Movie Review: Kung Fu Yoga (2017)
There’s a moment midway through “Kung Fu Yoga” (“功 夫 瑜 伽”) that warmed my heart.
Our hero, Prof. Jack Chan (Jackie Chan), the most famous archeologist in China (“one of them,” he always responds with modesty), is in a high-end hotel in Dubai, where he’s just fooled a friend, a rich Chinese businessman, into buying a stolen Indian artifact for $160 million so it can be studied rather than privatized and coveted. Except now several toughs start a fight on the stairs leading to the second floor of the lobby; they want the artifact, handcuffed to the wrist of the businessman, and pull him away. Jackie fights the others, sending two of them tumbling down the stairs, and then jumps over a railing to protect his friend. Except it’s more than a jump. He piourettes. He kicks his back leg up to twist around and land and keep moving and fighting. All in one swift motion.
It’s that slippery grace we’ve seen onscreen for more than 40 years. And at age 62 (his age when “Kung Fu Yoga” was filmed), Jackie can still bring a bit of it.
Which is good because the movie, directed by longtime Chan collaborator Stanley Tong (“Supercop”), is a mess. An expensive, well-produced mess.
ESL, Lesson 2
It was supposed to be a joint production between China and India, but at the last moment the Indian partners, Viacom 18, backed out, as did Bollywood star Aamir Khan, who was set to play the film’s villain, Randall. He was replaced by Sonu Sood, who is meh but does his best with lines like the following—the first words the movie’s villain says to the movie’s hero:
Some call it “destiny.” Some may call it “meant to be.” But I call it “I make it happen.”
All of this in English, by the way. The Chinese characters speak Chinese, but when the Indian co-stars arrive everyone communicates in the international realm of stilted English. We get painful intros out of an ESL reader:
Ashmita: Nice to meet you, Profesor Chan. Your reputation precedes you ...
Jackie: Call me Jack.
Xiaoguang: Doctor, how are you?
Ashmita: I’m good. Thank you.
Xiaoguang: I’m Zhu Xiaoguang, Professor Chan’s T.A.
Ashmita: You’re Zhu Xioaguang? Your thesis is brilliant!
(Jackie, next time your films need help with English dialogue, 打 电 话 给 我。我 帮 您.)
It doesn’t help, either, that we first see Ashmita (Bollywood newcomer Disha Patani) walking toward us in luxuriant-haired slow mo, while, on the soundtrack, angelic music plays. It’s reminiscent of what they did back in the day with Spanish beauty Lola Forner in “Wheels on Meals” (1984)—except that was used to comic effect, since it provoked dopey, slack-jawed looks from both Jackie and Yuen Biao. This? It’s just dopey. Jackie’s Prof. Chan now, 62, and can’t get be the slack-jawed youth. Plus he has 40 years on the girl: He was born in ’54, Patani in ’92. Yet somehow she’s the one who holds onto his hand a beat too long? And Americans think Hollywood has problems with this shit.
Past the intros, the movie is set in three places:
- The Kunlun mountains of Tibet, where the Magadha treasures, tributes from India to the Tang dynasty, were lost in 647 A.D., and are now found 30 meters below the icy surface
- Dubai, where Jack’s friend’s son, fortune hunter Jones (Aarif Rahman), absconds with the Diamond of Magadha, which is the key that unlocks the entire Magadha treasure
- India, where that treasure is finally unlocked.
All of these places are gorgeous. (Temple of Thuban, here I come!) Each place has its chases and fights, and they’re not bad, just not “Supercop” good. The whole thing is a little like “Fast & Furious” but by way of Jackie’s “Operation Condor” movies.
There are good bits. In Dubai, Xiaoguang and company arrive in front of the hotel late for the car chase when a visiting westerner assumes Xiaoguang is the carhop and hands him his keys. “We’ve got a car!” he shouts. I like the Indian fights with the rope and the snake. I like “Never touch a woman’s hair!” and Jackie getting all “Eighteen strokes to subdue the dragon” on the villain. Old Hong Kong mainstay Eric Tsang shows up in a minor role, and both male supporting actors have personality. Aarif is dynamic, while Zhang Yixing, AKA Lay of the hugely popular boyband Exo, who plays Xiaoguang, has self-effacing comic timing for such a pop sensation.
But the movie takes too long to get up-to-speed, and too many characters are added unncessarily—including Ashmita’s T.A., Kyra (Amra Dastra), who’s mostly there as potential love-interest for Jones. The reveals, meanwhile, are less than revealing. Oh, so Kyra isn’t Ashmita’s T.A. but her sister? Sure, why not? Oh, Ashmita is really a princess? Sure, whatever. “Truthfully,” we’re told, “she is the 68th generation descendant of Prince Gitanjali of Magadha.” And, oh no, crap, here she comes in slow-mo with angelic music again.
A Bollywood ending
The final scenes take place in a deep Indian cavern, where they find a gold temple, and where Jackie gives Randall about a thousand chances to do the right thing.
“This is passion, devotion, dedication,” Jackie says of the temple. But Randall and his thugs simply try to strip it of its jewels. “Respect history!” Jackie tells them. They don’t. He sheds light on a gold Buddha and everyone bows, but Randall is bowing to the gold more than the Buddha. He’s enthused about the chests full of treasure until his men discover they’re just full of ancient scrolls about medicine and Buddhism and throw them on the ground. “This is the knowledge and wisdom to help people live better lives!” Ashmita tells him. Right. So what’s it doing in an underground cavern?
All of this leads to the final big battle. Jackie breaks out the classic gong fu moves, and both Ashmita and Jones prove themselves adept. The fight’s almost over when Indians in the usual maroon/gold flowing religious robes show up out of nowhere. For a second, I thought they’d lived there all these years, but apparently not. Apparently they just wandered in? As reps of the people? To whom all of this belongs? It’s absurd but it stops the fight. Jackie and Randall look at each other. They walk down the stairs. Then, in Bollywood fashion, everyone breaks out into song and dance.
For all that, the movie killed at the Chinese box office (and died at the Indian one). It grossed US$250 million during Chinese New Year 2017—Jackie’s biggest haul by far. Was it the international settings? The high production values? The Bollywood stars? Sad to say, I think it was mostly the kid from the boy band. Brought the girls in.
For what it’s worth, Jackie, I came for you—the greatest movie star in the world.
Jackie: “One of them.”