We've had to wait decades, enduring first subtitled Hong Kong films and later sputtering Hollywood attempts at turning him into a conventional Chinese character actor, for our first chance to see the great Chow Yun-Fat cut up the way he does in Dragonball Evolution. Whatever the director (James Wong of Final Destination) was going for, whatever the studio intended in this film adaptation of a beloved comic and video game, Chow saw his chance to chew the scenery. And he took it.
As Master Roshi, mystical martial arts master, owner of a dragonball and of late, trainer to young Goku (Justin Chatwin), Chow goes for the laughs, and lands them.
"Believe it punk, you're gonna get your clock cleaned," he says when we and Goku meet him. He mugs. He grins. His every move is a calculated bit of tomfoolery. And he's a stitch, almost the only reason to see this warmed over Far Eastern fantasy.
The death of Goku's grandpa and an ancient prophecy that says Goku must gather all seven magical dragonballs lest the world face apocalypse now -- or by the next total eclipse -- has brought Goku to Roshi. The lad just turned 18, just turned the tables on the bullies at Unitech High and just scored points with the hatch Chi Chi (Jaime Chung). But now he's off gathering dragonballs with the six-shooting sidekick Bulma (Emmy Rossum). Roshi should come along for the ride. And the laughs.
It's a silly film that goes down a lot easier than it could thanks to an awareness of that silliness. A bandit straight out of Road Warrior (Joon Park) signs on. Roshi goes to seek another magical talisman from another master (Ernie Hudson of Ghosbusters at his most inscrutable) who tells Roshi his plan to save the Earth won't.
"Well, when you put it that way, the plan sucks."
You have to know a little something about Mr. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, to get how funny that is coming out of Chow's mouth.
The villains are led by a demon, Lord Piccolo, with Jim Carrey's Mask make-up (James Marsters). The effects involve a lot of swirling balls of light, big explosions and a very convincing house collapse. There's a lot of talk of legends and "airbenders" (an anime, manga and Asian fantasy convention). The settings are exotic corners of modern or remote China, glossed over in a sort of alternate sci-fi reality. The fights, though, are classic Hong Kong wire-work zany. As is the dialogue.
"Shadow Crane Strike! You fall for that every time!"
It's perfectly watchable junk, as even the worst of Wong's films (The One) manage to be. Purists are apparently up in arms over the film's deviations from the game and comic traditions (it opened in Asia a year ago). But to those spoilsports I have two words -- "Uwe Boll."