Hong Kong's slickest action star, Chow Yun-Fat, blasts his way through 'The Replacement Killers' -- but can he successfully woo the U.S. audience?

By Chris Nashawaty
Updated February 13, 1998 at 05:00 AM EST

Hardcore action-film fetishists call him The Coolest Man on Earth — a double-fisted, heat-packin’, waking dream of bullet-riddled blood justice. They’ll tell you that Stallone, Schwarzenegger, Van Damme, and the rest of those red-meat, ’80s he-men are played-out dinosaurs and that the king of Hong Kong’s box office, Chow Yun-Fat, is the second-coming savior of Hollywood action flicks. The only problem, they add, is that while testosterone geeks like Quentin Tarantino genuflect before him, John Q. Multiplex has absolutely no clue who the hell he is.

Of course, all of that may change when Yun-Fat’s Hollywood debut, The Replacement Killers, hits theaters Feb. 6. Then again, it may not. In other words, it’s nail-biting time over at Sony, where the studio brass have bet $25 million that they can magically turn the supersuave 42-year-old veteran of 70 movies into both Hollywood’s newest hitman on the block and the biggest imported crossover sensation since Bruce Lee.

The East-meets-West incursion isn’t exactly a new phenomenon. Hollywood’s been aping the glitzy look of Hong Kong’s slo-mo bulletfests for a while in such movies as Reservoir Dogs, Grosse Pointe Blank, and Con Air. And New Line scored a surprise hit when it unveiled chopsocky daredevil Jackie Chan in 1996’s Rumble in the Bronx to a $32 million take — even though his follow-ups Supercop, Operation Condor, and First Strike (all of which were dubbed and reedited versions of Chan’s earlier Hong Kong films) have shown progressively less muscle at the box office. More recently, Michelle Yeoh added some neck-snappin’ freshness to the James Bond franchise as Pierce Brosnan’s sidekick in Tomorrow Never Dies (at $116 million, the highest-grossing Bond film ever in the U.S.). And behind the camera, there’s Hong Kong director John Woo, who followed up his lackluster 1993 American debut — Jean-Claude Van Damme’s Hard Target — with Broken Arrow ($70 million) and Face/Off ($112 million).

Back in their native country, Woo and Yun-Fat were the badass Scorsese and De Niro of Hong Kong cinema, racking up a lucrative string of operatically ultraviolent action hits such as A Better Tomorrow, The Killer, and Hard-Boiled. Says Woo: “Yun-Fat’s the king in Hong Kong — he’s the same as Tom Cruise in America. He can’t walk down the street.”

In person, though, the man whose signature two-guns-blazing pyrotechnics have been co-opted by the likes of John Travolta and Nicolas Cage is a pussycat. He hugs when most stars would offer a dismissive nod or, at most, a handshake. And he’s equally humble about the “privilege” of starring in a Hollywood movie. “I’m just small potatoes — a little fish in a big pond. I just want to have the chance to swim a little and become a bigger fish and make my fans back at home happy.”

Translating his charm to these colonies, however, is a hairy marketing challenge at best — not least because Yun-Fat, who’s been hungrily courted by Hollywood since the early ’90s, doesn’t speak English very well. As a result, The Replacement Killers, which teams his slick morality-torn assassin with Mira Sorvino (in tough-chick mode), has more bullets than banter. “We actually had to cut out a lot of dialogue,” says Replacement‘s rookie director, Antoine Fuqua. “Chow’s English is much better now…. He’s swearing all the time. But he was really nervous because he was on the spot in his first big American movie, and he didn’t want to sound stupid.” But, counters one Hollywood casting agent, “his acting can’t be any worse than some of the American action heroes who do speak English as their first language. I think a lot of people will go to see him just out of curiosity.”