Michael Todd’s extravagant 1956 telling of “Around the World in 80 Days”–not a terribly good movie, even if it did win the Academy Award (in a year in which the competition, quite frankly, was weak)–was hardly a faithful rendering of the book, but in that respect it certainly bests this new version, which has little in common with its source besides the title. This is a comic-book Jackie Chan movie that resembles “Shanghai Noon” more than it does the Jules Verne novel. Purists will deplore that, but American audiences looking for a summer popcorn flick probably won’t mind. Unfortunately, they’re not likely to be enchanted, either.
You might expect Phileas Fogg to be the main character in any adaptation of “Around the World in 80 Days,” but you’d be wrong in this instance. As played by Steve Coogan, Verne’s hero is reduced to the status of a sidekick; he’s basically a British counterpart to the daffy, self-promoting doofus that Owen Wilson played in “Noon.” The real star is Chan, who’s Fogg’s “French” valet Passepartout, or more accurately a Chinese peasant named Lau Xing who’s posing as a French servant. Lau Xing, you see, has pilfered a jade Buddha from the Bank of England in order to return it to his native village, from which it was stolen by a fearsome female warlord (General Fang, played by Karen Joy Morris) and turned over (for reasons never adequately explained) to Lord Kelvin (Jim Broadbent), who just happens to be the head of the Royal Scientific Society as well as a powerful (and corrupt) governmental official. (In “Noon,” you’ll recall, Chan played a fellow who came to the U.S. to rescue a kidnapped princess, and in “Knights” he was after a pilfered imperial seal.) Kelvin is also the bete noire of Fogg, an enthusiast contemptuously dismissed by the Fellows of the Society as an irritating crackpot, and to get rid of the pest, he challenges Phileas to prove his contention that a man can travel around the globe in eighty days or give up all his scientific pretensions. Since Lau Xing, pursued by both British police and the warlord’s minions, wants to get back to China with his Buddha as quickly as possible, he urges the timorous Fogg to take the bet, and soon they’re off on the journey, stopping by in Paris long enough to take on a traveling companion, French maiden Monique La Roche (Cecile De France), who will of course become Fogg’s romantic interest. What follows is a series of sketches in various foreign locales from Turkey to India to China to San Francisco to New York (as well as intervening points of passage), virtually each of which is divided between slapstick and snappy patter for Fogg and comic kung-fu combat for Chan, with De France egging both of them on. A kind of homage to Todd’s picture is also included in the form of cameos–hardly the forty-plus appearances of the 1956 film but a smattering of them. There’s Arnold Schwarzenegger, sporting an absolutely hideous wig and joshing his reputation for womanizing as an acquisitive Turkish prince named Hapi; Luke and Owen Wilson as the Wright brothers, a couple of good-natured goof-balls who provide Fogg with the key to constructing the airship that allows him to complete the final leg of his journey; Rob Schneider, as a smelly San Francisco bum; John Cleese as a London bobby; Sammo Hung as one of Lau Xing’s brothers; and Kathy Bates as a feisty Queen Victoria, who finally disposes of the Kelvin problem.
It should be obvious that all of this has a lot more to do with the S.O.P. of English-language Jackie Chan vehicles than with Jules Verne. There’s no sophistication to be found here, certainly not in Coogan’s fussy turn as a truly foggy Fogg, whose blundering is matched only by his arrogance–more than ever, the Brit comes across as a young Peter Cook on a high–or in De France’s purely decorative Monique. What there is aplenty is the strictly juvenile type of humor associated with Chan (some Parisian scenes that mock the contemporary art world are especially lame), along with an excess of the comic action set-pieces in which he specializes (the last of which in this case involves a battle inside the under-construction Statue of Liberty, just as that in “Knights” was set, if memory serves, in the Big Ben clock tower). Some of the chases and fights provide a bit of fun, but despite the fact that they were choreographed by Chan, they don’t show the joy and imagination of his earlier work, nor do they demonstrate his dexterity so successfully (understandably, given his advancing age). More importantly, they sometimes get needlessly brutal–shots of Chan banging into buildings as he clasps a rope dangling from a balloon, for instance, are actually rather unpleasant, and the big final fight has some similarly harsh bone-crushing moments. As to the supporting cast, the usually reliable Broadbent comes on too strong as Kelvin, as does Ewen Bremner as a Krystone Kops-like police inspector, while Morris vamps it up so strenuously as the evil Fang that she might have transferred in from a Fu Manchu movie. And all the cameo players italicize their lines as though they were playing dress-up in an amateur theatrical. But would one expect any subtlety in performances delivered under the direction of Frank Coraci, whose previous work has largely been limited to Adam Sandler movies?
On the other hand, the picture is colorful, and some of the transitional effects as the group moves from place to place have genuine visual charm. (The production design is by Perry Andelin Blake and the widescreen cinematography by Phil Meheux.) And Trevor Jones’s brassy music goes into overdrive to whip up energy. Still, despite the fact that the last big sequence involves a totally unhistorical airplane, this comic riff on the Verne classic loses altitude as it proceeds, closing with a crash landing in more ways than one.