Around the World in 80 Days (2004) Review
Another remake you cry but lest we forget, the 1956 Hollywood film of the same name was an adaptation of Jules Verne's original novel and this 2004 effort from director Frank Coraci is no different. Bringing together an international cast headlined by action superstar Jackie Chan this big budget take on one inventor’s trip around the world took six months to shoot yet managed to open to a non-existent fanfare over the summer months bringing in an embarrassing box-office return barely one quarter of the estimated budget.
In the role of Passepartout Jackie Chan emerges from the bank of England as a wanted man, having just stolen a Jade Buddha he seeks refuge under the guise of a French valet for coincidentally such a position has just opened up in the house of eccentric inventor Phileas Fogg. In truth Fogg (Steve Coogan) is no more eccentric than you or I, he is merely seen that way as an inventor stifled by the times and stiff upper lip of the Royal Science Academy located in our very own capital city. Dreaming of one day putting man in the skies Fogg is laughed at by his fellow scientists including one Lord Kelvin (Jim Broadbent), while Passepartout is in need of a way back to China and so draws upon his ancient heritage to engage in a convincing case of Chinese whispers which lead to Fogg entering into a wager that will see him embark on a trip around the world in eighty days. Cue a series of adventures in several key (and easily distinguishable) world locations that are filled with action, adventure and even a little romance and you have a film that should really have been more than the end product.
Around the World in 80 Days is a curious beast, mixing genres as it plods along throughout its near two-hour and often torturous running time. At its heart is a truly international cast, not quite the ensemble promoters would have you believe but for the casual observer the likes of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jackie Chan are big draws, Steve Coogan and his fellow British alumni serve those partial to this countries unmatched sense of humour while a trio of big names both old and new from Hong Kong are there to please followers of Jackie's earlier work. The best of the cameo roles are reserved for the Wilson brothers, Owen and Luke, doing what they do best as fast and slow talking American boys-next-door and once again proving that of Jackie's biggest American outings to date, only one of his on-screen partnerships has truly continued off-screen as well. Some fun is also there to be had in the form of Kathy Bates and John Cleese, who in the finale deliver some welcome gags from familiar faces with the latter in particular beginning a series of Monty Python-esque crowd based comic sequences.
But this is where the constant mixing of genres and a seemingly unknown target audience comes to the fore and produces some truly cringe worthy moments. In the main director Frank Coraci sides with a children friendly approach, keeping the story at the front of our minds with constant reminders of where the relationships are headed, using every stereotype of world cultures to highlight which country our intrepid adventurers are in and encouraging his cast to act in an almost stage like manner, with the likes of Jim Broadbent in his villainous role bursting an artery with every line he delivers. This is an incredibly simple film, but one that draws inspiration from the big adventure motion pictures of classic Hollywood, yet it fails to embrace the genre it so openly borrows from. The dashing heroes and damsel's in distress who played it so straight right through to the similar international adventures of Indiana Jones are replaced by an average looking, sarcastic and emotionally open Phileas Fogg, a liberal empowered female companion and a somewhat goofy, martial arts expert valet. This clash of storytelling and characters resulted in numerous occasions where I was literally recoiling in my seat at the dialogue and action, which is then furthered for better and worse by the inclusion of a varied range of comedy styles.
Some of which is inspired, Jackie's well known for his love of Buster Keaton and the slapstick sequence between him and Ewan Bremner surely comes as a result and is the latter’s one decent moment of the movie. But where gags like this succeed, many others fail, including a cruel joke where an old lady oddly steels focus in the signature air balloon sequence and then is shown falling painfully on her face for misjudged comic value. Schwarzenegger’s entire sequence is certainly enjoyable and works for both young and old, as it mixes simple bellowing and physical comedy with a nod to the audience as the big man pokes fun at his own real-life character. Going full circle and returning to the Monty Python-esque humour in the big finale, we see a huge crowd gather and deliver a variety of material which aspires to the genius of Python's own brand of humour but falls short as - much like the film’s inability to draw from those classic Hollywood adventures of old - it never fully embraces the inspiration and fails to convince as a result.
None of this can be seen as the fault of the actors, who are generally very good albeit limited by the material and direction. Steve Coogan has proven himself as both a comedian and serious actor in the past, but here appears to be going through the motions, stifled in the comic department we see none of the genius he exhibited as Alan Partridge mostly because the character doesn't allow it. Strange then that he seems to have been asked to deliver his lines in a similar, smugly sarcastic manner to his most famous creation. A trashy romantic subplot between him and Cecile de France is hammed up to the max, with the beauty from Belgium embracing the childlike mannerisms of the character far more than her co-star does and exuding some genuine innocent charm because of this. She is however exuberantly over the top in some sequences, almost as if she is performing to an audience expecting them to retort in unison to her actions. Jackie is, well, Jackie. As recognisable as the big names in Hollywood Jackie has carved out a persona for his Western film roles that sees him continue the underdog character he developed in his Hong Kong pictures, and then add a repertoire of apologetic motions. That all of his roles appear to involve him traveling from China to another country to retrieve some form of precious item means his character becomes truly interchangeable, giving him no means by which to develop an original and standout character.
