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Around the World in 80 Days (2004) Print E-mail
Monday, 14 June 2004
ImageJules Verne’s novel “Around the World in 80 Days” has turned up a couple of times as a TV miniseries, both here and in Europe, and once as a big-budget, lavishly-produced (by Mike Todd) epic back in 1956. That’s the one with David Niven, Cantinflas, Shirley MacLaine and what seemed like cameos (a usage devised for that movie) by every movie actor then alive. This new version is, to a degree, a Jackie Chan vehicle—and would have been better had it been even more of a Chan outing, with only a handful of cameos, though one is sure to get the movie plenty of notice.

It’s erratic entertainment, probably pleasing to most audiences—certainly the preview audience kept laughing all the way through, with applause at the end. On the other hand, some viewers sat quietly, stone-faced and grumpy, as the wretched direction by Frank Coraci took its toll. He’s the auteur of “The Waterboy;” if that one tickled your ribs, be sure to see “Around the World in 80 Days.” If it didn’t—well, there’s always the old version, available on home video.

The story behind the making of the new one would probably make a more interesting movie than what’s up there on the screen. It is, however improbably, a British-German-Irish coproduction starring a British TV star and a Chinese action comedian, plus a French actress actually named France. You’d think that a movie of this title would have shot on locations all around the world; the production did visit several countries, including Thailand, China, Germany and the U.S., although of those only China plays itself, if that’s the right phrase. The other countries seen, including England, France, Turkey and India are doubled by others.

Verne’s original premise is tweaked, but not to any good end. In this version, Phileas Fogg (Steve Coogan) is a daffy inventor first seen trying to break “the fifty mile an hour” barrier. In real life, no one viewed that speed as a barrier—but sixty MPH was seen by many as an impossible speed to attain. Not, however, by the 1880s, which is when this movie seems to be set. All we’re told for sure is that it’s “before the turn of the century;” evidently screenwriters David Titcher and David Benullo & David Goldstein (was being named David a hiring requirement?) are unaware that >two< centuries have turned since the 1880s.

Jackie Chan is first seen fleeing a robbery at the Bank of England; he hasn’t stolen any money, but has made off with a jade statuette of Buddha. We laboriously learn that this was stolen from his home village by warlord General Fang (Karen Joy Morris), who is somehow allied with or pitted against Lord Kelvin (Jim Broadbent), president of the Royal Academy of Science. Lord Kelvin tends to sneer a lot at Fogg; we’re not given any evidence that he shouldn’t regard Fogg as a daffy tinkerer. He bets Fogg, who arrives on roller skates, that he cannot go all the way around the world in 80 days. Fogg takes the bet.
Fogg burns through valets swiftly as he uses them as test subjects for his various inventions. On the lam from the cops, Jackie volunteers to work for Fogg. But Phileas hires only the French for valets—no reason is given—so Jackie awkwardly has to pass himself off as French. He ends up dubbed Passepartout, because that’s the character’s name in the novel. Nothing this serpentine was required to pass off Mexican Cantinflas as Passepartout in the Mike Todd movie. Way too much time is taken up here with the question of whether Jackie Chan really is French.

In Paris, they visit an art exhibition where, for no good reason, Fogg hopes to meet his hero, Thomas Edison. Instead, there are a few very lame, very obvious gags about impressionism (like depicting an artist with a goatee and a straw hat as having only one ear), but it does team the two with aspiring artist Monique La Roche (Cécile de France). She hopes to see more of the world in order to get subjects for painting, or something like that. Fogg regards her as an irritant.

But they press on, stopping for a time in Turkey, where the improbably-named Prince Hapi insists they stop over at his clumsy-looking palace. Hapi is played by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger in his last movie role before going into another line of work. Governor Schwarzenegger looks stranger than he ever has before, and I am including when half his face was torn off in the first and second “Terminators.” He has long, fluffy hair in what looks like a 1920s bob; he wears loud clothes, smiles a lot and shouts every line. He’s absolutely ghastly, but he’s also pretty funny, and appears to be having a great time.

