The Myth

[10 December 2007]

By Bill Gibron

PopMatters Contributing Editor

Legend in His Own Mind

He remains one of the most misunderstood martial arts action stars in the world. Though he’s enormously famous, richer beyond anyone’s wildest dreams, and essentially an economy unto himself, Jackie Chan seems to suffer from something akin to Woody Allen syndrome, i.e., fans enjoy his ‘earlier, more stunt-oriented’ efforts rather than his recent dilution at the hands of Tinsel Town.

Some argue it’s the icon’s own fault. As he ages (he’s 53, as of this writing), he’s unable to perform many of the amazing feats that earned him his original reputation. Even worse, there are hints that ego and unchecked hubris have hindered some of his more promising productions. Take The Myth, for example. Though directed by long time Hong Kong titan Stanley Tong (Rumble in the Bronx, Police Story 1 & 2), the stars imprint is all over the wacked out action epic.

Our story begins when a princess, promised as a concubine to the ruling emperor, is hijacked by a former beau. He claims the lady as his own, both betrothed when they were young. Living up to his majesty’s mission, General Meng-Yi (Chan) promises to protect and serve the maiden. A carriage chase ends up with everyone teetering on the edge of a cliff.

Fast forward several centuries, and tomb raider Jack (Chan, also) is contacted by old friend William. Seems he needs the fabled historian to help him locate the secret to antigravity. Sure enough, in a remote region of India, they find a mausoleum festooned with strange stones. The rocks, when aimed correctly, give objects (and people) the ability to levitate.

Fall back to medieval times, and Meng-Yi and Princess Ok-soo are getting better acquainted. She is falling in love. He is determined to live up to his charge. Jump back to present day, and Jack is searching for a hidden cave behind a famed waterfall. While William wants to help, his greed has led him to double cross his pal. Former professor, and no good evildoer Mr. Koo is waiting to see what Jack uncovers – and take advantage of it any way he can.

Part period piece, part extremely surreal modern action movie, The Myth is like Raider of the Lost Ark restaged in feudal Asia. Telling two supposedly interlocking tales, we get Chan as a noted archeologist and, when flashing back to the past, a brave military general. It sets up an intriguing dichotomy within the film, since it basically allows for the star to compete against himself. One of the odder elements of this movie is the implied battle for honor and courage between contemporary Chan and conqueror Chan. One has amazing larger than life battles. The other returns to the tricks that made him an international legend.

Which one is best depends solely on what you value more: do you like sweeping sword spectacle, performers falling off horses and clanging together sabers with blood thirsty abandon?  Then you’ll cotton to General Meng-Yi. He’s literally a one man 300. If, on the other hand, you prefer well choreographed fisticuffs, location and logistics adding to the miraculous parameters of the melee, then celebrated scientist Jack is the guy for you.

There’s really not much else here. All the other characters are pushed far off into the background, limited in screen time, dimension, and in some cases, purpose. Gorgeous Bollywood actress Mallika Sherawat is supposed to be a yoga practicing, martial arts wielding, butt kicking sidekick to Jack while he’s in India, but aside from a couple of minor fights, and an erotic dance, she’s in and out of the film within minutes. Similarly, Ahou Sun’s Mr. Koo doesn’t make an appearance until an hour in, and when he does arrive, his intent is all inference and unexplained history (Jack and William know him, but we barely learn when and how).

The Myth likes to do this—introduce new elements right in the middle of establishing exposition. The story of the Princess and her role as concubine is jarringly interrupted so talk of an immortality pill can be offered. William and his collegues will discuss plans for their anti-gravity device, only to take a side trip to the Museum of Qin Terracotta Warriors to discuss the pilfering of a country’s national treasures.

Even the signature action scenes seem strangely out of place. When chased by Indian police officers into a local glue factory, Jack and his opponents end up playing out a classic bit of ‘stuck to the spot’ slapstick. It is a truly amazing sequence, and definitely one of Chan’s more memorable. Equally unforgettable is General Meng-Yi’s one man stand against a legion of disloyal soldiers. Using fists, swords, knifes, poles, and anything else he can wield, our brave leader takes on all comers, and the brawling is massive in scope. There’s even a little arterial spray for those who like their cock-ups soaked in blood.

Oddly enough, the finale, set within a gravity free afterlife, is a tad underwhelming. Not enough is done with the physics defying realm, and even when employed, Tong cuts the situations way, way down. It’s been said that this version of The Myth (released by Sony a full two years after its Hong Kong debut) has been severely edited. The original running time was over 122 minutes. The Region 1 release comes in at a scant 96. Somewhere, there is another near half hour of material.

Apparently, some of it has been relegated to a section of deleted scenes, offered as part of the DVD’s extras. Though only 11 minutes in length, we do get more backstory on Jack and William’s friendship, additional material with the Princess, and a visit to an Ice Cave. None of the footage helps us with the frequent narrative gaps, however.

In addition, there are a couple of featurettes (focusing on the film, swamis, and Chan’s charitable work) as well as a genial audio commentary from the star himself. Happy to discuss how much he loves the final product, there are long gaps in the discussion as our hero simply sits back and admires his efforts. It’s a shame that we can’t get as much satisfaction out of The Myth as he does.

As with any new offering from the actor, critics call on the standard evaluation between Chan circa (insert year here) and everything he’s done since. Indeed, as time passes, the date of authenticity and acceptability keeps getting pushed farther and farther back. At this rate, pundits will proudly proclaim that, no matter what is presently up on the screen, nothing can beat the Brutal Boxer Chan.

Granted, any performer willing to work with Chris Tucker not once, but three times, deserves a reputation for being less than particular about their parts. But you can tell The Myth was meant to be a modern masterwork, a work of wuxia wonder by someone a tad too late to the genre. Even with CGI horse antics, floating royalty routines, and a wonderful sense of time and place, this is one movie that just can’t fulfill its legacy. Instead, The Myth passes by peaceably before drifting off into the ether, never to be heard from again.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/the-myth/