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by Jay Seaver

"Both too weird and not weird enough."
2 stars

There's a dog that shows up a couple times toward the beginning of "Airpocalypse", with what seems like a kind of important job story-wise, and he just kind of wanders off when he's done without actually seeming like he's made a difference. That's kind of how the whole movie feels, except the dog is more entertaining than a lot of what actually sticks around in this fantasy full of random ideas that never really stick together.

Beijing's infamous haze is worse than usual as it starts, which is not great for many, although Ma Le (Xiao Yang) is doing good business in suicide intervention with a sort of extreme psychotherapy. A call from Bai Xuejing (Xiao Shenyang), who has become the richest man in northern China on the back of a popular brand of air-filtration system, is particularly bizarre, as he claims to be the God of Thunder, who has been marooned on Earth for five thousand years but will be able to pick up his hammer again when the haze gets so thick that the elder gods cannot see him do it, then ruling/destroying the world. Ma Le figures he's nuts but potentially lucrative, at least until the God of the South Pole and Longevity (Wang Xiaoli) falls on top of him. The god's mojo is somehow transferred, and thus it is apparently up to Ma Le to reunite the other banished gods - God of Wind Chang Xiayang (Yi Yunhee), God of Rain Huang He (Chong Yuan), and Mother of Lightening Cai Ming (Du Juan), whose current incarnation is the motorcycle cop who wrote Ma Le up for stopping to rescue a dog on the way back from Bai Xuejing's estate.

(See? That dog was crucial yet entirely disposable after its second appearance, despite being fantastic running joke material.)

There is at least an entertaining anarchy to the movie at the start, which occasionally reappears when the special effects stuff starts to get bigger and crazier at the end. Perhaps this is partly a matter of me not knowing just how much director & star Xiao Yang and his co-writers cobbled together their own bizarre mythology and how much will be familiar to a Chinese audience, but Xiao is initially throwing random slapstick and irreverence at the screen, trying to top how hard he got the audience to laugh a couple minutes earlier or how bizarre (and occasionally clever) the giant-scale action at the end is. A lot of gags are dead on arrival or are thrown against the wall to never be seen again, but for a while, it's the sort of good chaos that works.

That's before the plot congeals and the fact that the details don't come together starts to matter. Then, Xiao and company start piling on rules that must be followed and details and consequences of curses that don't really seem to mean anything. Ma Le and the gods seem to spend half the movie training for the sort of action sequence where they'll be standing still with serious grimaces on their faces rather than going on some sort of crazy quest. Mostly, though, it follows the action-comedy pattern of getting serious when the situation becomes most over-the-top ridiculous, running out of jokes when some nervous humor or crazy irony would just help.

It doesn't help that the cast of characters is pretty dull. Xiao Yang gives himself a starring role that doesn't have much individual interest, with Ma Le winding up a sort of generic scoundrel who becomes a sort of generic hero for most of the movie; the guy who is practicing some sort of extreme psychiatry with a chainsaw when the audience first meets him never does anything that interesting throughout the rest of the movie. Du Juan is stuck playing an ice queen despite being at her best when her Mother of Lightening shows some sort of electricity (sure, she's hiding her true self for much of the movie, but the audience only gets brief glimpses of her being more than pretty and the only girl in the movie). Wang Xiaoli and Xiao Shenyang have some fun chewing scenery as mentor and villain, but beyond that the cast is stuffed full of guest stars and special appearances that might get a brief chuckle of recognition from the Chinese audience, but who seldom do anything interesting.

This may do quite well in China - it's offbeat enough to be interesting - but has already been crowded out during a busy Christmas movie season in North America, with few multiplexes having room for this and the next Chinese import right now. Often, that's a bit of a shame, but this time, it may be for the best.

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originally posted: 12/29/18 03:31:20
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  21-Dec-2018 (NR)


  21-Dec-2018 (PG)

Directed by
  Yang Xiao

Written by
  Yang Xiao
  Yuan Huang
  Ben Liu
  Shaochu Zhang

  Yang Xiao
  Juan Du
  Xiaoli Wang
  Shenyang Xiao

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