The film was a co-production between the motion picture studios of Columbia Pictures, Brillstein-Grey Entertainment, and WCG Entertainment Productions. Theatrically, it was commercially distributed by Columbia Pictures, while the Sony Pictures Entertainment division released the film in the video rental market. The Replacement Killers explores assassination, violence and the influence of triads in modern society. The film score was orchestrated by Harry Gregson-Williams; the soundtrack was released by the Varèse Sarabande music label on March 10, 1998.
During an orchestrated drug bust at a marine loading dock, Detective Stan Zedkov (Michael Rooker) kills Triad lieutenant Peter Wei (Yau-Gene Chan). Looking to exact revenge for his son's death, crime boss Terence Wei (Kenneth Tsang) sends for professional assassin John Lee (Chow Yun-fat). Paying off an old debt, Lee has already killed two targets for Wei, and the crime boss tells him that this third and final job will settle the obligation. However, Lee's conscience prevents him from completing his final assignment: to murder Zedkov's seven-year-old son Stevie (Andrew J. Marton) before the detective's eyes. Realizing that his actions will result in retaliation against his mother and sister, Lee prepares to return to China, enlisting the help of old friend Alan Chan, a monk in a local Buddhist temple, to make arrangements to have his family moved to a secure location. Infuriated by Lee's disobedience, Wei orders his head lieutenant, Michael Kogan (Jürgen Prochnow), to lead the hunt for Lee, and has his people in China begin the search for Lee's family.
No longer able to use the Triad network to get out of the country, Lee searches for alternative means outside Wei's sphere of influence, and looks to skilled forger Meg Coburn (Mira Sorvino) for a new passport. Before she can finish the job, Wei's men storm her office, destroying the computerized tools of her trade in the ensuing shootout. Lee escapes; Coburn is picked up by the police, unsuccessfully interrogated by Zedkov, and released as bait so the detective can see who comes after her. Meanwhile, Wei hires skilled out-of-town replacement killers to take over the hunt for Lee and the Zedkov contract.
Lee finds Coburn when she returns to her destroyed office. Having been made aware that the Triads are involved, Coburn wants out, but Lee forces her to finish her original task of creating a forged passport. Traveling with Coburn, with the two replacement killers, Ryker (Til Schweiger) and Collins (Danny Trejo), in pursuit, Lee gets pictures from a photo booth and phones Alan, who offers the use of his passport. When Lee arrives at the temple, he discovers that Alan has been tortured to the point of death. Alan tells Lee that his family was moved to Canton—but he told his torturers they were in Shanghai. Lee has little more than 24 hours before his family is found. The monk gives Lee his passport before dying in his arms.
Holed up in a hotel, Coburn finishes altering Allan's passport for Lee. The two exchange stories, and Coburn becomes sympathetic to Lee. Feeling compelled to stop the killing of Zedkov's son before leaving the country, Lee forces one of Wei's men to reveal the plan, which is to kill Stevie while he and his father are at a cartoon festival in a movie theater. Lee and Coburn, who insists on helping, arrive barely in time to prevent Ryker and Collins from killing the boy, and Ryker is killed in the subsequent gunfight. Concerned that Lee and Coburn will make their way back to Wei's base of operations, the crime boss makes plans to flee the country and hunt down Lee's mother and sister himself. However, when two guards open the main gate for Wei and his entourage to leave in a limo, Lee is just outside and launches a two-handed handgun assault. Coburn surfaces moments later, driving a truck through the melee, incapacitating Wei's Kogan, and later killing him. When Collins fires from a high perch on Lee and Coburn, Lee soon outflanks him, killing him from behind. Finally, Lee corners Wei on a fire escape platform. Though both men have emptied their guns, Lee is first to reload. Wei promises Lee that the boy and Lee's family will still die, but Lee replies, "Not in your lifetime," and kills him. Though Zedkov arrives before Lee and Coburn can get away, he lets them go, taking only their guns. Coburn reluctantly bids goodbye to Lee at the airport, presenting him with one last gift, passports for his mother and sister.
Production for the film began on February 10, 1997 in downtown Los Angeles. The first shoot was set in the historic Mayan Theater, refurbished as a trendy nightclub and cast with hundreds of extras for the film's opening scene. The eight-story, nearly condemned Giant Penny building in the middle of LA served as the location for a police station interior, a hotel room, and Meg Coburn's office. A chaotic gunfight was filmed amid the spray, brushes, and hoses of Joe's Car Wash, also in LA. A Chinatown-like streetscape of damp, narrow alleys and blinking red neon lights was created for the night-time finale, where Yun-Fat shot off 546 rounds of two-fisted shooting; the repetitive action left his hands blistered and shaking. More gunplay took place in a video arcade replicated at the original Lawry's California Center (now the Los Angeles River Center and Gardens), just north of downtown LA. Lee's tranquil Buddhist temple was fashioned under this same roof.
Director Fuqua stressed to his team that the aim was to design a "Taxi Driver for the 1990s". In addition to physical training, Mira Sorvino, who had never handled a gun prior to this film, took weapons training to prepare for her role. Sorvino, who majored in Asian studies at Harvard, speaks Mandarin, and lived for eight months (1988–89) in Beijing, where she studied Chinese, taught English, and saw Chinese films, including Hong Kong action films, felt The Replacement Killers brought her a step closer to her goal of making a film in Mandarin and working with a Chinese director. Prior to the start of filming, Sorvino had blown out her voice from screaming in reshoots of Mimic; Fuqua liked the effect and asked her to keep it, which required Sorvino to yell prior to each day's shoots to burn out her voice.
