.

For all its goofiness, 'Bulletproof Monk' is the first U.S. film that has allowed him to show how amazingly personable he can be. It would be wonderful if some studio took a chance and cast him as the lead in an American romantic comedy, rather than continuing to miscast him as the second coming of Jackie Chan in buddy flicks.

As the nameless, endlessly competent monk, Chow exhibits a self-deprecating charm that plays well against Scott's streetwise goofball.

Chow's winning ways and the script's often clever dialogue just barely make up for the plot's utter predictability and some of the worst special effects imaginable (green-screen backgrounds are especially bad in this film, giving some scenes the so-bad-it's-funny quality of 'Saturday Night Live' sketches).

But if you put yourself in the mind-set of a 14-year-old boy, 'Bulletproof Monk' is É well, it's fun. What more do you want from a summer movie in the middle of April?