A film review by Craig J. Koban
AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS
2004, PG, 122 mins.
Passepartout: Jackie Chan /
Phileas Fogg: Steve Coogan /
Monique: Cecile De France / Lord Kelvin: Jim Broadbent / Queen Victoria: Kathy Bates
/ Prince Hapi: Arnold Schwarzenegger
I wonder if Jules Verne was thinking
about whether he was missing something from his original novel AROUND THE
WORLD IN 80 DAYS? As we all know,
we are our own worst critics and I am sure that Verne, deep down in his heart,
must have thought that his story, now considered a classic, was perhaps missing
something. Oh, wait a minute, I
know…Chinese martial arts (most specifically kung fu) and the presence of
Jackie Chan as a loyal Asian sidekick who can kick his way out of anything. Am I right?
Okay, maybe Jules Verne thought his
book was fine the way it was, but Frank Coraci’s newest film adaptation of his
novel, for some outlandish reason, feels the need to be radically contemporary
with the story by adding the presence of one of Hong Kong’s greatest action
stars and a considerable amount of gravity defying kung fu.
This is not altogether a shock, especially after we see Jackie Chan’s
name appear on the silver screen as “executive producer.” The intentions of
the makers, in hindsight, becomes abundantly clear.
They are not really trying to make a washed-over travelogue like
the original 1956 Oscar winning film adaptation (was there ever a worse
picture to win that honor?) as
they are trying to make an overstuffed, computer effects heavy, farcical and slapstick riot with some trademark Jackie Chan stunts and kung fu.
At a budget of well over $120 million, could the suits at Disney not
think of a better way to invest their entertainment dollars?
Now, don’t get me wrong in any way
shape or form - I have been a loyal admirer of Jackie Chan throughout his entire career.
Some of his films have been some of my all-time favourites (the centerpiece
brawl in DRUNKEN MASTER 2 is probably the most hectic, frantic, and best
sustained fight scenes in movie history) and Chan’s dedication (if not
insanity) to do all of his own stunts and fight choreography has me reaping with
praise for him. Not only that, but Chan has always been one of the more
likeable presences in the movies, and has great gifts at playing both light and
broad physical comedy. Yet, not
even his appearance in AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS could save it from
mediocrity. Actually, to Chan’s
own credit, if you removed him from the film then you would be left with a
completely banal and dull film without much interest.
The film opens in late 19th
Century England where Phileas Fogg (the very funny, but misused Steve
Coogan) is an eccentric inventor who is widely regarded as a misfit and crackpot
by most of his colleagues. He is
especially hated by members of the Explorer’s Club, to which his biggest
critic, Lord Kelvin (the always great Jim Broadbent) is the president.
After much debate, Fogg makes a boast to Kelvin that he can, in fact,
circle the world in 80 days. Of
course, Kelvin thinks the idea as inane, and makes the young inventor a wager: (a) If Fogg wins then he’ll have to resign from the club or (b)
if Fogg loses then he has to resign from the club and, dear God, never invent
again! Fogg, in a vain move,
accepts the dare, not thinking personally that he can win.
Oh, he also hires a Chinese valet, Passepartout, for the trip that looks
very, very much like Jackie Chan.
However, there is much more to
Passepartout. As the film opens we
see him make a daring escape from the bank of England after stealing the
priceless Jade Buddha (which looks a lot like something that anyone could win at
a local carnival for a few bucks) a treasure of his native village in China. Of course, Passepartout thinks that the best way to elude the
police is to become Fogg’s valet and go along for the ride.
He also hopes to not only elude the police, but the evil, dressed all in
black villains – The Black Scorpions – from retrieving the idol.
Faster then you can say “Indiana Jones,” Fogg and Passepartout leave
England and begin their journey.
Thus the familiar structure of the
narrative begins, where our heroes go by sea, horse, train, etc on their long
voyage. They even manage to pick up
a third member for their party, a beautiful French woman named Monique (Cecile
De France) who completely insists on being with them for their journey.
Why? I am not really altogether certain, maybe because the writers
realized that they needed a spunky and sexy French lady for Fogg to fall in love
with, but I digress. Monique’s presence feels more contrived than inventive and
The film seems like a shameless
anchor and bookend for those infamous Jackie Chan moments of slapstick where he
looks astonished, does a lot of double takes at various things, and, yes,
engages in a few memorable, if not too-familiar, martial arts scenes.
