Lame humor and incoherent plotting are among the shortcomings of “The Rookies,” an initially engaging but increasingly tedious Chinese action-comedy-thriller that not even kick-ass movie queen Milla Jovovich can breathe much life into. Undemanding genre fans might go for this Budapest-set hodge-podge about rookie secret agents tackling a deranged billionaire, but there’s not much here for anyone else. After flopping in Chinese cinemas way back in July 2019 it seems very strange for “The Rookies” to be receiving limited U.S. theatrical release on April 16, 2021.
Working six years after his impressive action spectacular “Firestorm,” writer-director Alan Yuen hasn’t lost his knack for well-staged mayhem and destruction. But along with co-writers Lei Xu and Kong Yun-cheung, Yuen falls short of the mark when injecting comedy into the mix. Every time “The Rookies” gathers some sort of momentum as an espionage thriller — however improbable it might be — the whole show comes crashing down with cringingly unfunny dialogue that extinguishes suspense and makes it hard for audiences to care about such silly, one-dimensional characters.
Things at least kick off on an exciting note, with hundreds of scientists on a remote island fleeing the deadly effects of DM-85, a chemical agent with apocalyptic potential. Desperate to get his hands on the stuff is Liam Wonder, aka Iron Fist (David McInnis), a crazed moneybags whose desire to destroy most of humankind is never fully explained but seems linked to the tragic death of his wife. We gather this from the fact he constantly talks to one of her eyeballs, which he has preserved in a glass jar.
From Iron Fist’s hideout in a brutalist concrete compound encased in a mountain, the action swings to a big city skyline, where cocky young parkour daredevil Zhao Feng (Talu Wang) scales tall buildings to boost his social media profile. While parachuting from his latest climb, Feng accidentally lands in the middle of a gangland meeting and is mistaken for a key player in Iron Fist’s bid to obtain the deadly weapon. That’s before we discover DM-85 turns people into plants, and Iron Fist wants to create a world in which only “good people” and flora exist.
Things become even more fanciful when Feng is recruited by Agent Bruce (Jovovich), stony-faced boss of none other than the Order of the Phantom Knighthood, a secret crime-fighting organization founded by 18th-century Freemasons. And if that’s still not enough, Bruce tells Feng the only way to stop Iron Fist is to hotfoot it to Budapest and steal nothing less than the Holy Grail, which is currently in the private collection of a rich Hungarian family.
Tracking Feng and eventually teaming up with him is Miao (respected Taiwanese actor Sandrine Pinna, wasted here), a lowly Hong Kong Interpol agent whose career-stalling anger management problems are introduced with much fanfare and then never mentioned again. Joining them is Shan (feature debutant Timmy Xu), a young Budapest-based fan of Feng who’s also an electronics genius and inventor of ridiculous gadgets such as an “indestructible” bodysuit made of plastic bubble wrap. Rounding out the Phantom Knighthood’s novice fighting foursome is LV (newcomer Meitong Lu), a perpetually perky female doctor who happily tests out Shan’s dangerous devices.
If played with a smart sense of humor and crisp comic timing, these colorful ingredients might have produced a zippy tongue-in-cheek action-adventure. Instead, “The Rookies” opts for puerile dialogue and dumb physical comedy. Everyone except a deadpan Jovovich is constantly pulling faces, yelling unfunny lines and overacting to sometimes painful extremes. Feng is easily the worst-served character. An early scene involving Feng, his mother (Kathy Chow) and a sex doll he’s trying to hide in his bedroom is intended to be edgy and risqué but comes off as just plain creepy. After that, he’s portrayed as a self-centered, one-man disaster zone who acts the fool as a matter of course and breaks just about everything he touches when not pulling off miraculous deeds to save the world.
It doesn’t help that the main Chinese and Taiwanese cast are clumsily dubbed, while Jovovich, McInnis and a few others speak English. It’s possible some dialogue was much more amusing in Mandarin, but judging from the high-pitched performances, it’s hard to imagine too many genuinely funny gags were lost in translation.
Director Yuen and DP Ng Man-ching (“Rise of the Legend”) pull off several nifty chase scenes in downtown Budapest, and there’s no shortage of well-executed gunplay and fisticuffs. But none of it amounts to much in the face of numbing attempts to raise chuckles in the midst of frequently bamboozling plotting.
Technical aspects are clean and crisp, with some snazzy animations giving the film a much-needed boost. Hungary’s tourism authorities are sure to be delighted by ravishing photography of Budapest’s most beautiful sights.