Without a doubt, the best thing about Frank Coraci’s Around the World in 80 Days is the fight scenes.
Not only are these the best fight scenes in any version of Around the World in EightyDays, they’re also the best fight scenes in any Jackie Chan Hollywood buddy movie to date. They’re actually so good, it’s a shame there had to be that annoying filler about a race to circumnavigate the globe.
What’s that? You thought that Around the World in 80
Days was about a race to circumnavigate the globe? Ah,
you would be thinking either of the Jules Verne novel, or else of
the modestly entertaining, star-studded 1956 travelogue film
starring David Niven. In any event, that story has about as much
in common with this latest entry in the Jackie Chan Hollywood
buddy-picture franchise as the Gary Cooper Western High Noon has with Jackie Chan comedy-Western Shanghai
Noon — which is to say, they have similar titles.
Actually, what Around the World most resembles is Noon sequel Shanghai Knights, also set in Victorian-era London and featuring relatively decent action scenes. (An opening caption for Around the World establishes the timeframe as "before the turn of the century," presumably not meaning the most recent such turn.)
Alas, England hasn’t fared well in the short years since Shanghai Knights. In those days, the UK could at least produce a formidable villain (Aiden Gillen, who repeatedly bested Jackie in swordplay), and Queen Victoria was played by dignified British thespian Gemma Jones.
Now, England is entirely populated by blithering twits, including inventor Phileas Fogg (comic Steve Coogan) and his scientific nemesis Lord Kelvin (Jim Broadbent). These English antagonists are little more than buffoonish proxies for Asian adversaries: Kelvin is secretly allied with evil dragon-lady warlord General Fang (Hong Kong actress Karen Joy Morris), while Fogg falls in with Chinese peasant Lau Xing (Jackie), who has reason to call himself "Passepartout" and to pose as Fogg’s French valet. Oh, and a dour-faced Kathy Bates now passes as the Queen.
As usual, the particulars of the story don’t matter much. No one watches a Jackie Chan movie for the story. Still, there has to be some sort of story, and while the story can be paper-thin, nonsensical, and clichéd — perhaps even should be — it should also go down easy. Eye-rollingly hackneyed is one thing; squirmingly embarrassing is another.
Around the World in 80 Days is in the latter category, in part because of the way it reduces its actors to playing at the emotional and intellectual level of, say, a typical Adam Sandler character. (Unsurprisingly, director Frank Coraci’s previous credits prominently feature a pair of Sandler films.) Whatever you may think of Sandler, no one in his right mind would want him playing the heavy in a Jackie Chan movie. Broadbent’s final scene is just plain humiliating, and the other actors fare no better. There’s just no excuse for this.
Because of this, Around the World seems targeted less at undemanding action fans than at children too young to know the difference (though the slapstick violence is a bit on the sadistic side for children). The final act, in particular, is one of the most aggressively stupid things I’ve seen in a long time. Of course, I miss a lot of wretched films; perhaps Garfield or Scooby-Doo 2 was worse. Still, it’s saying something that Around the World is lamer as a movie than any of Jackie’s previous U.S. films, even The Tuxedo.
Here is one stupid thing about the last act — far from the worst thing in the film, but annoying nonetheless. In the original story (spoiler alert), Fogg succeeds in going around the world but initially believes he’s missed the deadline — until he realizes that in his eastward travel across twenty-four time zones and the international date line he has "gained" a day, and that the actual elapsed time is only 79 days.
The Jackie Chan version follows this conceit — except that now it’s not just Fogg’s private confusion. In a climactic confrontation, Lord Kelvin, his flunkies, and a huge crowd of Londoners with wagers on the race all seem to think that it’s the final hour of the last day. But they’ve all been sitting at home in London counting the days; they have no reason to be confused about what day it is!
About the best thing that can be said for the film is that if you are enough of a fan of Jackie’s action choreography to see a movie for the action and only for the action, Around the World is worth your while. A big-scale martial-arts battle in China, guest-starring potbellied action veteran Sammo Hung as well as a full stunt team, is as close to vintage Jackie Hong-Kong action as we’ve gotten in years. There’s also some clever stuntwork with Jackie dangling from a hot-air balloon, and the climactic fight scene in a New York warehouse holding the unassembled Statue of Liberty is worth seeing.
On the down side, you’ll have to endure the horrific sight of Arnold Schwarzeneggar in brownface and a fright wig, mugging as a Turkish prince. Your call.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.