Music video and TV commercials director Antoine Fuqua made his feature directorial debut with this action thriller starring Hong Kong superstar Chow Yun-Fat. Chinese immigrant John Lee (Yun-Fat) has a violent past as a professional killer. It brings him only remorse, but it makes him the ideal assassin. In exchange for his family's safety, Lee is forced to take a job with a powerful underworld figure, Asian crime kingpin Terence Wei (Kenneth Tsang), who wants Lee to settle a deadly vendetta against police detective Stan Zedlov (Michael Rooker) by killing Zedlov's seven-year-old son. At the last minute, with the boy in his sights, Lee chooses to face Wei's vengeance rather than go through with the killing. In addition to making Lee a target, the decision also endangers his mother and sister back in Shanghai. Planning a return to China, he visits document forger Meg Coburn (Mira Sorvino) to get a phony passport, but they are interrupted by Wei's army of killers, and a lengthy chase and gun battle is set in motion.
Director Fuqua stressed to his team that the aim was to design a "Taxi Driver for the 1990s," with production beginning February 10, 1997 in downtown Los Angeles, and the first shoot at the historic Mayan Theater, refurbished into the trendy nightclub for the film's stylish opening scene with hundreds of extras carousing while Lee guns down Romero (Carlos Leon) at close range. The eight-story, nearly condemned Giant Penny building in the heart of L.A. served as locations for a police station interior, a hotel room, and Meg Coburn's office, and a chaotic gunfight was filmed amid the spray, brushes, and hoses of Joe's Car Wash in LA. The art department transformed one area into a Chinatown-like streetscape of damp, narrow alleys, and blinking red neon lights, site of a night filming where Yun-Fat shot off 546 rounds with two guns, one in each hand, while the repetitive action left his hands blistered and shaking. More gunplay was at a video arcade replicated at the original Lawry's center just north of downtown L.A., and Lee's tranquil Buddhist temple was fashioned under this same roof. 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 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. She felt The Replacement Killers brought her a step closer to her goal of making a film in Mandarin and working with a Chinese director.