Kung Fu Yoga

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 02/02/17 15:14:30

"Kung fu, yoga, and a CGI lion."
3 stars (Average)

There’s a peculiar paradox to "Kung Fu Yoga" coming out roughly a month after "Railroad Tigers" (with their American releases even closer together): It demonstrates that he’s still popular enough to open movies on holiday weekends in short succession, and that he can keep grinding them out, but they also make it clear that he’s not what he was as a martial-arts star these days; even reunited with Stanley Tong, the director of some of his best-known films, he seems a bit faded, still showing skills but delegating the good action a bit more.

Heck, the film opens with (presumably) motion-captured animation, telling the tale of a Chinese General who visited India in 647 AD, returning with a treasure meant to convince the Emperor to intervene in a civil war, but the bulk of his party was lost crossing a frozen lake. At least, that is, until Beijing archaeologist Professor Jack Chan is visited by an Hindu counterpart, Asmita (Disha Patani) who suspects that an unreadable family heirloom may reveal a map using Chinese scanning and restoration technology. It does, so Jack and Ashmita follow, along with not just grad students Xiaoguang (Zhang Yixing), Nuomin (Muqi Miya), and Kyra (Amyra Dastur) but treasure-hunter Jones Lee (Aarif Rahman), the son of one of Jack’s colleagues. Also following: Bombay billionaire Randall (Sonu Sood), who believes the treasure is rightfully his, especially when it turns out to be the sort of find that includes an artifact that points the way to an even bigger trove.

The movie isn’t out of its first scene in the present day before it’s making obvious references to Raiders of the Lost Ark, though there’s something to be said for stealing from the best. Tong’s script seems kind of half-baked in a lot of ways, as though he discovered a neat piece of history and then glued the easiest pieces to find onto it in haphazard fashion: There are things meant to be romantic pairings with no sizzle, folks who switch sides or are revealed as not being what they seem without a whole lot of consequence, characters who enter and leave in such a way as to feel that their story purpose could have been accomplished in a more entertaining way, abrupt and disconcerting shifts in situation, and an ending that basically amounts to throwing up his hands and saying he’s done. There are a lot of lines where Tong seems to feel the need to balance his intended message of Chinese and Indian friendship with the Chinese boosterism expected from Mainland movies, offset a bit by the Chan character’s persistent humility.

A good chunk of the movie is in English out of necessity, as it’s the most likely common language for Chinese and Indian scholars to have, and it hurts the bits where people have to speak a fair amount. Chan seems comfortable enough, but Disha Patani is halting enough to undercut any attempt to present her as any sort of partner to Jackie (between that and how distractingly beautiful she is next to the rumpled star, she winds up giving off an unfortunate Denise Richards-in-The World Is Not Enough vibe). The various grad students are likable enough when the movie has some use for them, mostly as extra bodies in fight scenes and a minor subplot about Xiaoguang and Nuomin being jealous of each other. Aarif Rahman has a thin role as Jones, but he’s pretty charming in multiple languages, even when being the scoundrel, and while Sonu Sood’s full-on Bollywood villain performance is admittedly best in small doses, it’s delightfully un-equivocating in a movie where most of the heroes are kind of bland.

And while this is the first movie Tong has directed in a decade, he and Chan have always been a good team, even as age and changing tastes have them making some of the action less physical, both in terms of Chan leaving some of the elaborate bits to his stunt team and Rahman and using a small menagerie of CGI animals at various points, there’s no mistaking the skill they still bring to an action scene. They are actually pretty good about choreographing the action to make it feel like “Jack Chan” is above-average in a fight rather than improbably gifted with it playing more like a pleasant surprise for an academic than him having lost a step. He also saves some of the best for last, with the final action sequence being chock-full of little bits that balance Chan’s kung-fu prowess with Patani’s (presumably yoga-enhanced) flexibility; the hero swinging his leading lady around in a fight is a time-honored martial-arts movie tradition, but it works especially well here.

On top of that, Tong frequently gets kind of goofy in unexpected ways: Though on one level, you don’t expect the biggest action scene in a Jackie Chan movie to be a car chase with Jackie behind the wheel, it is a Spielberg-style chase that has Rahman jumping between vehicles, and also has a lion riding shotgun in the car that Jackie is driving, because why not. The last act, while it may miss a golden opportunity for a “why did it have to be snakes?” reference, does the henchman regretting his life choices bit as well as any movie. And while the end credits don’t include the traditional Jackie Chan outtakes, they do feature a Bollywood dance number staged by Farah Khan - India’s top choreographer and a successful director in her own right - that is tremendously infectious in no small part for how much fun Chan and the rest of the cast seem to be having.

It is, in fact, such a delightful bit that an viewer that found himself lamenting how the latter part of Jackie Chan’s career has often been disappointing will likely come out with a smile on his face. "Kung Fu Yoga" won’t make Chan as popular in India as he is in China or even America, but it’s not bad as late-period Jackie Chan adventures go at al.

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