Poor Alexander Dumas. The course of movie history hasn't been kind to his motley band of musketeers, with a plethora of novel-to-big-screen endeavors that range from the middling to the downright atrocious. Paul W.S. Anderson's latest attempt at the swashbuckling legend which re-imagines the musketeers in a parallel steampunk universe, replete with flying zeppelins joins their sordid ranks, in what could quite possibly be its most soulless imagining yet.
There`s always been an appeal to the concept of the â€œdifferently-abled badass. How do you make a cool character even cooler? Give him or her a disability to overcome. The audience is immediately along for the ride, and given how difficult feats of badassery are to accomplish even in perfect health, the character instantly wins our respect. So, how does a detective go about detecting without the use of his sight? Apparently, very goofily.
Oscar-winner Denzel Washington and Star Trek`s Chris Pine team with action maestro Tony Scott in this non-stop thriller. A massive unmanned locomotive, nicknamed 'The Beast' and loaded with toxic cargo, roars through the countryside, vaporising anything put in front of it. A veteran engineer (Washington) and a young conductor (Pine), aboard another train in the runaway`s path, devise an incredible plan to try and stop it and prevent certain disaster in a heavily populated area.
You've got to give it to Tom Cruise: when other actors from his era have moved on to more introspective numbers about the deeper meaning of life (-cough- Brad Pitt), the couch-hopping superstar still churns out his fair share of high-octane entertainment. Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol is the ageless wonder's latest contribution to a franchise that, for some strange reason, never seems to get old.
Don`t call them dolls. They may be made in China and primarily out of ABS plastic, but that won`t change the fact that G.I. Joes are real American heroes. For many, these action figures are articulated nostalgia incarnate, the cartoons and comics adding to the fond childhood memories. When that nostalgia was made flesh in 2009`s G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, however, most fans weren`t pleased and there were all the Razzie nominations the film garnered to show for it. But that didn`t stop a sequel from being made.
When Stephen Chow gets his cheerfully nonsensical mo lei tau movies right, he gets them very right indeed. There are very few films that can rival his classic comedies for sheer joy and comic genius. Sadly, it's been far too long since he's produced such a film - the brilliantly bonkers Kung Fu Hustle came out nine years ago, and 2008's CJ7 was generally deemed a disappointment. But now Chow is back, with a gleefully silly version of classic Chinese fantasy/spiritual novel Journey To The West - isn't he? Sadly, while Journey To The West: Conquering The Demons is very funny in parts, it unfortunately hits about as many wrong notes as right ones.
For the sake of accuracy, Chow's movie is better termed a prequel to the classic tale about devout monk Xuan Zang who, with the help of his three disciples, hunts down demons on his journeys to the West (literally) and towards Enlightenment (metaphorically). The film picks up Xuan Zang's narrative when he is just a young demon hunter (Wen Zhang) who carries around a tattered book of nursery rhymes to help him deal with the tortured creatures he encounters. This is, as anyone can imagine, woefully inadequate protection against the likes of ferocious water-demon Sand Monk (Lee Sheung Ching) and ravenous pig-demon KL Hogg (Chen Bing Qiang), and he finds himself saved more often than not by the sassy, forthright and very effective Miss Duan (Shu Qi). But Xuan Zang next uncovers the underground prison of Sun Wukong (Huang Bo), the devious Monkey King who could put a premature end to not just his journey, but also his life...
Anyone who's familiar with the story will know why Chow has set up his prequel the way he has - it's broadly a three-act structure, with Xuan Zang struggling to subdue the three demons he encounters throughout the film, adding only Miss Duan as an unexpected love interest for the hapless protagonist. This allows Chow to come up with some inspired moments by blending the classic narrative with his own wacky elements of action, romance and comedy. For instance, theres a surreal, blissfully moment when Xuan Zang tries to coax Sand Monk into submission with a nursery rhyme.
Chow also throws a few clever twists into his re-imagining of the classic characters everyone knows so well. The best example of this would be KL Hogg - or Zhu Bajie as he is better known in his original incarnation - who hides his demonic features beneath a glassy, model-pretty surface that makes him even more ominous as a villain.
Unfortunately, Chow's movie falls flat in a few big ways. His brand of helter-skelter comedy requires a fine balancing act, and it works just about as often as it doesn't in this film. For every moment that elicits a hearty chuckle from the audience (deadpan sassy old handmaiden), there's a joke that doesn't land as Chow probably wants it to (think, quite literally, the obese lady cannonballing off a platform). Too many of his gags vanish into that nether-realm of being tasteless, poorly-timed or just not very funny at all.
Lack of genuine belly laughs aside, the biggest problem is that Journey doesn't give Chow's characters much room to breathe. Back-stories are provided for the three big demons Xuan Zang is hunting, but nowhere near enough to do justice by the ending of the film, when his real journey begins. It's pretty telling that the most memorable character in the film - Miss Duan - is an original character who has no counterpart in the source novel.
Moreover, the blossoming relationship between Xuan Zang and Miss Duan could prove divisive among viewers. Purists won't be too pleased with the suggestion that the chastely devout monk of the novels is even entertaining notions of dallying with this perky upstart of a girl. But there will also be people who will be hugely charmed by Shu Qi, who delivers one of her most winning, coquettish performances in a while - she pulls off that difficult trick of being adorable and alienating at the same time, a tomboy who's still indisputably feminine and lives life on her own terms.
It's obvious that this is something of a passion project for Chow. He's confessed to being a life-long fan of the Journey To The West story and is himself still regarded as one of the best cinematic Monkey Gods, a role he played in the beloved Chinese Odyssey duology of the mid-1990s. (Sadly, he was too busy with his directorial duties to make even a cameo in his own film.) On this count, at least, it's easier to forgive the ramshackle nature of this first installment of what is sure to become a full-fledged franchise. Hopefully, when he delves properly into the actual tale he loves so much, he'll do it more credit than he has this fairly thin origin story.
Summary: A prequel to the story we all know that falls flat rather too often to be considered a success. Hopefully the next step in this journey will be better.
Rating: 2 out of 5 stars