Jackie Chan seemed to be everywhere in early 2017 – in Australia, at least. Kung Fu Yoga opened in cinemas just weeks after his period action comedy Railroad Tigers, and that came a few short months after the release of the more contemporary Skiptrace. Before 2017 is out he would be starring in Martin Campbell’s action thriller The Foreigner. Kung Fu Yoga was widely touted as the first-ever Chinese-Indian co-production, and was Chan’s big theatrical release for the Lunar New Year.
It is also terrible.
The thing that few people discuss about a lot of Chan’s earlier popular hits such as Armour of God and Rumble in the Bronx is that, script-wise, they were all fairly risible. The storylines were simplistic and derivative. The characters were wafer-thin and the acting often rather ripe. As fans of Jackie Chan we didn’t care, as the outstanding and inventive stunt work more than compensated for shortfalls elsewhere in the film.
Chan was 62 when he made Kung Fu Yoga, and his days as the world’s most talented stunt performer were clearly behind him. That is not automatically a problem. In recent years he has excelled in projects where he has found new avenues, whether that is performing a mentor role to an ensemble cast in Railroad Tigers or attempting straight drama in 2007’s Shinjuku Incident. Where he seems almost guaranteed to fail is in those films that attempt to recapture the tone and style of his earlier hits. It killed his 2012 Armour of God revival Chinese Zodiac stone dead; and it does the same to Kung Fu Yoga.
Chan plays Jack, a prominent Chinese archaeologist persuaded by a mysterious Indian woman named Ashmita (Amyra Dastur) to track down and recover the legendary Magadha treasure – believed lost somewhere along the Chinese-Indian border during the Tang dynasty. With a team of associates he travels from China to Dubai and finally to India, all the while plagued by Randall (Sonu Sood) the descendant of the Indian warlord who tried to steal the treasure in the first place.
Kung Fu Yoga is a film 25 years out of date. The storyline is relatively nonsensical, and the action comes in fits and starts. There are a few moments where the inventiveness and cleverness of Chan’s action choreography jumps out, but in the main it is a fairly boring string of CGI-enhanced set pieces. That CGI is one of the film’s biggest drawbacks, with Tong banking visual effects cheques his film cannot afford. A fully animated prologue scene looks like something from a PlayStation game. Digitally created animals, including elephants, snakes, hyena and a vomiting lion proliferate, and never convince.
There is a lot of misplaced slapstick. The film generally has a disturbing tin ear for humour, which is a serious problem since it is supposed to be an action-comedy. Chan successfully manages a few laughs – literally nobody else in the cast does the same. Aarif Rahman is reasonably good as a rival archaeologist and treasure hunter named Jones – no guesses for where that name originated – but in all honesty he feels like his character should be starring in his own film.
Jackie Chan is a genuine legend in Asian cinema, and continues to make a range of interesting and entertaining films. Kung Fu Yoga is absolutely not one of them. Stanley Tong came out of a 12 year directorial retirement to direct this film – I think perhaps he should have stayed in bed.