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Hong Kong-born star makes `Killer' Hollywood debut

If Chow Yun-Fat, Asia's coolest, gutsiest, gun-toting, gun-blasting actor had his way, he would not fire one single bullet in his first American movie.

Chow, whose screen personae in the last decade ranged from assassins to gangsters to mobsters, would rather be cast in less physically intense roles."In my first movie in America . . . I personally didn't want to clutch a gun, but I have to follow the (motion picture) market," said Chow, who was relaxing inside a downtown hotel turned movie set.

"The market wants Chow Yun-Fat to hold a gun. With a gun I found success in this business, but I'd rather be in dramatic roles, which are less physical and laborious."

Only a day before, the Hong Kong-born actor unloaded 565 rounds of blanks at imaginary targets while practicing a scene on the set of Columbia Picture's "The Replacement Killers," his Hollywood movie debut. The film, which co-stars Academy Award-winner Mira Sorvino, is scheduled for a February release.

Chow portrays an assassin, whose last assignment is to settle a vendetta for his mob boss by killing the child of a police detective. Refusing the job, his character goes on the lam with a document forger, played by Sorvino.

Despite his aversion to guns, Chow has learned to emulate the characteristics of a killer.

"Of course, I've never murdered anyone, but I must know how to load and handle a gun," he said, while glancing at and massaging his right index finger, blistered by excessive trigger pumping. "I must know how many bullets a magazine holds and where the point of impact is when a gunman aims to destroy an opponent.

"I also have to study and master the eyes and facial expressions and the demeanor of a would-be assassin, so to speak, so I can carbon copy them so I can look convincing to the audience."

When the 6-foot-tall actor with asphalt-color hair, deep brown eyes and trademark arched grin is armed and dressed in his gangster best, he does just that.

With more than 70 movies since 1976 and hundreds of hours of television to his credit, Chow, 42, shrugs off the superstar status that has gained him best actor honors in the Asia Pacific Film Festival in Tokyo, Taiwan's Golden Horse Film Festival and the Hong Kong Academy Awards.

"Acting is my passion, but it's not a big deal to be an actor. It's a job," he said. "Once the director says `cut,' you return to reality.

"My philosophy is simple: Self-discipline and hard work, but most importantly, treat people well."

Chow - who got his start in 1971 in Hong Kong's TVB, the colony's broadcasting giant - grew up poor, quitting school in the seventh grade. When he was a teen, he answered TVB's ad looking for new actors. After a year of training, he found himself signing a 14-year contract with the television station.

"I never thought that I could be an actor, but I was 17 at the time and felt that it was a good opportunity to explore my world," he said.

Chow is best known for the films he made under director John Woo ("Broken Arrow," "Face/Off"), who rocketed him to stardom in 1986 with box-office blowout, "A Better Tomorrow."

"You can't take your eyes off the guy," said "The Replacement Killers" director Antoine Fuqua, while pointing to Chow on a small screen. "Look at his stature and facial structure . . . he's made for the movies. He knows instinctively where to be. He's there and right on focus and right on his mark."

Some crew members say that they've never worked with a big star who volunteers to help move light fixtures and weighty props. Others often stay on the set even after their shift is up because of Chow's "positive energy."

Chow, who made 12 films in 1986 - a record for a leading actor - appears unspoiled by the praise.

"I'm a very easygoing guy," he said, pausing between the resonating timbre of gunfire in the background. "I simply live a life without any Hollywood diseases, meaning I can associate with anything and anyone. If you don't relate to your environment, how do you get inspired? Performance and acting skills come mostly from reality."

Life in the United States has given Chow and his wife, Jasmine, quality time together, something they get only in doses in Hong Kong. It's also become an open classroom for his spoken English lessons.

"I study English two hours a day beginning with a-e-i-o-u to pronunciation to articulation. I listen carefully to people's voices. The crew members also helped me a lot . . . they even taught me the bad words."

Hollywood is betting on Chow's international drawing power to make him America's next action hero.

"I think one of the things that will make Yun-Fat extraordinarily acceptable to (American) au-di-ences is that they are looking for new people to be excited by in the action genre," executive producer Matthew Baer said. "Someone different from Stallone, Schwarzenegger and Van Damme.

"We're hoping audiences will catch on to this unique man who handles action beautifully and who has a great screen personality that mesmerizes you. We want to build his awareness because he delivers."