A legend resurrects. An epic hero rises
Jacky Chan is a world phenomenon. If mega-stardom was measured as a proportion of films made and fan base then Chan would dominate the world. However, like many of his Asian peers, his success outside of his native country is slightly less than stellar, Hollywood diluting the Chan the world knew to a shadow of his former self. In fact it could be said his popularity was waning. That all changed in 2004 with New Police Story, a triumphant return to his own soil and discovering hitherto untapped depths to Chan's acting ability, the film was an instant success and the world forgave him his Hollywood hiatus. It was on the strength of this film that Chan announced to the world, well Hong Kong anyway, that he was heading in a different direction; out are the Police heroes, in are more dramatic roles. To this end, his third collaboration with Stanley Tong was announced, touted to be an epic period drama incorporating modern elements. That film was to be The Myth, released just two months ago, is it the new direction Chan wants, or is it just more of the same? The answer is a bit of both, the review does contain major spoilers.
The Myth is really two films that only come together at the end. Film one sees Jack Chan (Jacky Chan), an internationally renowned archaeologist with a strict code of ethics, he abhors tomb raiders, licking his wounds after his latest funding ran out. William (Tony Leung Ka Fai), his best friend and internationally renowned scientist specialising in physics, more especially anti-gravity, comes to visit and enlist him in his quest to enter a tomb in India reported to have a floating sarcophagus. After initial reluctance Jacky agrees and the pair soon find themselves at said tomb and the stories are true, the sarcophagus does indeed float. While Jacky video records the inscriptions, William notices and removes a strange looking rock, this action causes the sarcophagus and accompanying sword to fall to ground. In the ensuing foray William and Jacky are separated, William escapes in a helicopter with the mysterious rock, while Jacky is swept away after falling in a river with the sword. He washes up on a bank and is cared for by an Indian princess Samantha (Mallika Sherawat). Whilst in her care he discovers that the dreams he is having maybe from a past life which is as good an explanation as any for why she helps him escape back to Hong Kong.
Once reunited the two friends quickly disagree about the found artefacts, Jacky insisting that the sword, a genuine Qin Dynasty sword, be returned to the national museum, William would prefer it be sold to finance his experiments because the rock is in fact a meteorite and holds the key to anti-gravity. Unbeknownst to him, William has been finance by Mr. Ku (Sun Zhou), he is an evil tomb robber, but still manages to persuade William into tricking Chan one last time. The goal this time is the lost Mausoleum of Emperor Qin Shihuang, the lucky pair find the likely area and Chan manages to gain entrance, the entire structure is huge, containing soldiers and horses worthy of an Emperor, all held in a state of weightlessness. Mr Ku is not far behind and the pair wrestle with each other, ultimately costing both everything they hold dear.
The second film sees General Meng Yi (Jacky Chan) charged with the responsibility of safeguarding the beautiful princess Ok-soo (Hee-seon Kim) concubine to Emperor Qin. The escort is ambushed by bandits and in saving the princess Meng Yi is forced to jump the pair into a river, they are swept far away from their destination. On their return journey the two discover an unprecedented amount of freedom hitherto unknown in their lives of strict duty; they form a close bond that turns to love, however, both are ultimately bound by their duty and they return to the Emperors land, swearing to each other to live on. During the waning years of Emperor Qin's life he built the massive mausoleum, but was fascinated by immortality. Rebel factions controlled by the Emperors aids try to force his death by stopping the immortality pill from ever reaching him; Meng Yi is charged to return it. On his way to retrieve it Ok-soo swears she will stay alive and wait for him, Meng Yi swears he will return to her. In the climatic battle that follows, Meng Yi is forced to take on the might of the rebel army alone, as the body count mounts and his wounds increase can he defeat the insurmountable numbers of the army and return to keep his promise?
The two stories are linked by the common factor of Chan, it is in his dreams that we see the fate of Meng Yi and Ok-soo and when the two stories finally come together it is ultimately their closure that we see, in a rather downbeat but not entirely unexpected result. The story is part historical drama, part comedy, part mythology, part science fiction, all epic and tinged with tragedy; all the ingredients to make a hugely successful film. Unfortunately there are one or two problems that hold the film back from greatness.