But who cares as long as the action is good? Well I do, and to answer the obvious the action isn't bad, though it is a little sparse. Everyone knows that Jackie has increased restrictions on his American film projects, and every director to work with Jackie Chan loves to talk up the fact they understand this and have given him more time and control than their predecessors would ever allow. It's almost a staple of working with Jackie these days, you get to show how much you appreciate his talent and earlier Hong Kong movies by pretending you're going to give him full control and as much time as is necessary to film an action sequence. This is of course just playing to the masses, a ploy if you will, as no Hollywood project will give him a month to film a single fight sequence as was common back in the day, and sadly it’s unlikely any Hong Kong project would do so anymore either. What you will find here are several small bouts between Jackie and his stunt team, one in an art gallery that sees a wonderful touch as they fight with the aid of paint and a blank canvas, producing a small work of art in the process. Elsewhere there are a few entertaining stunt sequences with the hot air balloon escape being the most elaborate, while the crowning glory is an extended fight sequence set in China where Jackie is joined by the '10 Tigers' to face off against the 'Black Scorpions'. This is an excellent excuse to allow his stunt team to disguise themselves appropriately and perform some great moves, while Sammo Hung puts in a cameo appearance much to the delight of Hong Kong cinema fans. Most interesting is Jackie Chan fighting against the young Daniel Wu, a Wu Shu exponent who has done little martial arts on film despite a heavy action pedigree in Hong Kong. They perform well together and Jackie's use of a wooden bench is an absolute delight, but Daniel holds his own (mostly without the aid of a stunt double) and almost makes up for attempting to out-overact Cecile de France in his dialogue exchanges.
Despite a standout fight sequence the balance is all wrong. A dire script is combined with lazy direction and a poor use of the talent on board. The film does look great though and providing you can get into the preschool mood at an early enough stage it proves to be harmless enough with the odd laugh to be had, just be sure to switch off before that awful song kicks in on the end credits.
Seen here in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen the film boasts a varied palette of colours from the dark and dingy London locales at beginning and end to the lush green and blue hues of the Chinese countryside. Fortunately the cinematography and production design is allowed to shine through a wonderful transfer that looks every bit as good as you would expect from a film released theatrically earlier this year. The only compression troubles noted by this viewer was some moiré patterns on the crosshatched waistcoats worn by Jackie and Coogan early in the films running time, beyond that however I was very impressed with the transfer here.
Previously reported (by us no less) to include Stereo, 5.1 and DTS mixes you may be disappointed to learn that only a Dolby Digital 5.1 mix is present on the final retail product. Fret not however for it's a decent effort that uses the surrounds to good effect (particularly during the animated sequences) while maintaining clear vocals across the centre channel.
Optional English subtitles are included for the main feature but not for the extra features.
Director Frank Coraci is joined by Steve Coogan for a feature-length and mostly screen-specific audio commentary. The two seem to get along well and provide a variety of banter, name checking both locations and cameo roles including a few I missed whilst discussion on the numerous actors involved is followed by the obligatory "they did a great job" and "no one else could have done this role" style lines. Though I would never class this as gripping stuff the commentary serves its purpose and the duo rarely go silent ensuring you get full bang for your buck.
Eight deleted scenes are presented in reasonable quality non-anamorphic widescreen complete with a video introduction by the director and optional audio commentary. With a total running time of roughly 3-4 minutes there is nothing of here of any real substance, while Coraci further contends these cuts were all at the request of the studio. True enough there inclusion would hardly do the film any more harm, with a few even getting a laugh. Worthy of note however is that two deleted sequences mentioned in the main feature commentary are not present here (one involving an elephant in India, the other Jackie lost in the desert plains of the Wild West).
A 19-minute promotional featurette does exactly what you'd expect, talk the production up a treat with director, writers, cast and crew putting in a few words in between the usual behind-the-scenes footage. A second featurette on the fight and stunt sequences with Jackie Chan is generally more of the same, with some pleasing on-set footage and interviews with Jackie and Coraci, but at little under 6-minutes there is nothing here you've not seen before and is unlikely to satisfy die-hard fans.
Rounding out the extras is a sickly saccharine sweet music video for a song aptly titled Around the World in 80 Days. I have no idea who performs it but the song is bloody awful, though for anyone interested it seems to be presented in the original Full Frame aspect ratio with a crisp transfer and clean stereo sound. Lastly you will find an Alternate Chicken Reel which is something Coraci rarely stops talking about in the audio commentary. The chicken you see in one of the films animated sequences supposedly represents both Fogg and Lord Kelvin, which to be honest I am largely dismissive of but here you get to see the alternate opening animation complete with this chicken. Nothing special but at least its presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen with a transfer up to the standards of the main feature, presenting the animation in all its Technicolor glory. Strangely the disc producers have seen fit to let this opening run a full 12-minutes into the main feature, a waste of space surely when it offers nothing new beyond the first few minutes?
A wasted opportunity Around the World in 80 Days fails to impress on basic action adventure terms, but also furthers concerns amongst fans that Jackie’s days at the top of his game are numbered be they down to physical restrictions on his part or studio restrictions on his methods. Either way this is a film you should probably try before you buy, but if you do choose the latter option then you’ll be served well by this DVD from EIV.