Euro blockbuster “Asterix at the Olympic Games” would take the silver or bronze medal in any Quality Olympics, ranking below smarter predecessor “Asterix & Obelix: Mission Cleopatra” but on a rough par with the comicbook franchise’s first installment, “Asterix and Obelix vs. Caesar.” Every cent of the most expensive French pic ever — at a reported budget of $115 million — is visible onscreen. Shame, then, more coin wasn’t spent on the scrappy script, which sees its ancient Gallic heroes journeying to Greece. Pic should do very solid Continental biz, but theatrical coin from Anglophone territories will be negligible.
Despite critical mauling, “Games” easily won the B.O. laurels in France in its opening frame, though it bowed weaker than “Cleopatra.” Early results from non-French territories suggest pic may struggle to match “Cleopatra’s” hefty $111 million worldwide cume, despite a huge publicity spend and a massive release between late January and early February.
As its long list of scripters suggests, many cooks have been involved in diluting the original broth of Rene Goscinny and Albert Uderzo’s 1968 story “Asterix at the Olympic Games.” Preserved from the original, one strand sees wily Gaul Asterix (Clovis Cornillac, taking over from Christian Clavier) and his rotund, ridiculously strong sidekick Obelix (Gerard Depardieu, encoring) deciding to participate in the 50 B.C. Olympic Games.
However, their use of strength-giving magic potion gets them banned — a gag that arguably has even more topical resonance in this Olympic year than it did back in 1968. Also striking a contempo note is a reference made to heightened security to prevent damage from “chariot bombs.”
Also flying the flag for Gaul at the Games is Lovesix (Stephane Rousseau), a young swain in love with Greece’s Princess Irina (Vanessa Hessler), whom he’s been courting from afar with poems that turn out to be written by Obelix. This allows for a protracted, and not very funny, spoof of the balcony scene in “Cyrano de Bergerac,” one of Depardieu’s best-known roles.
Irina’s other suitor is Brutus (Benoit Poelvoorde, in ripe form), the nefarious son of Rome’s emperor, Julius Caesar (Alain Delon, having fun sending up his own vainglorious image). In a running gag, Brutus keeps trying to kill off his father with poisons and booby-trapped gadgets.
Although Asterix gets sole billing this time in the title, he’s almost a peripheral character to the action. Nominally supporting characters get the bulk of the screen time, as well as the funniest lines and shtick, particularly Belgian thesp Poelvoorde, who has good comic chemistry with German spoofer Michael Bully Herbig (as a mute centurian). Elsewhere, humor is aimed squarely at the kiddies, with lots of slapstick and cartoonish violence.
However, tykes could be baffled by the protracted series of wink-wink cameos by famous Euro sportspeople toward pic’s final quarter, including Formula One driver Michael Schumacher repping Germania in the final chariot race, French-Algerian soccer star Zinedine Zidane playing an Egyptian who “invents” football, and basketball player Tony Parker doing the same with hoops. Also cropping up in the last reel is Jamel Debbouze (“Days of Glory”), reprising his role from “Cleopatra,” and adding an energy boost just when pic is starting to run on vapors.
All the extra characters conspire to drag out the running time needlessly by 15 minutes, even though pic’s setpieces (the first matches of the Games, the climactic chariot race) are nimbly edited. Pro craft contributions elsewhere ensure overall product looks not just classy but of a piece with the Pop, primary-intensive color scheme of the original comics.
In subtitles of French version caught, names of some characters were changed to make the puns work in English, in line with the comicbooks’ translation tradition.