“The Tuxedo” measures several sizes too small for the gifts of Jackie Chan. Hong Kong superstar is himself an all-inclusive human special effect but here his unique brand of action is integrated with digital fx. This bad idea is then underlined by pallid direction from tyro helmer and TV ad vet Kevin Donovan, a virtually incomprehensible plot line and a less-than-satisfying co-starring turn from Jennifer Love Hewitt. Certainly the poorest of Chan’s Hollywood ventures, pic will hardly punch out the B.O. ceiling set by the “Rush Hour” franchise and “Shanghai Noon.”
For the first time in Chan’s glorious career, credits for various fx-oriented skills far outnumber those for stunts and fight choreography, always in the past the beating, thumping heart of every Chan movie. Ultimately, tale of a cabby turned into a spy with the help of a super-technology-laden tuxedo reps a cautionary tale for other Asian superstars being seduced by Hollywood’s capacity for bigger projects and wider fame: The talents of the former do not necessarily marry with the largesse of the latter.
Perhaps in a more eccentric movie, the opening close-up image of a deer peeing into a river would set things off on the right note. But when Donovan’s camera literally follows the four-legged’s urine all the way to a water bottling plant, things already have the wrong scent. Intro of Chan as sweet-natured cabby Jimmy Tang trying to sweet-talk an art gallery hostess begins with thesp’s natural charm, and ends in a truly sloppy street brawl.
Based on his considerable driving skills, Jimmy is hired by steely-eyed operative Steena (Debi Mazar) to work as a chauffeur for Clark Devlin (Jason Isaacs), the top spy for pic’s CIA stand-in, the CSA. Devlin takes a liking to Jimmy, informing him that there’s only one rule to remember: Never touch his tuxedo.
Elsewhere, an evil magnate in the water bottling biz named Diedrich Banning (Ritchie Coster) has fashioned, with aid of mad scientist cohort Dr. Simms (Peter Stormare, slumming it as never before), a bacterial strain that causes instant dehydration and quick death. Although details of plan are not clearly explained, strain is supposed to help Banning corner the world’s market in bottled water which, the nefarious entrepreneur notes, is now “more expensive than oil.”
When Banning’s henchmen deploy a bomb nearly killing Devlin and Jimmy in their limo, Jimmy interprets Devlin’s desperate words to him after the explosion as carte blanche to try on his tux. This leads to what should be a dazzling centerpiece as Chan is twisted and turned this way and that by the extremely powerful suit, which can do everything from dance the mambo to assemble a space-age weapon.
But scene sets up the movie’s most vexing problem, which is to blur the line between Chan’s actual stunts and effects added by the pic’s post-production crew. Since Chan’s whole career is based on his hard-core commitment to doing all of his own body-defying stunts, fans are left to wonder if the superstar has decided to scale back on stunts as his body ages, or if this is a one-time fluke.
What’s clear is that it takes over 40 minutes’ running time until Chan engages in his first real fight, alongside Hewitt as blossoming spy Del Blaine (brought on the assignment by Devlin before he went down and Bob Balaban, in an uncredited two-scene cameo as CSA topper). Rather than increase the amusement factor as a sidekick in the manner of past Chan mates Owen Wilson and Chris Tucker, Hewitt — who has displayed a Chan-like sweetness herself in past roles — adopts the persona of a haggling, high-strung shrew who’s instantly repellent, confirmed later by Jimmy’s cogent character summary, “You are a pain in the ass!”
A sure sign that “The Tuxedo” has little gas in the tank is how it can literally stop for a music solo by Chan doing his best version of James Brown’s “Get Up” (replacing the soul legend on stage after accidentally decking him in a previous scene) and not make auds wonder when the murky plot will start up again. When it does, it gets murkier by the reel, even as Jimmy and Del inch closer to the center of Banning’s watery empire and underground lab. This ends up being the site of a singularly overblown and visually unexciting action climax, where the digitized moves of killer bugs upstage Chan.
Through it all, the HK kingpin keeps his composure and sunny disposition. Support is broadly pitched, with Mazar having little to do except act tough, Coster playing the umpteenth Brit-accented baddie and Isaacs suggesting that he would be a fair James Bond replacement for Pierce Brosnan.
Visual and design departments are aces, with fx makeup touches that are both strongly realized and just a little bit disgusting.