The Coolest Guy in the Room

Despite running afoul of Chinese censors, his latest movie has racked up over four-fifths of a billion dollars in the past three weeks. He's personally responsible for revolutionizing action films--and action heroes--as we know them. He's a man's man and a guy's guy.

In earlier days, moviegoers got to see Humphrey Bogart, John Wayne, and Toshiro Mifune. We get Chow Yun-Fat. Trust me, we're not getting the short end of the stick.

To be fair, his English-language movies before 2007 weren't all that great. Like many Asian action stars before him, he parlayed a brilliant body of work in Hong Kong (which I'll discuss in a moment) into a few mediocre scripts and middling box office returns Stateside. Remember The Replacement Killers? Bulletproof Monk? Mira Sorvino and Seann William Scott's agents probably hope you don't -- and their careers didn't exactly thrive afterwards.

Then, all of a sudden, Chow was the toast of the turtleneck crowd, star of the inexplicable cultural phenomenon that was Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Surprisingly enough for a Hong Kong star, this was his first martial arts film, but this particular one happened to be an operatic meditation on frustrated love, made by the Taiwanese future director of Brokeback Mountain, filmed in Mandarin Chinese, that somehow made $130 million at the U.S. box office. (Maybe it helped that he had an Italian-sounding name, you know, to market him in the venti latte milieu.)

But before all that, he changed the world. Working as John Woo's muse -- sort of like John Wayne to John Ford, or Uma Thurman to Quentin Tarantino -- he made awesome movie after awesome movie, blasting bad guys while dancing like Baryshnikov with a Beretta. Hard-Boiled, The Killer, and the A Better Tomorrow trilogy did for gunplay what Busby Berkeley did for movie musicals. They changed the status quo. Virtually every action flick since then has patterned its shootouts on Woo's venerable originals. And every single sunglasses-wearing, stone-faced, monotoned action hero in the past 20 years has been doing a bad Chow Yun-Fat imitation. It's hard to blame them for trying.

These days, he's stretching out a bit, playing a Singaporean pirate captain with a shaved head, a Vandyke beard, and a fu manchu mustache down to his chest, his smoky visage on promotional posters all over the world. It's amazing enough that he manages to pull off his accent, a dated but loving homage to every movie serial Chinese villain or cinematic yellow man that sounds somewhere between Charlie Chan and Dr. Han from Enter the Dragon. (Chinese authorities demurred, slashing his screen time in half.) But he does more than that: he actually manages to stand out in the huge ensemble cast -- alongside fine character actors like Bill Nighy and Stellan Skarsgard, as well as all the famous sexy Hollywood types -- and acquit himself nobly. It's no surprise that he's not overwhelmed by the action and spectacle: he's been doing that since Johnny Depp was on 21 Jump Street and Keira Knightley was in diapers.

While many of his contemporaries are starring in relationship dramas and light comedies, receiving AARP magazine and drinking decaf, he's 55 and still at the top of his game. And he still wears sunglasses better than anyone.