The protagonists, the production… everything has a few screws loose in “Buddies in India” — a Chinese action-comedy in which a naive monkey trainer and a coddled tycoon’s son are forced to travel to India together. Mainland comedian/martial artist and first-time director Wang Baoqiang plugs into the frenemy road movie formula from colossal hit “Lost in Thailand” (in which he starred) while aiming to recapture the spirit of Jackie Chan’s mid-career blockbusters. Unfortunately, he’s hamstrung by his inexperience as a helmer, and the film ends up as an improbable mess full of rowdy vulgarity. Still, such is the craving for family entertainment during China’s Lunar New Year holidays that “Buddies” made enough friends to gross more than $105 million at the Chinese box office.
One of three projects produced under a China-India state agreement in 2014, “Buddies,” like the other two — Jackie Chan vehicle “Kung Fu Yoga” and Huo Jianqi’s “Xuanzang” — are ultimately Chinese films that make use of Indian locations, without significant creative input from Indian talent or cross-cultural perspective.
Wang’s pic is a tenuous variation on “Journey to the West” with the two leading roles taking on rudimentary characteristics of Monkey King and Monk Xuanzang, since they’re preyed upon by villains all the way to India. As an odd-couple road movie, it’s a poor knockoff of “Lost in Thailand,” and screenwriters Shu Huan & Ding Ding (who worked on “Lost”) seem to be making up the escapades as they go along, shamelessly scattering around fat women, fart jokes and even blatant product placements for a brand of condoms. Crucially missing are credible human motivations or skilled balance of physical with verbal humor.
Wu Kong (Wang) lives with a swarm of monkeys in a crumbling loft earmarked for redevelopment. His kung fu skills enable him to resist eviction until Tang Sen (Bai Ke, leading man in popular web series “Surprise”), the heir to the Bao Tang Property Group, counterattacks with an arsenal of robotic toys — thus setting the infantile, cartoonish tone. Tang’s gravely ill dad (Chen Peisi) dispatches him to India to retrieve his will. Naturally, he blackmails Wu into becoming his son’s bodyguard.
Like tourists on a package tour, Tang and Wu are rushed off to attend a local wedding where none of them appears to know the bride and groom. Wang, who trained in the Shaolin school of martials arts from an early age, randomly breaks into fights and exhibitionist acrobatics. Next they move to a sari factory decorated solely for him to fight spear-wielding Indian women amid colorful cascading cloths.
By the time the pair sign up for a chili-eating contest presided over by Bull King (Vikramjeet Virk), the audience should give up trying to make sense of the story. The scene is the culmination of all the bruising, insults, and facial grotesqueries that Wu is put through, and accepts with masochistic glee. That any viewer who can laugh along or feel “entertained” is itself rather disturbing.
When the pair finally reach their destination at the Temple of Hanuman, it cues another chopsocky showdown, this time with a lethal assassin whom Tang’s scheming uncle Chasu (Huang Bo, reprising a role in “Lost”) has coaxed out of retirement. Portrayed by Liu Xiao Ling Tong, the veteran actor who played Monkey King on TV for decades, his resemblance to the gnarled hero of “Machete” is worth a laugh but not enough of a payoff. The revelation of why Tang Senior contrived to make his son and Wu travel together sounds like a throwaway.
The film’s greatest weakness is the sheer outlandishness of the character ensemble, right down to the cameos, and the lack of logical motives for extreme behavior, such as Tang’s jilted fling (Liu Yan) who courts him with hot branding irons. Even consummate comedian Huang can’t give Chasu more life beyond facial contortions. Wu and Tang seldom get a chance to really bond; they’re too busy brawling or dodging assassination attempts. Wu’s attachment to his monkeys and Tang’s reliance on robotic toys and gadgets for friendship could have made an interesting contrast and bridging point, but it’s not properly explored.
Experienced action director Guo Yong (“Rise of the Legend”) devises solid choreography, but his creations are poorly integrated into the plot and physical surroundings. Shot mostly in Rajasthan (where “Kung Fu Yoga” also took place), capturing its imposing culture and colorful scenery onscreen should be a piece of cake for Hong Kong DP Chan Chi-ying, yet his compositions and lighting are shoddy. Some brief Bollywood dance numbers choreographed by the well-known Chinni Prakash are just OK, but help relieve the nonstop brawling. Outtakes of Wang’s on-set injuries show obvious Jackie Chan aspirations.
The title, which means “Uproar in Tianzhu (the Tang dynasty name for India) references “Uproar in Heaven,” a famous episode in “Journey to the West,” made into a classic animation in the 1960s.