Touted as the first mainland Chinese film from an American female director, Dennie Gordon, and toplined by Zhang Ziyi as an accidental agent chasing after a rare diamond, “My Lucky Star” is wholesome, effortless entertainment that runs smoothly enough but seldom takes one’s breath away in the romance department. Slickly lining up a series of jet-setting hijinks, the film ladles out zany, self-mocking fun, but a hectic itinerary doesn’t give Zhang and co-star Wang Leehom much room to breathe, let alone fall passionately in love. Still, the pic’s perky spirit should generate healthy local biz; it bows Sept. 20 in the U.S.
Initially developed as a prequel to Eva Jin’s “Sophie’s Revenge” (2009), which Zhang produced and starred in, “My Lucky Star” retains little of that film’s spirit or backstory, aside from the heroine’s namesake and her two chatterbox friends Lily (Yao Chen) and Lucy (Ruby Lin). While Jin’s kooky, character-driven romantic comedy was a classic chick pic, “Star” is an adventure-driven caper that will appeal to a family audience, with its unabashedly fantastical plotting and character motivations. But without a strong supporting actress like Fan Bingbing, who gave a scene-stealing turn in “Sophie’s Revenge,” Zhang dominates the film, at times belaboring her role’s less convincing traits.
In a move to bring the glamorous Zhang down to the audience’s level, the film’s four screenwriters have reworked the role of Sophie, previously a feisty manga artist, into a humble telesales travel agent in Beijing. She’s routinely dressed down by her boss for daydreaming and dabbles in drawing cartoons as a hobby. In her doodles, she imagines herself as a hotshot spy rescued from an evil siren with a spider neck tattoo by a James Bond-like fellow agent.
When she wins a free vacation to Singapore, her travel companions Lily and Lucy stand her up at the last minute, giving her a chance to bump into David (Wang) outside the hotel and gate-crash his rooftop party. Not only is David the spitting image of Sophie’s cartoon hero, he is (gasp) an American secret agent on a mission to snag a diamond named “Lucky Star” by sabotaging a transaction between underworld dealer Li Wan (Morris Rong, grotesque) and arms dealer Mr. Gao (Jack Kao, manic).
Clueless and lovestruck, Sophie botches David’s operations at every turn, yet each blunder gives her an excuse to canoodle with the hunk. They team up with cyber-geek Bo (Ryan Zheng) to Hong Kong and Macau in pursuit of the diamond, and eventually the trio come face-to-face with Sophie’s nemesis Charlize (Terry Kwan, gleefully vampish), who has a black widow tattooed on her neck and a desire for world domination.
Whether flubbing a naughty-nurse floor show or slinking panther-like across a bar counter, Zhang displays sufficient comic verve to make the silly gags hit the sweet spot. But no matter how much she sweats at being klutzy-cute, her character’s naivete and romantic longing feel fabricated to win audience sympathy. It’s only when she bitchslaps Charlize or lashes out at her acid-tongued g.f. Xixi (Ada Choi) that she reverts to her more forceful persona, exuding the can-do spirit that Sophie is supposed to embody. (The high camp of Choi’s imperious, crazed Xixi adds some extra bite to the tame romance.)
A certified heartthrob in China, Wang throws himself into his stunts with manly gusto, but doesn’t let himself go in scenes meant to send up the genre. Hardly out of each other’s sight onscreen, he and Zhang click readily as comrades, but the action-oriented screenplay doesn’t encourage them to open up to each other or connect on an emotional level. There’s nary a sexual spark, even when they’re drifting across the Singapore night sky via parachute, or cuddling together in a getaway van filled with stuffed animals.
Longtime TV helmer Gordon skillfully sets a snappy yet even pace, effectively balancing verbal jokes and campy drama with purely physical stunts as the protags gallivant from one metropolis to another. While the Asian cities are fortunately lensed without kitschy exoticism, however, the locations and sets have no particularly striking visual style; the action sequences (choreographed by Wu Gang) are flashy but not showstopping. As with “Sophie’s Revenge,” the narration is peppered with animated sequences, but these prove less magical than Jin’s own cartoon illustrations. Zhang’s colorful wardrobe reinforces her endearing eccentricity; other tech credits are pro.
The Chinese title translates as “Extraordinary Luck,” echoing the original moniker of “Sophie’s Revenge,” which means “Extraordinary Perfection.”