The latest in a quickly tiring breed of Hallmark miniseries for NBC, “The Lost Empire” contains enough special effects to fill 10 hours, and the four-hour epic adventure feels like it lasts that long. That’s what happens when producers surfeit on the fantasy world and the explosions and the demons and the flying and the rest of the effects, without providing the emotion to make them exciting. The result is a tedious affair that resembles nothing so much as a videogame.
It’s really a shame, since this is an incredibly ambitious project, and at the center of it is prominent playwright David Henry Hwang (“M. Butterfly”), who wrote the teleplay. Hwang’s intention is to take the irreverent Chinese classic “Journey to the West,” meld it with a western semi-equivalent, “The Wizard of Oz,” and deliver an epic fable that cries out against censorship as a crime against the human spirit. In development, this must have seemed an extraordinary endeavor, but in execution, under the direction of Peter MacDonald, there’s a little problem: It just doesn’t work. The humor falls flat, the characters seem stale, the storyline repeats with little shape, and it all comes off as an excuse to link one cheesy-looking effect to the next.
Thomas Gibson (“Dharma & Greg”) plays Nicholas Orton, an American businessman who once found great pleasure in studying Chinese history and literature but now makes money off exploiting it, helping turn icons of Chinese culture into theme parks. When he meets (cute, of course) a beautiful Chinese woman, he’s taken to the fantasy world he read about in “Journey to the West,” a book that inspired him during his younger, more idealistic days. The woman is in fact the Goddess of Mercy, Kwan Ying (Bai Ling), and she explains to Nick that it is up to him to save the original manuscript of the classic story from destruction. He’s got three days, and if he fails, the entire human world will regress to a time of slavery and censorship.
Helping Nick with his mission are the characters who populated “Journey to the West,” lead by the maverick Monkey King (Russell Wong). It’s this character’s anarchic individuality that caused the book to become a target of the ancient censor, Shu (Randall Duk Kim), who has transformed himself and his lackeys into demons for the last five hundred years in order to rid the world of the evil story.
The Monkey King has his own cohorts, including the gluttonous Pigsy (Eddie Marsan beneath a porkish snout) and humorously humorless Friar Sand (Kabir Bedi). They need Nick because it’s been predestined that a Scholar From Above will be the one to return the original manuscript to the human world where it belongs.
Since the exposition is a bit heavy, characters repeat it multiple times, and since it’s pretty much all there is to the story, it sinks in fairly quickly. First the good guys need to find the manuscript — making their way through booby traps resembling those in “Raiders of the Lost Ark” — and then they need to lose and recover it from the bad guys over and over. There are lots of fight scenes where Nick, who gets trained to fight like a god in a sequence that seems part “Return of the Jedi,” part “Karate Kid,” gets to “kick some demon butt.”
Hwang keeps it light, and his best touch is throwing in another villain in the form of Confucius (Ric Young), who spews his fortune cookie philosophy but really is only out for himself. But Hwang is not an action writer, and it shows: What character development there is gets lost amid the muddy, frenetic action. The only real choice that needs to be made here is on the part of Kwan Ying, played with restrained class by the beautiful Bai Ling, who falls in love with Nick and is forced to confront the possibility of losing her goddess powers.
MacDonald and editor Colin Green do their best to make all this coherent, but it’s a struggle. The fight choreography, by Ridley Tsui, only makes one even more appreciative of the work of “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’s” Yuen Wo-Ping, although to be fair that kind of work requires rehearsal time that wouldn’t be possible for television. John Altman throws in lots of loud music to make the fight scenes seem more dramatic than they are. The fantasy characters wear an enormous amount of makeup, effectively designed by Karen Dawson. But all the strong technical work comes across as the outer shell of an empty nut.