The original motion picture score was composed by Harry Gregson-Williams. Alan Meyerson mixed the sound elements for the chorus, while Richard Whitfield edited the film's music. The soundtrack for the film was released on March 10, 1998 by the Varèse Sarabande music label.
The Replacement Killers premiered in cinemas on February 6, 1998 in wide release throughout the US, and had a five-week theatrical run.
Following its cinematic release in theaters, the Region 1 Code widescreen edition of the film was released on DVD by Sony Pictures Home Entertainment in the United States on July 1, 1998. Special features for the DVD include, scene selections and the featurette specials; Chow Yun-Fat Goes Hollywood along wth an edited HBO special: "Where the Action is". A VHS format edition was released on March 30, 1999.
On March 5, 2002, a Special Edition DVD was released. Features include: digitally mastered audio and anamorphic video; widescreen presentation; audio in English 5.1 (Dolby Digital), Spanish, French, Portuguese; subtitles in English, Spanish, French, Portuguese, Chinese, Korean, Thai; director's commentary; HBO making-of, Where the Action Is; deleted scenes; alternate ending; exclusive featurette, Chow Yun-Fat Goes Hollywood; theatrical trailers; filmographies; animated menus; and scene selections with motion images.
A UMD version of the film for the Sony PlayStation Portable was released on August 9, 2005. The disc features DVD quality picture; languages in Chinese, English, Korean, Portuguese, Spanish, and Thai, with viewing options for color and black and white.
An extended-cut DVD adding approximately 10 minutes to the film was released on April 25, 2006. Special features include: Chow Yun-Fat Goes Hollywood; digitally remastered picture and sound; and an edited HBO special, Where the Action Is.
The widescreen hi-definition Blu-ray version of the film was released on September 11, 2007. Special features include: The Making of the Replacement Killers: Where the Action Is and the exclusive featurette, Chow Yun-Fat Goes Hollywood. A supplemental viewing option for the film in the media format of Video on demand is available as well.
During its February 6, 1998 US opening weekend, the film ranked second place, grossing $8,046,553 at 1,936 locations. The film Titanic came in first place during that weekend grossing $23,027,838. Its revenue dropped by 49% in its second week of release, earning $4,068,335. For that particular weekend, the film fell to sixth place still screening in 1,936 theaters. Titanic remained in first place grossing $28,167,947 in box office revenue. During its final week in release, The Replacement Killers opened in a distant 21st place with $131,727 in revenue. The film went on to top out domestically at $19,204,929 in total ticket sales through a 5-week theatrical run. For 1998 as a whole, the film would cumulatively rank at a box office performance position of 90.
Among mainstream critics in the U.S., the film received mostly negative reviews. Most criticism cited style over substance, lack of chemistry between the main characters, and a weak plot. The Hong Kong-style cinematography, visuals and action scenes were praised, though seen to deliver less than their full potential. Rotten Tomatoes reported that 35% of 34 sampled critics gave the film a positive review, with an average score of 5.3 out of 10. At Metacritic, which assigns a weighted average out of 100 to critics' reviews, the film received a score of 42 based on 22 reviews.
Among some of the positive critiques, Roger Ebert writing in the Chicago Sun-Times called it "as abstract as a jazz instrumental, and as cool and self-assured." Discussing the film's style, he remarked that it was a "high-gloss version of a Hong Kong action picture, made in America but observing the exuberance of a genre where surfaces are everything." In Variety, Leonard Klady viewed the film was as being a "big, loud music video that's not particularly interested in content. It's a rudderless style piece; as the old saw cautions, accept no substitutes." Regarding the film's set design and production qualities, he noted that, "while an apt homage, the set pieces here are technical but not visceral, feeling manufactured rather than organically integrated into the plot."
Russell Smith of The Austin Chronicle said the film was "so numbingly ritualistic that even the well-choreographed gun battles, probably the most Woo-like aspects of the film, lose much of their potential impact." Writing for The New York Times, Stephen Holden noted that although the film's "seamless fusion of Hong Kong action-adventure style and cool, Los Angeles street chic has a certain seductive charm, it is the only charm of a movie that is otherwise devoid of content." Edward Guthmann in the San Francisco Chronicle said that "As pointless blast-athons go, The Replacement Killers isn't bad. It's beautifully shot by first-time feature director Antoine Fuqua, whose eye for sensual surfaces, deft camera moves and elegant framing was refined with commercials and music videos."
Desson Thomson of The Washington Post stated that "Without Chow Yun-Fat, who makes his American screen debut here, there'd be nothing to say about The Replacement Killers. Antoine Fuqua's action movie is entirely free of surprise. It breaks no rules." He did however muse that "Chow's pretty face and cool presence are inescapable. You don't enjoy this movie, so much as you conduct a road test for the Hong Kong actor. Yes, he can survive in an English language picture!" In The San Francisco Examiner, Walter Addiego perceived that the film "remains a counterfeit of a Woo movie, even though Woo himself co-produced it. He turned the directing chores over to first-timer Antoine Fuqua, whose previous work was limited to music videos and commercials, and it shows." He added, "The script, by Ken Sanzel, is the work of someone who's seen Woo's movies and wasn't particularly moved by the experience."