When they finally reach China, the movie veers off into a new, semi-serious direction, and in doing so, greatly improves. Now it’s more like a Jackie Chan movie, and features lots of fast stunts and fight scenes, including Jackie’s life-long friend Sammo Hung. The press kit claims that Sammo is playing Wong Fei-Hung, whom Jackie played in the “Drunken Master” duo and Jet Li in the “Once Upon a Time in China” series. But if his name is spoken on screen, I missed it. Makes no difference anyway.

The scenery here is remarkably beautiful, and extremely Chinese. It seems that only in China can you find these jagged-but rounded >short< mountains covered in a carpet of evergreen trees. They look utterly unlikely, but they’re real. Unfortunately, the movie then veers off to the United States via San Francisco, and on and on toward London. The Wilson brothers, Luke and Owen, turn up for a moment as the Wright brothers, Orville and Wilbur, to no good end other than to get Owen and Jackie on screen together again.

There are various plot complications along the way; back in London, Lord Kelvin is scheming to delay Fogg, General Fang is scheming to obtain the jade Buddha (leading to fights along the route), and Inspector Fix (Ewen Bremner, who’s never been worse) is sent to track down whoever stole the jade Buddha from the Bank of England.

The movie is handsomely produced, with very attractive animated changes of scenery. But Frank Coraci should never be allowed near the reins of a comedy again. Everyone but Chan and de France wildly overplays every scene, including Jim Broadbent. It takes a director who really exerts authority to get Broadbent, a great actor, to give a very bad performance, but that’s what happens here. Poor Ewen Bremner fares even worse; someone decided it was funny to have him fall down a lot, shrieking in pain with every tumble. But it’s not remotely funny.

Coraci seems to think that virtually every scene should be played in either two shots or medium shots, one of the most boring of all camera angles. He lumbers through every scene having his cast line up in front of the camera to deliver the lame dialogue in full volume. Coogan looks like he could be very good in a standard comedy, but Coraci’s love of excess, and his utter inability to depict it humorously, turns him into a twitching mess. Chan holds his own, as he always does. He’s not required to do a lot of those big screaming takes that he’s occasionally been required to deliver in other English-language outings, and as usual for a Western director, Coraci doesn’t really know how to deal with Hong Kong-style fight scenes. But Jackie Chan does, and makes each of them, even the badly-conceived battle in the art gallery, into a little poem of comedy and motion.

Cécile de France is excellent throughout, never over the top, but instead always fresh and lively. This is her first English language movie, and she’s a real find. She’s both physically adept and beautiful; this could be the start of something big.

Coraci will stoop to anything for a joke. He even includes one that was weary from repetition when Mack Sennett ruled Edendale: a light bulb on a sign over Jackie’s head signifies a bright idea. An old lady falling down a lot is treated as a source of laffs; this could have worked had Coraci used different sound effects (including vocalizations). But he has no idea of the value of understatement for comedy, not even with Jackie Chan right there in front of him. Broadbent eventually gets a few good moments toward the end of the movie, but for most of it, like everyone else, he’s wildly over the top, though Coraci clearly is unaware of this problem. He probably considers it a virtue.

Jules Verne has been a frequent source for movies down through the years; usually his vaunting imagination is celebrated, but in this movie, 19th century inventors are treated as oafs and clowns, particularly Phileas Fogg. (Who was not an inventor in Verne’s novel.) The filmmakers assumed that their lame spoofery was somehow superior to treating the blaze of inventiveness of the late 19th century with the respect due it. They could easily have found outings for their jokes elsewhere, but they want us to regard all that as only fodder for jokes.

The movie is vividly colorful, with beautiful, richly-toned photography by Phil Meheux, but production designer Perry Andelin Blake’s sets are generally cluttered and busy. The effects, under the general control of Susan Zwerman,) are well-handled, and those wonderful animated transitions and titles were the work of Micha Klein. They elegantly guide us from one location to another.

Some of “Around the World in 80 Days” is a great deal of fun, but far too much of it has been mishandled by Coraci. It might be entertaining on the set to watch talented actors mugging like vaudeville comics, but it rarely works on screen, and it doesn’t here. Still, much of the audience seemed to be having a great time, like Governor Schwarzenegger, and I suspect children will enjoy most of the movie.

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