A good one month after the delightful Railroad Tigers, Jackie Chan is back on the big screen, and a good 12 years after their flawed but enjoyable – and oddly heartfelt – adventure The Myth, he reunites with Stanley Tong for Kung Fu Yoga (though Tong was a producer on Chinese Zodiac). This Indian-Chinese co-production that follows illustrious archeology professor Jack (Jackie Chan), who goes looking for an ancient Indian treasure with the help of his assistants (Zhang Yixing and Miya Muqi), some old friends (Eric Tsang and Zhang Guoli), a thief (Aarif Lee) and an Indian princess (Disha Patani). The quest takes them from China to Iceland to Dubai to India, but another, less benevolent search party is also looking for the treasure: Indian heir Randall (Sonu Sood) and his mercenaries.
If that sounds like a perfunctory synopsis, it is not because we got lazy, but because Kung Fu Yoga is so perfunctorily written you almost expect its script to be credited to a 1997 software. A prologue set in ancien times attempts an epic and tragic feel (much like The Myth did with some success but a dash of awkwardness), but is made of CGI so crude – and with a key figure given Jackie Chan’s young likeness for no reason – it looks right out of a 1998 video game. Then it’s back to the present and we’re introduced to Jackie Chan’s archeology teacher in a direct rip-off from Raiders of the Lost Ark. Now, the Indiana Jones films have influenced adventure cinema to an extent that makes it meaningless to ever talk of an “Indiana Jones rip-off” (it would be like calling any thriller a “Hitchcock rip-off”), but here even small details are copied, like the “eyelid courtship” (if you don’t know what we are talking about, you haven’t watched Raiders of the Lost Ark enough).
The problem is, Stanley Tong’s 12-year hiatus seems to have taken a toll on his proven ability to craft brisk and enjoyable spectacles (he’s never directed a boring film, though we haven’t seen Mr Magoo…). Kung Fu Yoga moves from one exotic location to the next with a mechanical feel, a globe-trotting adventure so devoid of sweep or kick, it almost feels like an extended credit card commercial. Historical mysteries and archeological riddles are spelled out and solved in plodding exposition scenes, with no sense of wonder whatsoever and with English dialogues so stilted they can only be delivered with dead-eyed resignation. The locations are pleasing enough, but in the 21st century, locations alone can’t create wonder or thrill; now that anybody can travel, locations require exciting things to happen within them, to truly have an impact.
Jackie Chan is his usual charming self, but obviously here to honor a deal rather than lovingly craft choice entertainment for his audience. He does the bare minimum in his handful of unremarkable action scenes (though Chan’s bare minimum is still a lot more than many actor’s maximum, especially at this age): it’s always a pleasure to see him fight, but Stanley Tong and Wu Gang’s choreography here is low on inventiveness, and much of it is given to Aarif Lee, who’s passable (but occasionally annoying) as the team’s hunk. Zhang Yixing and Miya Muqi get the blandest roles and the most insipid banter as Jack’s associates, while Bollywood actresses Disha Patani and Amyra Dastur are mostly required to display their impeccable midriff, and Sonu Sood makes for an impressively non-threatening villain. Cameos by Eric Tsang and Zhang Guoli are a sight for sore eyes.
Still, there are one or two inspired moments. There’s a fun Dubai car chase where Chan’s backseat passenger is a lion (leading to a hilarious moment of slow-motion), an amusing scene when Chan and Lee fend off wolves with a display of martial arts, or a droll escape from a hyena pit. As you might have inferred from the preceding sentence, Kung Fu Yoga succeeds mostly in animal-wrangling (and/or animal CGI). There’s also a delectable dance number where for the first time the film seems to truly come to life; however, it happens in the final 5 minutes, interrupting the final fight like a fourth wall-breaking non-sequitur, as if the filmmakers simply thought “oh who are we kidding?”
Long Story Short: A shockingly half-assed adventure film, Kung Fu Yoga achieves only fleeting moments of fun or energy. *1/2