Around the World in 80 Days

August 26th, 2004 Film, Film Reviews, Xpress

Starring: Jackie Chan, Steve Coogan, Cecile de France, Jim Broadbent, Ewen Bremner, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Owen Wilson, Luke Wilson, John Cleese, Kathy Bates, Richard Branson, Macy Gray, Rob Schneider

Directed by Frank Coraci

Played by Jim Broadbent, the stuffy, traditionalist Minister of Science Lord Kelvin declares at one point in Around the World in 80 Days that everything that has been discovered has been discovered.

It’s an actual quote from history, attributed to the head of the US Patent office Charles Duell, who said it in 1899 when arguing for the dismantling of his agency.

Broadbent delivers the line so we … an audience 100 years hence with thinking machines on our desks, space vehicles orbiting earth and instant telecommunications across the world … react with scorn for such backward thinking.

But it might just be true in literature and (by extension) movies. In the 1950’s director Frank Capra believed there were only seven movies in Hollywood, every film a variation on one of their themes.

He might have been on to something.

Throughout the history of fiction, only a handful of scribes have touched upon ideas so basic to our sense of humanity and society they remain timeless through the centuries, while most writers simply adapt those themes for their times.

Shakespeare set down the universal template for the story of forbidden love in Romeo & Juliet, a theme that’s been the basis of everything from Cinderella to West Side Story.

H G Wells produced almost the entire body of work upon which the modern science fiction genre is based, and Jules Verne — whether we realise or not — is the forefather of the road movie. It’s in all our nature to be curious about other people and their cultures, and it’s travelling the world — not friendship or a bet — that Around the World in 80 Days is really about.

We join Lau Xing (Chan) after he’s robbed the Bank of England to retrieve a jade Buddha that was taken from his village in China. Pursued by the local constabulary, he hides in the yard of the absent minded but progressive inventor Phileas Fogg, having just lost his valet after a variety of abuses in the name of science.

For cover, Lau passes himself off as Passeportout, Fogg’s new valet. When Fogg is challenged as a charlatan at the Royal Academy by the corrupt, backward Minister (Broadbent) and his conservative cronies, he accepts their bet that he can circumnavigate the globe in 80 days, and Lau — together with a comely struggling artist in Paris (de France) — is dragged along for the ride, with the likeable but doltish Fogg none the wiser.

Sometime Adam Sandler collaborator/director Frank Coraci presents Verne’s tale for the Playstation generation, full of chases, computer animated scene transitions and (owing to his presence in the lead role) Chan’s signature fisticuffs.

But it’s easy to forgive the overbearing Hollywood touches because Around the World in 80 Days makes no pretense about being a film for grownups. It’s for kids and kids at heart who — like Fogg — dream of building their own flying machines, taking off in Paris from a balloon, or fighting fierce warrior gangs in China.

It’s also refreshing when — after so many studio films have dropped the ball when it comes to structure and plotting — Days is perfectly constructed for a lively and unchallenging night at the movies, with just the right blend of action and exposition and all the Hollywood hallmarks firmly in place.

If you’ve seen the trailer, you’re probably looking forward to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s role as a Turkish prince, but it’s only the beginning. Cameos come from everywhere, range from entire scenes to a couple of frames, and some of them are a scream.

For spotters of movieland political trivia, take note of Jackie Chan’s name above Steve Coogan’s in the credits, despite his playing the role of the sidekick (it’s what happens when you’re executive producer and already have a few studios rolling in money instead of — like Coogan — it being your first big budget appearance).

If you don’t like any sign of successful independent project actors selling out, Coogan’s hammy Phileas Fogg will irritate you after his inspired performance as Tony Wilson in 24 Hour Party People, but there are much worse films he could have chosen as his Hollywood break. Buoyant visuals and a minimum of intellectual investment make it a 21st Century, family-friendly Jules Verne romp.


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