I love Jackie Chan despite his recent flops and so was pretty excited when I heard he’d be taking a smaller, side-kick role in the new version of Around the World in 80 Days. It sounded like a new direction for him, taking on the part of Fogg’s haphazard valet rather than doing another Kung-Fu movie in which he’s the center of attention. But Chan hasn’t stepped down into a smaller, comedically supportive role. Instead he’s completely taken over the movie, relegating everyone and everything about the traditional 80 Days story into the background to make room for him to do more wild-ass karate.
Jules Verne’s original novel has been done dozens of times before, most notably in a 1956 theatrical release which won the Best Picture Oscar. Though that award is often pointed to as one of the biggest Oscar mistakes in history, the movie itself is a good one and worthy of at least some place in cinematic legend. But to my mind the only truly GREAT adaptation of Verne’s brilliant concept is a 1989 television mini-series, starring a not-yet-Bond Brosnan, Python alum Eric Idle, and the recently departed Peter Ustinov in what for me was his most memorable role. That version was a globe spanning adventure that captured the wonder and excitement of Verne’s work as well as the reserved nature of Phileas Fogg: Gentleman among gentlemen.
The newest 80 Days attempt is a Disney film, which means it’s been watered down for kids while still trying to appeal to adults. Steve Coogan stars as a weird perversion of Fogg, who no longer seems to be a wealthy and naïve gentleman, but is instead now a wild-ass inventor who has more in common with Doc Brown than the character of Phileas Fogg. The movie centers around characters engaging in a wide variety of mildly hilarious antics which see Fogg hiring Jackie Chan as his Butler. Chan is Passepartout, a Chinese warrior who robs the bank of England and then sneaks into Fogg’s employ as means of returning home undetected. He pulls the rug out from under Fogg and turns the movie into his own, finding thin excuses to show off his martial arts skills and throw himself about in typical Jackie Chan frenetic fashion.
As have all versions of Around the World, this one starts with a wager. Fogg bets his career against that of the head of the British Royal Academy of Science. If he can circumnavigate the globe in eighty days, he will take over as head of the Royal Academy. Should he fail… he must never invent again! Fogg accepts the bet and races off around the world with his dishonest and newly acquired valet, a daunting task for anyone in 1876, let alone a man who has never taken a step outside London.
The movie never really stops to explore much of their journey, preferring to skip along the tracks to their arrivals at various destinations, with weird animated map interludes to link all those points together. Never willing to settle for something “normal”, director Frank Coraci makes his animated connections as outlandish as possible, resorting to such silly tricks as a winking statue of liberty and excessive swirly colors over Italy. That excess carries over into the rest of the film, as Jackie runs around punching people in the face and Fogg insists on coming up with outlandish and goofy contraptions to propel them across the world.
In the 1989 Brosnan version, there’s a fantastic scene where Phileas is closing in on London, only to discover his steam ship is out of fuel. Phileas doesn’t hesitate. He strides up to the captain, demands he sell him his ship, and then proceeds to strip every piece of wood from its decks and throw it into the boiler in order to reach his goal. In the Jackie Chan version, the ship runs out of coal and Phileas decides to build a gigantic slingshot powered hang-glider on the deck after promising to buy the captain new nipples. He hops in and shoots into the sky trailing a magnificent stream of sparkling glitter. Slingshots and glitter you see, are wild-ass and exciting.
That’s truly all Around the World in 80 Days has to offer: A big bag full of special effects and well choreographed kung fu. It’s great to see Jackie Chan kicking ass, it’s just that this is completely the wrong movie in which to do it. They even drag out one of his old characters, Wong Fei-Hung and his ten tigers. Sure, they’re heroes of Chinese cinema, and sure it’s cool as heck to see Wong Fei-Hung being played by Sammo Hung and sure it’s nice to watch him and Jackie fighting side by side up there on screen. But that isn’t supposed to be THIS movie. Around the World in 80 Days is about Phileas Fogg and his journey around the world, not a showcase for a rehash of all of Jackie Chan’s greatest his. Jackie is great, his choreography flawless, his comic timing spot on, but he’s doing it in the wrong film.
This journey around the world is a weak-kneed version designed only for kids. It probably isn’t even worth complaining about. It’s not that there’s no entertainment value in it, only that it’s a watered down perversion of something that has been and could have still been exceptionally good. The much vaunted, traditional Around the World in 80 Days cameos are still there, even if none of what made the other tellings of this story rewarding is. Enjoy those, get all nostalgic watching Jackie re-enact his past, watch the kids giggle as Steve Coogan straps himself into a giant slingshot with Jackie Chan and a poor interpretation of a French woman. It’ll only hurt a little.