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Animal World
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by Jay Seaver

"Surprisingly slick and enjoyably eccentric."
4 stars

"Animal World" is exactly my kind of insane, a Chinese-language adaptation of a Japanese comic that shows an incredible initial flair for stylized action and eventually trades it in for game theory and other math. It's got an impressive cast that for some reason includes Michael Douglas, and some of the slickest effects work I've seen in a Chinese movie. Is it the sort of weird that translates to a bigger audience than a Chinese movie usually gets overseas or becomes a crowd-pleaser in its native land? I have no clue.

It follows Zhang Kaisi (LI Yifeng), who was the smartest kid in school, but who as an adult works as a clown in an arcade and has violent, vivid hallucinations when he gets emotional; on top of that, his mother is in a coma and he has to borrow money from nurse and girl-next-door Lin Qing (Zhou Dongyu). Another old friend, "Big Shrimp" Li Jun (Cao Bingkun), offers him a chance to make some money flipping an apartment, but it means mortgaging Kaisi's mother's place. Instead, he winds up brought in front of "Anderson" (Douglas), an American loan shark who offers him a chance to win his debt back aboard the "Cruise Ship Destiny", where he'll be one of a hundred competing in a high-stakes game of rock-paper-scissors.

Which, in filmmaking terms, sounds absolutely insane. Writer/director Han Yan (adapting a manga by Nobuyuki Fukumoto) spends the first leg of the movie boosting some relatively-basic scene-setting material with memorably hallucinatory bits of action in much the same way he did when making romantic comedy Go Away Mr Tumor, and it's quite effective. From the start, we're plunged into a mind unsteady enough to be dangerous but we also get the feeling that he's generally maintaining control, and the visuals of it are terrific: Some top-notch visual effects companies are at work, the "Killer Clown" avatar is just the right blend of frightening and absurd, and there's a car chase sequence that's both so dizzying and easy to follow that it could come out of the Wachowskis' Speed Racer. It's a heck of a way to set things up for the real meat of the movie.

That main event is kind of gloriously absurd. The interior of Destiny is a fantastic, stylish environment that probably looks great in Imax 3D (though it only got a 2D release in Boston), but it takes some guts to go from that hyper-kinetic opening and then spend the rest of the movie playing rock-paper-scissors like it's a game of skill. The thing is, it kind of works; the rules that make this a game of resource allocation are laid out clearly, an early and obvious attempt to game the system is thwarted in a way that means Kaisi and his allies have to outthink the competition to get out alive, and the mathematical gambits he thinks up are illustrated with the same visual flair shown in the early action sequences (if the first half is Han capturing the fast action of manga, the second is him translating its decompresseed, highly-visual exposition to screen). It may go on a bit too long in the end, but for a while it plays out like the best high-stakes poker games on film, except that it's perfectly natural for folks to get up, show their hand, and interact with their opponents.

It also sneakily lets Li Yifeng grab the movie and make it his without the crutch of his clown costume and visual effects; it's a bit tough to tell through subtitles, but he seems to handle the mathematical material confidently and generally handle Kaisi's rocky emotional state well. He's got a number of good foils in Cao Bingkun, Su Ke, Wang Ge, and Alberto Lancelletti, all well-suited to the particular sort of allegiances and/or betrayal their characters build with Kaisi. Zhou Dongyu is credited as a "guest star", which seems like an odd thing for a movie that presumably stands alone, but it fits; Liu Qing is not on the Destiny but her scenes with Li Yifeng certainly help build a solid foundation for his character. Something similar is the case with Michael Douglas: He's certainly a higher-end foreign villain than I can recall any other Chinese film having (although the bar is probably Frank Grillo in Wolf Warrior 2 and Mike Tyson in Ip Man 3), but it's a good investment; even if he's not doing his best work, he's still not making the audience laugh when he opens his mouth and he projects a casual air of satisfied superiority as well as ever.

For all that "Animal Kingdom" makes a very watchable movie out of some bonkers material, I suspect that a lot of people will check out once they realize that most of the big, CGI-filled action scenes are not meant to be taken literally, or will eventually decide that the hero applying game theory to an amped-up version of rock/paper/scissors is not actually exciting. I hope not, though; it's a surprisingly fun flick, one of the more enjoyably oddball international blockbusters to come around in a while.

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originally posted: 07/03/18 02:53:05
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  29-Jun-2018 (15)

  29-Jun-2018 (MA)

Directed by
  Yan Han

Written by
  Yan Han

  Yifeng Li
  Michael Douglas
  Dongyu Zhou
  Bingkun Cao
  Ke Su
  Ge Wang

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