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Digesting the lowest rung of pop culture so you don't have to!
Looking back, 2004 was a weird year in cinema. The biggest films of the year, which included Shrek 2, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, and Spider-Man 2, were the standard big Hollywood films. But other films, like the failed Jack Black/Ben Stiller vehicle Envy or the Daniel Craig starrer Layer Cake ended up being far more interesting to me (for different reasons obviously) than any of those movies. Mean Girls showed us what could have been for Lindsay Lohan, who hasn’t been in a good film since 2004. Steven Soderbergh disappointed audiences with Ocean’s 12, still one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen. Million Dollar Baby, a heartfelt Clint Eastwood-directed film adaptation of a short story about a lady boxer (played by an intense Hilary Swank), surprised the world, winning the Best Picture Academy Award. The film I’m going to write up for this particular review really deserves neither anyone’s attention nor the space it’ll take up on our blog, but I can’t help but love it nonetheless. That film is Around the World in 80 Days, a massive train wreck that ended up being one of the biggest flops of 2004.
Failure is often spectacular. I am almost always far more interested in failed films than successful ones. Movies like 2012’s Cloud Atlas fascinated me because it even got made in the first place. There’s just something interesting behind the fact that someone somewhere will finance an incredibly risky proposition like Cloud Atlas. It seems a film like that only comes around every so often, and these types of movies are almost always worth talking about. Around the World in 80 Days fit that bill incredibly well in 2004 – I mean, who could have possibly thought that a film adaptation of a Victorian-era English novel, updated to include wacky steam-powered inventions, kung fu, and a deluge of poorly thought out Hollywood cameos could have possibly succeeded in theaters? That Walt Disney, through production company Walden Media, spent an enormous 110 million dollars on it boggles the mind even further. The fact that Disney tried to hitch their wagon to Jackie Chan’s star by turning the film into a Shanghai Noon/Knights-style kung fu/historical mash-up is also an incredibly odd choice, leading to a clash of styles the film can never quite successfully balance.
In a disaster-filled film such as Around the World in 80 Days, perhaps the biggest head-scratcher came in the hiring of studio director Frank Coraci, who to this day has not directed a single quality movie. His filmography, largely a series of dreadful collaborations with Adam Sandler, include movies like The Waterboy, Click, Zookeeper, and the recently-discussed Kevin James vehicle Here Comes the Boom. Coraci directs 80 Days in a manner that can only be described as incredibly lazy and inconsistent. The tone of the film is largely hyper-kinetic, goofy, and rambunctious, none of which fit in with the Chan-centric action scenes. In a film that utilizes martial arts talent such as Chan, his good friend Sammo Hung, and a group of stuntmen familiar to me from other Chan vehicles, there’s a surprising lack of action happening on-screen. Most of the time the camera zooms in on the reactions of the main characters, leading to illogically filmed fight sequences and incredibly poor action choreography. It’s weird that Around the World in 80 Days is even an action film to begin with. That it is a poorly done action film made with a budget of over 100 million dollars (which would have been enough to finance approximately one thousand Chan films in the 1980s) is almost criminal.
The main cast of the film, unfortunately, isn’t all that much more competent than the director, though this is almost certainly a function of the script rather than the talent involved. It seems quite odd to turn a Victorian-era novel about an aristocratic British inventor attempting to circumnavigate the globe in a timely fashion into a Hollywood vehicle for Hong Kong film legend Jackie Chan. I should say that I absolutely adore Chan, and own quite a few of his movies on DVD and Blu Ray, but he is completely wrong for this style of historical-based film. It isn’t entirely his fault, however. As a function of the script, Chan, in the role of Passepartout, plays second fiddle to Steve Coogan’s Phileas Fogg. Coogan is a brilliant comic actor and a delightful presence when he occasionally pops up in American productions, but like Chan, he is completely wrong for this movie. The script demands Fogg be a put-upon loser when Coogan is clearly too cool for school. The film begs for a David Hyde Pierce or a Ty Burrell-style actor, and that just isn’t Coogan. An adorable Cecile de France plays the love interest in one of the better performances in the film. How she didn’t end up a bigger star in America is beyond me (well, I guess it would have helped had the film been a hit).
If the main characters are miscast and generally out of place for a film of this type, the cameo appearances in Around the World in 80 Days are even worse. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who had recently won office as the governor of California, took on a much publicized cameo appearance in the film as an eccentric Middle Eastern prince named Hapi. It went about as well as could be expected. Rob Schneider plays a hobo in San Francisco for some reason (probably through Coraci’s Sandler connections I guess – I mean, seriously, has any actor ever coasted on his association with more famous friends as much as Schneider has?), Luke and Owen Wilson play the Wright brothers solely based on the fact that the actors are brothers in real life, Kathy Bates plays Queen Victoria, in what was assuredly a bit well-thought-out casting by the production team, and Mark Addy cameos as a sea captain who lost both of his nipples in a shark attack (seriously). Character actors Ian McNiece, Jim Broadbent, and Ewan Bremner get extended screen time as enemies of Fogg and company, with Broadbent really hamming up his role. Maggie Q, of Nikita fame, plays the villainous role of “Female Agent” (again, seriously), and gets to fight Jackie Chan in the head of the unfinished Statue of Liberty (also, again seriously). Did I mention this film is an absolute train wreck?
From the direction to the cinematography to the script to the performances (dampened by the script), Around the World in 80 Days fails not only as an adaptation of a classic English novel, but it also fails at whatever the hell else it was trying to do. It’s not a good kung fu film, courtesy of the direction and the fact that it is supposed to be an adaptation of an English novel. It isn’t a good historical drama because of the constant intentional anachronisms (which I haven’t mentioned yet, but which are funny for all the wrong reasons). The performances don’t lend themselves to high drama either (courtesy of both the zany direction and the lousy script). This is a film that has no sense of identity whatsoever. And yet … I can’t help but like the end product regardless of the countless number of flaws within. There’s really nothing much out there like Around the World in 80 Days – it’s really in a category of its own, and might be the weirdest big budget film of the ‘00s (scratch that, it definitely is). There’s an adventurous spirit contained within this awful production that is almost admirable. Despite the lousy direction, the miscast actors, the awful script, and the idea that audiences would pay to see an updated version of Around the World in 80 Days, the film has a certain goofy charm found only in the nether regions of the biggest flops of all time. I can’t recommend this film, and I can’t even articulate precisely why I enjoy it the way I do either. Failure is just interesting to me, and a film like this is one the best combinations of failure and interesting that I can possibly think of.
Oh, and check out the awful trailer (that narration…ugh) for Around the World in 80 Days I guess: