"Chandni Chowk to China" tries to juggle Bollywood musical with martial arts action and slapstick comedy and fails at all three. A key inspiration here is obviously "Kung Fu Hustle," which is copied with great energy but no understanding of action, or comedy, or quality. This is a loud, relentless film, full of flailing and shouting and desperate mugging; its star, Akshay Kumar, seems out to annoy the world, one viewer at a time.
Kumar stars as Sidhu, a dopey peasant from the Chandni Chowk district of Delhi who chops vegetables at his father's restaurant, and who is beset with such enormous bad luck that he sets his winning lottery ticket ablaze. Things perk up for Sidhu when he's told he's the reincarnation of the ancient Chinese warrior Liu Sheng; he's whisked away to a small Chinese village, where the locals hope he can do battle with the villainous Hojo (kung fu cinema legend Gordon Liu, the film's lone bright spot). But Sidhu's con artist pal Chopstick (Ranvir Shorey), acting as translator, conveniently left out the "do battle" part, tempting Sidhu with tales of riches instead. After he's humiliated and beaten, Sidhu gets trained in kung fu to earn his true calling.
It's all very "Kung Fu Panda" meets "Three Amigos" meets every chop socky flick ever made, and that's only a fraction of the overall story. We're also tossed a mess about Sidhu's infatuation with a home shopping hostess (Deepika Padukone) who in turn is repeatedly mistaken for look-alike Meow Meow (Padukone again), a deadly assassin hired by Hojo to kill Sidhu. Then there's the lunatic, amnesia-stricken beggar (Roger Yuan) whose past might tie everything together, although the movie's in no hurry to get there.
The pace shouldn't matter - if you're familiar with Bollywood, you'll know that "hurry" is not in the vocabulary- but oh, how it does. "Chandni Chowk to China" runs two and a half hours, which is short by Indian cinema standards but far, far, far too long for a story so lightweight. Director Nikhil Advani piles on the overkill, which, again, is par for the course in Bollywood, whose films give you everything and then some, whose films would never settle for drama when melodrama will do, but here, the overkill is just plain tiring. Advani aims for the same sort of characters-as-cartoons technique Stephen Chow achieved in "Kung Fu Hustle," but the effort is strained, the comedy overly broad. Kumar spends the first hour or so mugging ceaselessly, like some sort of Adam Sandler-Rob Schneider love child hopped up on Red Bull. The assumption here is that yelling and thrashing and eye-bugging alone is hilarious enough.
It's such a loathsome first hour, all hyperactivity and cheap jokes, that the movie fails to build up a single ounce of goodwill from the audience. By the time things calm down, not only do the more emotional moments feel completely out of place (again, even for a Bollywood picture, where rapid mood swings are the norm), we're completely unable to connect with the characters. The movie makes a wrong choice in trying to go serious on us; the film's second half aims to turn our lead clown into a tragic hero, as if actively seeking a way to make us hate him even more.
The action is interrupted too often by ill-timed comedy or lousy special effects work, and little winky moments to the audience (multiple James Bond homages are made here, most notably Hojo's Oddjob-esque bowler hat of death) clutter up things more than they should. In musical numbers and fight sequences alike, the choreography is decent yet all too lifeless, so focused on making the star look good that we never get to have much fun with the escapist moments. (Indeed, the film plays like an epic vanity project for Kumar, who studied martial arts before becoming a superstar in India.) While the mix of kung fu and Bollywood - two genres never known for subtlety - should bring a larger-than-life vivacity to the project, all we do is yawn and check our watches.
"Chandni Chowk to China" marks Warner Brothers' first foray into the Bollywood scene, and it's tempting to conclude that the studio's efforts to give the film the widest U.S. release for a Hindi film is a knee-jerk coattail-riding of "Slumdog Millionaire." (Warners dumped the Oscar-winner last fall, selling it cheap to Fox Searchlight on the assumption that nobody would want to see it.) The plan backfired: the movie bombed in the States. More tellingly, it bombed even more in India, whose audiences know what works and what doesn't in this genre. After "Slumdog," Americans might finally be ready for Bollywood, but "Chandni Chowk to China" sure isn't the movie to bring it to them.
Sources vary on the theatrical run time of "Chandni Chowk to China," especially since the Indian and American releases offered different edits of the picture. (Some websites list the U.S. release's run time as 154 minutes, others as 168 minutes. I didn't catch this movie in theaters. Anyone out there know which one's right?) For DVD, the film is presented in a 150-minute edit, labeled here are being the original Indian theatrical version.
Video & Audio
The 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer is crisp and colorful, a nice fit for the story. Detail is sharp, and digital interference is absent.
The Hindi soundtrack is equally solid in this Dolby 5.1 treatment, bringing big, bold life to all the noisy comic moments and so-so musical numbers. Optional English, English SDH, Spanish, and French subtitles are provided.
A batch of rough-cut additional scenes (8:30 total; 2.35:1 flat letterbox) are included, consisting mainly of minor character bits, throwaway gags, and long attempts to stretch out the plot even more than it already is.
Even genres as over-the-top as the ones "Chandni Chowk to China" tackles have their limits, all of which are plowed over with misguided glee. The annoyances are exhausting, the noisiness grating. Skip It.