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Film Review: ‘Kung Fu Yoga’

Variety logo Variety 1/28/2017 Maggie Lee
© Provided by Variety

An archaeological adventure set in Tibet, Dubai, and India, Jackie Chan-starrer “Kung Fu Yoga” proves that despite a decade-long hiatus, Hong Kong action director Stanley Tong (“Rumble in the Bronx”) still has some juice left, in a movie that combines kinetic stunts with exotic locations on a very grand scale. It would have been even more fun to see Chinese martial arts infused with yoga poses, or fights between Chan and yoga masters, but Tong’s screenplay is too heavily skewed toward mainland Chinese tastes to explore such ideas, marking a missed opportunity for an original mashup of Bollywood and Chinese entertainment styles.

Still, mainlanders out for family entertainment won’t feel shortchanged. Opening domestically on the Lunar New Year, Jan. 28 (day-and-date in U.S.), the film competes head-to-head with”Buddies in India,” the directing debut of popular comedian/martial artist Wang Baoqiang. Overseas ancillary should be robust.

“Kung Fu Yoga” was announced in May  2015 as one of three Chinese-Indian projects commissioned during Xi Jinping’s state visit to India. However, co-producer Viacom 18, one of Bollywood’s biggest studios, soon pulled out. If the partnership had worked, one wonders if Tong would still get away with Chan’s character preaching incessantly to Indians about their history to the point where the villain yells, “Stop teaching me about my own country!” Or such brazen promotion of China’s political agenda as having the Indian protagonist  exonerate the One Road, One Belt policy.

Mimicking Bollywood war epics like “Baahubali” and “Bajirao Mastani” with a bit of “300” thrown in, the splashily animated prologue features Chan in motion capture, battling an elephant cavalry in 647 A.D.  He plays real historical figure Wang Xuance, Tang dynasty envoy to India, who defended the Kingdom of Magadha from renegade general Arunasva. On his way back to China to get reinforcements, he’s cut off by an avalanche, and can’t reach Gen. Bhima, who’s been sent by Princess Gitajani to escort him.

Back in the present, Chan is archaeologist Jack, who’s approached by Professor Ashmita (Disha Patani) and her assistant, Kyra (Amyra Dastur), to help locate the lost treasures carried by Bhima and his troops, who got swept away by the avalanche. In Tong’s last film “The Myth” (2005), Chan also played an archaeologist named Jack, who goes to India to seize a magical gemstone, in the process recalling his past life as a Qin dynasty general. Fortunately, rather than dabbling in the reincarnation and time-slip hokum that made “The Myth”a garbled mess, “Kung Fu Yoga” mostly sticks to its contemporary plot.

Jack recruits treasure hunter Jones (Aarif Lee Rahman) and oil drilling expert Jianhua (Eric Tsang) to join their expedition to the Kunlun Mountains at the Indo-Tibetan border (Iceland stands in here). Just when they find the cave where Bhima’s army took shelter, Randall (Sonu Sood, dashing), a descendant of Arunasva arrives with his henchman to seize everything. In the ensuing scuffle,  Ashmita’s “fetal breath-holding technique” comes in handy for hers and Jack’s escape, but that’s the extent of the film’s lip service to yoga.

News that a rare gemstone that Bhima possessed is being auctioned in Dubai draws the protagonists and their nemesis there. The gilded city has inspired much high-concept action onscreen, but it appears this chapter is devised primarily to rope in mainland comedian Zhang Guoli, an icon of Chinese New Year TV festivities. Zhang plays dirty-rich businessman Jonathan and struggles to provide comic relief, but neither the dramatic situation nor the lame dialogue gives him anything to work with.

In any case, Jonathan is soon outshone by his burgundy convertible, which takes center stage when the film shifts into high gear — a warp-speed car chase around Dubai’s sweeping highways. Aided by car-stunt expert Bruce Law, Tong is back in his wheelhouse, executing a four-minute sequence in which colorful vehicles spin, flip in mid-air, and smash into each other with the wild abandon that recalls the spirit of older Hong Kong action pics. The sense of ridiculous fun is heightened by the presence of an unexpected rider in Jack’s backseat.

It’s nearly an hour into the film by the time the characters regroup in Rajasthan to locate Magadha’s imperial treasure (never mind that the historical site of the Magadha Kingdom is in Patna, nearly 700 miles away). In its final stretch, the film artificially squeezes fabulous scenery, opulent palaces, and monumental views of Mehrangarh Fort and Mangore Gardens — in other words, everything exotic about India. It ends with a Bollywood number riffing on the theme song “Om Shanti Om,” (choreographed by Farah Khan, no less) that throws continuity out the window.

As the leading man, Chan keeps the ball rolling with an assortment of neat acrobatic tricks and martial arts sparring, but his days of life-risking physical exertion is over. The three gorgeous Indian actors, none of them big names, give feisty turns in skimpily written roles; the members of the Chinese cast, other than casually charismatic Rahman, are forgettable. Tech credits by the Hong Kong crew are pro across the board, with extra kudos to lenser Horace Wong for his vibrant and pristine cinematography of nature in all its extremes. Stunt and action choreography by Tong, Chan, and Wu Gang involve predatory animals and cobras in scenes that are sometimes thrilling, other times moronic.

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