An unlikely property for a contemporary redo comes off in amiable fashion in “Around the World in 80 Days.” Refitted as a starring vehicle for action icon Jackie Chan, this second bigscreen version of Jules Verne’s 1873 novel takes plenty of liberties with the material and never generates much genuine excitement, but provides an agreeable ride without overloading it with contemporary filmmaking mannerisms. This isn’t blockbuster stuff in the manner of the three-hour 1956 Academy Award winner, but pic should do solid summer biz with Chan fans and general family audiences looking for old-fashioned entertainment.
For all its fame as a big B.O. hit and personal triumph for producer Michael Todd, the first version is a stodgy affair that proves a very tough sit today. Certainly one of the least deserving recipients of the best picture Oscar, the original (just released on DVD) gets by, to the extent that it does at all, on the charm of leads David Niven and Cantinflas, the scenic qualities and Victor Young’s score.
So only viewers with the Foggiest of memories of that 48-year-old pic will mind the changes wrought by screenwriters David Titcher, David Benullo and David Goldstein. They have turned Phileas Fogg (British comic Steve Coogan) into an inventor obsessed with creating the world’s first flying machine, and Passepartout (Chan) into a Chinese adventurer pressed by circumstance into serving as Fogg’s valet.
As set up here, Fogg, a wealthy and egocentric British gentleman in 1890 London, is given a personal motive for accepting the bet that provokes his rushed circumnavigation of the globe: Disrespected as a dilettante by the Royal Academy of Science, Fogg will assume the organization’s leadership, held by the disdainful Lord Kelvin (Jim Broadbent), if he can get around the world and back to London in 80 days. If not, he’ll be banned from inventing ever again.
Passepartout, aka Lau Xing, has been sneaking around London avoiding the authorities after robbing the Bank of England of a much-sought-after jade Buddha that he merely wants to return to its proper home in his native Chinese village. Unbeknownst to all, Lord Kelvin is desperate for the Buddha as well, as he’s in cahoots with the leader of a nasty band of Chinese assassins known as the Black Scorpions who turn up at the voyagers’ first destination, Paris, to attack Passepartout in a big street brawl.
Stopping in at an exhibition featuring Vincent Van Gogh paintings attended by the artist himself, the duo becomes a threesome when perky would-be painter Monique (Cecile de France) joins them for a simple reason: “I need a world journey to inspire me.” The purposeful Fogg spends much of the remaining trip trying to shed the capable young lady, but he never quite manages to and, of course, ever so slowly opens his eyes to her charms.
Director Frank Coraci, heretofore known for his unsubtle comedic strokes with Adam Sandler on “The Wedding Singer” and “The Waterboy,” works in a similarly broad vein here, but in a genial way. Given the tendencies of modern comedy, pic easily could have been vulgar and crass, a CGI-fest loaded with anachronisms, gross humor and a condescending attitude toward the quaint conventions of yesteryear. While this “80 Days” is hardly an impeccable compendium of late-Victorian-era manners and indulges contempo tastes in martial arts action and the occasional verbal usage (this is yet another period film in which characters exult “Yes! Yes! Yes!” when things go their way), its liberties are taken in a breezy, inoffensive manner that makes for easy acceptance, and the tone is light rather than labored.
So as the travelers make their way from Paris (seen off in a hot-air balloon by cameoing Richard Branson) to Munich and then to Istanbul, where they are hosted by a horny Prince Hapi, played enthusiastically in a frizzy black fright wig by none other than Governator Schwarzenegger, the film settles in as a good-natured lark — nothing special, exactly, but engaging enough and more colorful than most.
After an interlude in India, narrative settles in for its longest stay in China, where Passepartout/Lau Xing receives a raucous welcome from relatives as he returns home with the jade Buddha. Biggest set piece consists of a diverting acrobatic battle between the marauding Black Scorpions and Chan’s 10-member “Tigers” clan, but visit to the idyllic village ends with Fogg, feeling betrayed by his friend’s deception, heading off across the Pacific (by unshown means) alone.
In San Francisco, however, Fogg needs rescuing by his pals, who turn up at an opportune moment to whisk their leader off to complete the journey. Out West they encounter two vagabond bicycle entrepreneurs, Orville and Wilbur Wright (Luke and Owen Wilson), who provide Fogg with some crucial inspiration. But in New York, where the boat that will barely get them to London in time is about to leave, there’s a final showdown with the Scorpions’ leader, General Fang (Karen Joy Morris, in dragon-lady mode), in a warehouse amusingly filled with bits and pieces of the Statue of Liberty. Fanciful climax sees Fogg fulfilling his dream of flight while retaining Verne’s original twist that decides the outcome of the bet.
Chan does his patented comedic action thing with flair and good humor. There’s perhaps less spectacular risk-taking than before, and the martial arts are of the more grounded variety, but the star has extra fun with the multiple levels of ethnic baggage his character is carting around the world. Coogan, long a TV favorite in the U.K. but known in the U.S. only to specialized auds for “24 Hour Party People,” is a fine choice for Fogg: Tall and imposing-looking from a distance, thesp has qualities that invest the character with daft, impertinent and impulsive streaks, all of which give Fogg added edge and color.
De France, known to arthouse viewers for “L’auberge Espagnole,” comes off winningly, while Broadbent and Ewen Bremner, the latter as a hapless inspector sent by Lord Kelvin to disrupt Fogg’s trip, play to the rafters.
Aside from Schwarzenegger’s lively turn, which is highlighted by a group Jacuzzi scene and was filmed before his election as governor of California, other cameo of note comes from Kathy Bates as a conspicuously vivacious Queen Victoria.
Despite its many settings, production was lensed principally in Berlin, with about a month in Thailand and second-unit work covering location identification shots elsewhere. Production values are handsome without being spectacular, and Trevor Jones’ score keeps things moving without becoming bombastic.