First, and most obvious, the film plays like two films, the transition between the separate stories is clunky and obvious, never smooth as if we are watching a single film with flashbacks. This is made worse by Tong's use of a fish eye lens to squeeze the picture making everything artificially thin, it doesn't last for long, and it was probably used as a devise to help enforce the idea of flashback, but it was still the damn annoying and unnecessary. Each element has its own beginning, middle and end and although the attempt to gel everything together at the end tries valiantly to work, it never really succeeds leaving a rather unsatisfactory feeling. As a consequence of this patchwork, the individual plots become very jumbled. The 'A' story should have been the modern day escapade, but Tong opts to have extremely epic and grandiose sets for the history elements, this has the effect of sticking in ones mind, and with the sweeping and dramatic score overtakes the 'A' story every time it's on.
Secondly is the acting from Chan himself, he reached a new depth with New Police Story and his intention was to continue here, however, as Ming Ye he plays it almost dead pan, neither anger of love are present in his performance, the two emotions most required by the character, instead there is a gruff aloof, or stony faced indifference. This rubs off between the chemistry between him and Hee-seon Kim, their love is one that is supposed to cross the ages, however it looked unlikely to last till lunchtime.
Finally, the effects, what went wrong? We all know Chan is getting on now, so wire work and CGI are creeping into his films, but never so badly. The CG is just awful and stands out like a sore thumb; green screen, snakes, impaling swords, jumps all look terrible and set apart from their surroundings. Wire work was confined to the anti gravity portion of the film and looked for the most part very effective.
Now I realise these elements are painting a rather sad picture of the film, but I must stress I only point them out because I cared so much for the it; after my first viewing I was overwhelmed with the spectacle, even if I knew in my heart about the story elements causing problems. There are some spectacular set pieces throughout the film as well as vintage Chan too. The Historic elements are filmed with such gusto that they cannot help but come across as epic. This is enhanced by Gary Chase and Nathan Wang sweeping score that just builds and builds! There are two main themes used, one for the battling, the other for the tragedy; they take elements from Klaus Badelt's score for Pirate of the Caribbean and Clint Mansell's incredible score for Requiem for a Dream respectively. These powerful themes really enforce the visuals, Meng Ye's epic struggle against the hordes of rebels set to that music is pure cinematic class. Added to that the use of actual weapons and the infliction of actual harm, with blood, something never seen in Chan films, you have a very powerful climax. The Modern portion makes use of a newly sung theme tune, Endless Love, itself equally as inspiring and does set of the visuals for its purpose. But in comparison the latter pales, the tragic realisation of Ok-soo at the loss of her lover and her continued fruitless waiting lacked the impact needed to pull it to the actual climax of the film. Again in contrast to the epic feel of the historical portions, the modern element seems as if it were filmed in a rush, the plot contrivances come thick and fast and have to be accepted before moving on. The entire section with Samantha in India, though great fun, and containing that glue scene, seemed out of place, somehow tacked on to increase the run time.
Talking of borrowing themes, there are a number of set pieces that too are 'borrowed'; off the top of my head the first attack on Ok-soo's caravan utilised a fire arrows and rolling bails of hey, from Troy, trick. The final fight in the weightless environment of the mausoleum had an extreme Matrix vibe, even down to Mr Ku's attire. When it goes out on its own though the film produces some excellent ideas, the fight on a glued convey belt using items of clothing to move along is comedy from Chan's prime and expertly used. Chan and Tong have tried to meld plenty of different ideas into the film, historical detail is reasonable (at least with costume and names), the science is nonsense and then there is the overall theme of mythology; reincarnation. Such heavy going mythology may put off some western audiences, no explanation is given rather it is accepted, it being part of their religion.
After the credits had rolled I was left with the feeling of being entertained, and that is what is important about any film. I can forgive the differentiated plots, the bad acting, look past the crappy effects to sit back and be entertained. What I cannot forgive is Chan's insistence that things will be different, because as far as I can see from The Myth, there is precious little that is different; really this is a sideways step from New Police Story rather than a moving forward. The Myth doesn't deserve the panning it seems to be getting, perhaps it's backlash for his remarks, or disappointment, but whatever the reason I'd urge all to make up their own minds. This may not be vintage Chan, nor is it new Chan, it is an uncomfortable meld of the two. He and Ting have thrown many ideas at the screen and luckily some have stuck, there being enough to give a satisfactory experience.
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