Around the World in 80 Days

“Around the World in 80 Days” is an example of modern Hollywood’s dumb way of thinking. There is no reason for a congenial Chinese martial arts expert to be in this story, as the Jules Verne novel is about Englishmen and Frenchmen and involves very little hand-to-hand combat. To you or me, this would mean not putting Jackie Chan in the film. We would would find someone else to star.

But not in Hollywood. In Hollywood, no idea is too untenable. If a big star wants to be in a movie, he or she will be shoe-horned in at all costs, regardless of what damage it does to the film. Hollywood believes that when people go to the movies, they are paying to see CELEBRITIES, not to watch interesting stories.

Unfortunately, Hollywood is probably right, and movies can make $100 million based solely on who’s in them, even if the movies themselves are crap. And so here is “Around the World in 80 Days,” which spends about an hour getting past its casting and screenwriting hurdles before finally settling into an even, enjoyable pace. That first hour, though: Man. It’s pure death.

Jackie Chan plays a Chinese man named Lau Xing, currently in Victorian London to steal back a sacred jade Buddha from the band of Chinese terrorists who swiped it from his village to sell to the unscrupulous Lord Kelvin (Jim Broadbent). While fleeing the cops, jade Buddha in hand, Lau Xing falls into the yard of inventor Phileas Fogg (Steve Coogan) and pleads with him to hire him as his new valet (so he can hide out, of course). Fogg insists he only hires French valets, so Lau Xing gives him a cock-and-bull story about his mother being French, and comes up with the fake name Passepartout after seeing someone walk by with a passport.

And I ask: Why? You wanna put Jackie Chan in the film, fine. Change Passepartout into a Chinese immigrant or something. Why give Fogg the odd trait of refusing to hire any but French valets? Is it because Passepartout isn’t a Chinese name and you think Chan has to be named Passepartout? Well, he doesn’t. Hardcore fans of the novel aren’t going to forgive you just because you retained the character’s NAME if you completely changed everything else about him. Ugh, Hollywood mentality frustrates me.

Anyway, Fogg hires “Passepartout,” then makes a bet with Lord Kelvin, who is head of the Royal Academy of Science, that he can circumnavigate the globe in 80 days. In the 19th century, this is absurd, and Kelvin calls him on it: If he can do it, Kelvin will step down from his post and give Fogg the position instead. If Fogg loses the bet, he has to stop inventing and never darken the Royal Academy’s door again.

So Fogg and Passepartout are off. In Paris, they pick up a woman named Monique (Cecile de France), an artist who joins them … um, for no reason, really. She says she needs to get away from Paris. She’s not in the book; she’s in the movie because movies are supposed to have love interests for their caucasian male leads. (The Chinese ones, of course, go loveless.)

All this extra baggage — Passepartout being on the run from the cops and from bad guys, the stolen sacred artifact, the pretty blonde tacked on as a plot device — these reek of art-by-committee, focus-group interpolation. Verne’s novel is a high-flying adventure story. Here, it’s been genericized so it resembles every other Hollywood adventure movie.

The second half of the film is much faster and funnier than the first half. We’re past the ridiculous moment where Fogg is shocked — shocked! — to learn that the Chinese-looking Passepartout with the Chinese accent is, in fact, Chinese; past the extended, over-long Gov. Schwarzenegger cameo; past the part where Rob Schneider has a cameo; and on to more reasonable entertainments. Steve Coogan has a wonderfully dry delivery that provides several laughs, and though he doesn’t belong here, Jackie Chan is always such a likable guy. And he does do plenty of the fighting he’s known for.

(By the way, if your movie doesn’t require Rob Schneider, why would you go out of your way to include him? You should count your blessings your movie DOESN’T have Rob Schneider, not defy the gods by squeezing him in anyway.)

The director, Adam Sandler veteran Frank Coraci (“The Waterboy,” “The Wedding Singer”), is hobbled by the script from David Titcher, David Benullo and David Goldstein, none of whom has done much before. (I wonder if they decided to work together because they’re all named David.) The screenplay believes that because it’s about an around-the-world tour, it’s OK if it has long mini-adventures here and there. In fact, this is only OK if the mini-adventures are exciting or in some other way diverting, not pointless, like these.

Postscript: Whenever I watch films set in the past that are lazy in other ways, I like to see if they got lazy with their history, too. This one most assuredly does. It is set in 1890, according to the newspaper front pages shown, yet there is a climactic scene involving pieces of the unassembled Statue of Liberty … which in 1890 had been erected and standing in the harbor for four years. There is also a glimpse of Vincent Van Gogh in a Paris art studio, though in real life he spent the first half of 1890 in an asylum and in Auvers-sur-Oise, and the last part of it dead. Next is Chan’s use of the term “international date line,” which my dictionary tells me did not come into usage until about 1909. Finally, the characters refer to visiting Constantinople, which is correct. But the onscreen title calls the city Istanbul, which didn’t become its name until 1930. (Why did Constantinople get the works? That’s nobody’s business but the Turks’ … and the filmmakers’, I guess, who changed the name 40 years early.)

C (2 hrs., 5 min.; PG, a lot of action violence, maybe a 'damn' or 'hell'.)