AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYSPG
Whereas the Oscar-winning 1956 version of Jules Verne's Around the World in 80 Days was Mike Todd's movie, a showcase for his legendary showmanship, Disney and Walden Media's 2004 remake is Jackie Chan's movie--a showcase for his equally legendary skills as a high-flying kung-fu artist.
It's a clever idea, really, to shift the focus away from the character Phileas Fogg, the eccentric inventor who's a bit of a stiff (especially in the person of David Niven, in the original) to his valet, Passepartout (played in 1956 by the Mexican comic Cantinflas), who's so good at getting himself and his boss into--and out of--some very close scrapes. However, such a shift necessitated some major revisions in the classic tale.
The basic plot device in the Verne fantasy is still there; it is late-19th-century London, and Fogg (Steve Coogan) once again makes a high-stakes wager with the members of the Royal Academy of Science (led by a blustery Jim Broadbent as Lord Kelvin), claiming he will succeed in circumnavigating the globe in 80 days--an apparently impossible feat before the invention of air travel. But this time, his 'French' manservant, Passepartout (Chan), has an important mission of his own--one that threatens to take precedence over Fogg's foolhardy aims.
Passepartout is actually a Chinese fellow named Lau Xing, and he has come to London to retrieve a precious jade Buddha, which was stolen from his village by the evil General Fang (Karen Joy Morris) and her cutthroat band of 'Scorpions,' all highly skilled in the martial arts. Once he has retrieved the Buddha from the Bank of England, Passepartout has to find a way to dodge both the police and Fang's gang to get it back to China. Voila, Phileas Fogg's grand tour! Their first meeting is accidental; Passepartout literally falls into Fogg's garden just as the scientist is testing a new invention--a speed contraption which in short order gets strapped to Passepartout's back, making him the first rocket man.
More shenanigans ensue as the travelers proceed. At the first stop, in Paris, the bad guys catch up with Fogg and Passepartout in an art gallery/studio, where buckets of paint provide buckets of kung-fu fun. It is here, also, that Monique La Roche (Cecile de France), an aspiring artist, inexplicably talks her way into joining the adventurers, adding a romance factor. Missing their train to Istanbul, these three commandeer a hot-air balloon to make up for lost time, giving Chan an opportunity to do some high-flying stunts. And so it goes. At every stop there's a pause for a round of rapid-fire martial-arts punching and leap-kicking--all wonderfully choreographed by Chan. The pi'ce de rsistance takes place in Passepartout's village in China, pitting his band of Tigers against the Scorpions.
And what of Phileas? Does he win his bet? After encountering his own setbacks--winding up a penniless bum on the streets of San Francisco, for example--Fogg and friends do get back to London, in a jerrybuilt aircraft, no less. Will they make it in time? Will Queen Victoria (Kathy Bates) step in to save the day? (Yes, in this scenario, she does.) Coogan plays Fogg just right, as a mad and madcap genius who's a bit of a klutz and also a bit of a romantic. Mme. de France is quite pretty and quite silly--but then, so is this entire movie. Much looser in its logic than the original 80 Days, and much less of a travelogue, this purely satirical version sometimes works, and sometimes doesn't. The same can be said for the attempt here to employ one of Mike Todd's favorite gimmicks: the celebrity cameo.
It is delightful to see Richard Branson, founder and CEO of all things Virgin, appearing as 'the balloon man,' which he is in real life. And what a hoot to have Luke Wilson and Owen Wilson play the squabbling Orville and Wilbur Wright. However, when California's current governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, shows up wearing Queen Neferiti drag and pretending to be Prince Hapi, a leering, loony Middle Eastern potentate, he's not at all funny. Grotesque would be the word. Arnold, what were you thinking?