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'Around the World in 80 Days': A Verrry Slow Boat to China

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 16, 2004

The new Disney film "Around the World in 80 Days" might generally be described as "Around Epcot Center in 120 Minutes." It has that cheesy, chintzy mid-Florida feel that we all know and love, despite its $110 million budget. How could they spend so much money and end up with something that looks so Orlando?

It's sort of, for a little while in the middle, a Jackie Chan film, and that's when it's at its best. But it's more often a Steve Coogan film. And who is Steve Coogan? Well, he looks like the great Scots race car driver Jackie Stewart and he sounds like the great British actor Alan Rickman and that's all I know. How'd he get a major Disney film crafted around his small package of gifts? Hmmm. Beats the heck out of me. Possibly it has to do with the rumor that the movie was set up for Hugh Grant and Hugh couldn't make it, so the production company had to scramble for a body. Wasn't Ben Affleck available?

Any resemblance to the original "Around the World," a huge 1956 icon that arrived in the miracle of Todd-AO with David Niven in command, is utterly coincidental. That movie, if memory serves, ventured into the real world. For the most part, this one doesn't, and the transparent phoniness of the sets -- it was shot mostly in a German studio -- is a continual annoyance. In fact, I think that San Francisco, London, Paris, Ankara and Delhi are on the same block of Berlin back lot, with the signs and the crowds changed. Only when the film ventures to China (Thailand stars as China) does it pick up.

The director, Frank Coraci, a former Adam Sandler intimate ("The Wedding Singer"), and writer David N. Titcher see Phileas Fogg -- the obscure Coogan -- not as a suave adventurer à la Niven but as a somewhat more hackneyed character, the wacky inventor. Thus much of the movie, set in 1872, is taken up with fantastic inventions of the "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" sort, which routinely chew, spindle and mutilate their users for comic effect. In the first few minutes Chan is induced to ride what appears to be a steam-powered Tilt-a-Whirl in an attempt to break the 60-mile-per-hour barrier. In the last few minutes he's obliged to pedal a birdlike flying machine into downtown London to beat the deadline. You know what? Gizmos are overrated as movie amusements. Is there a soul on Earth over the age of 3 who still finds them funny?

As the screenplay has it, Fogg, generally denounced as a fool by the posh bigwigs of the Royal Academy of Science, makes a hasty bet with that outfit's bigwig, Lord Kelvin (Jim Broadbent in a performance broadly bent), that he can, yes, make it around the world in the titular time frame. It never occurs to the filmmakers that there's not really any connection between inventing and traveling, so the whole premise feels like a non sequitur.

Fogg has just hired a new valet, Passepartout (as Jules Verne named him in the original novel), who is basically the facilitator of the trip. This is, of course, the great Chan, one of the world's most amusing movie clowns and jocks. The wrinkle is that he's a martial arts ace sent by his village to steal a stolen jade Buddha from the Bank of England, where it has been deposited by a nefarious warlord. Having accomplished that, Chan signs up with Fogg as the best way of getting back to China, but doesn't tell the English fool about the detectives and warlord kung-fu experts on his trail.

As did Mike Todd, Coraci uses cameos to liven up the proceedings, but to less positive effect: The proceedings are deadened down significantly by unremarkable appearances by unremarkable people such as Kathy Bates, Richard Branson (oh, there's a howler) and Owen and Luke Wilson. But the worst of these deserves its own paragraph.

Did Arnold Schwarzenegger actually become an actor? I thought so. But in this, what is certainly his last appearance, he is absolutely horrendous. It's not even a performance. He is so unhinged by the responsibility of playing a lecherous Ottoman despot in what looks to be a wig that Cher wore in the '70s and a gown designed by Givenchy in the '50s that he overacts with the hammy zeal of a pig's knuckle trying to disguise itself as a sauerbraten. Gott im himmel, he ist awful! It should not be permitted. Ja, this is how it begins!

Perhaps he's having difficulty finding motivation. One cannot blame him. The script makes him delirious over the presence of person No. 3 on the trek, and this is either Cecile De France as Monique La Roche or quite possibly Monique La Roche as Cecile De France, I am not sure which. She is a tall, more or less attractive (do you like that gaptoothed thing?) young woman of almost no apparent talent. She pretty much just stands there and squeaks.

The film spurts briefly to life when it leaves back lot Berlin. A long sequence completes the story arc of the return of the jade Buddha, and for just a few minutes the movie takes on the long-ago fairy-tale feel of classic '70s chopsocky. For once the annoying Europeans are shunted aside and Jackie Chan alone must defend his village against the warlord's ninjas. He still knows how to choreograph a fight sequence, and working, one presumes, with his core of tested stunt and martial arts professionals, he throws together a nifty sequence of comic-toned, hand-fist-foot-speed work. It's done lightly in an exaggerated diction, bloodless, comic, acrobatic, and ultimately it brings him nine masked allies, including his old friend, the great Sammo Hung Kam-Bo. It's a lovely few minutes of movie -- you can feel Chan pepping up, growing in stature and engagement, pulling the movie, however briefly, to a new level -- and it made me ache to see the dragon-fist school take on the swan's-beak school for 70 delirious minutes in a Times Square grindhouse, surrounded by sleeping bums. Man, those were the days.

Man, these are not the days. That plot is forgotten and the movie falls from grace to clunkiness and continues its herky-jerky, way-unfunny trek around the amusement park. Who needs it?

Around the World in 80 Days (125 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG for action violence and some crude humor.

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