Some of the fight scenes are clever and fun to watch, but
they come across with predictability and a certain level of distinct monotony.
Chan is one of the all-time greatest masters of the cinematic fight, but
here he seems to take a lot less risks and plays it more safe.
It's still pretty amazing seeing the middle age Chan leap, jump, kick,
punch, and fly through the air with ease, but for those of you who hope to see
Chan is all of his wacky and bone-crunching glory may be disappointed.
AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS represents one of Chan’s weakest martial
arts outings and, not only that, I can’t believe I said “weakest martial
arts outings” and “ AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS” in the same sentence.
The film does have its heart in the
right place some of the time, and if there is anything that it does preserve
from the original film is its celebrity cameos, albeit not nearly as numerous. There is one ham-invested scene where the trio enter Turkey
and are made the loyal guest of the polygamist Prince named Hapi (played by the
Governor of Kah-i-fornia, Arnold Schwazenegger).
Obviously, it becomes abundantly clear that his hospitality becomes more
of a kidnapping, especially when he wishes to wed the gorgeous Monique and make
her his seventh wife (“one for every week” he deadpans and then later asks,
“Are Tuesdays good for you?”)
Okay, the humour here is obviously farcical, if not approaching a bit of
self parody with Arnold’s womanizing ways, but c’mon, I was more laughing
with embarrassment at Arnold that laughing with my tongue in check with
Arnold. If this is truly his last
film work, it’s a dark, dark day for his fans, and his cameo here goes on a
list including his work in BATMAN AND ROBIN as his worst performance.
However, Coraci keeps things moving
as briskly as possible and continues to send the trio on their way.
There is a stop in Passepartout’s native China where he inevitably
faces The Black Scorpions (in the film’s only inventive action scene) and it
then moves from the Pacific to the American desert where they bump into a duo of
traveling bike salesmen named Wilbur and Orville Wright (yes, those two!), who
attempt to help repair their horse and buggy, but not without letting the heroes
know of their dreams of flight. The
Wright’s are played in the other celebrity cameo by Owen and Luke Wilson, who
provide some much needed laughs. (Owen
at one point sarcastically tells Fogg, “I have no idea what my bro is up
to…men flying, like that’ll happen!"). However,
it is with the valuable teachings of the Wright’s that allows Fogg to build
his own flying machine that propels the trio to make it back to England and
hopefully win the bet, but not without stopping for another much needed martial
arts fight including props from the uncompleted Statue of Liberty.
I am not sure where else to go with
this film. What is it really
trying to be? It kind of
suffers from cinematic multiple personality disorder in the sense that it’s
widely inconsistent not only with its laughs but with it’s pacing and action.
The film is all over the map in terms of tone (at one point it is
dauntingly over-the-top, in other times it's more subdued and subtle) and the
fight scenes, as fun as they are, don’t really inspire much intrigue.
If anything, the action scenes, ironically, take the viewer away from the
heart of the story and act as a hindrance more than a help, which only
shamelessly passes the test of tarnishing the great work of Verne. Steve
Coogan, who is a very funny actor, is all but wasted here in a role that has he
whining and complaining so much that you have to force yourself to cheer and
root for him. The Monique character is a cardboard cutout of a personality
who brings nothing to the story, and as for the narrative itself, I just found
it hard to care after an hour or so. I
mean, where is the tension when someone has more than two months to complete a
race…we are not talking a short and tense amount of time here folks.
AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS is not so much of a horrendous film going experience as it is a flop and a ridiculous waste of time, effort, money, and talent. I am not sure why the makers felt the need to reinvent this classic tale, which I can say confidently that most modern audiences were not too caring of in the first place (I think they said everything they needed to say in the 1956 film). Yet, it is the insanely bizarre amalgamation of Verne’s narrative with Chan’s chop sockey antics that prove to be the film’s undoing. Not only that, if you combine needless martial arts action, jokes that don’t fly, characters that fail to resonate, a screenplay that’s a mess, and all of this told by the director of THE WEDDING SINGER and WATERBOY, then the ultimate result is Verne most assuredly rolling over in his grave. If there was a course offered at film school on how NOT TO adapt a great work of literature, then the new AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS should be mandatory on the curriculum.