AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS Less an adaptation of Jules Verne's classic novel than a quasi-installment in the Shanghai Noon / Shanghai Knights franchise (Shanghai co-star Owen Wilson even turns up in a bit part), this expensively priced but cheaply realized action yarn finds Jackie Chan playing Lau Xing, a martial arts expert who takes on all villains in an effort to return a jade Buddha statue back to its rightful place in his remote Chinese village. Stranded in London, Lau Xing passes himself off as a French valet named Passepartout and hitches an intercontinental ride with inventor Phileas Fogg (Steve Coogan), who has bet the corrupt head (Jim Broadbent) of the Royal Academy of Science that he can travel around... well, you know this part. I'm no fan of the 1956 film version -- one of the Academy's more baffling choices for a Best Picture Oscar -- but that movie was at least a visual treat, and its canny use of cameos managed to snare many of the top names from Old Hollywood (Frank Sinatra, Marlene Dietrich, Buster Keaton). This drab rendition, on the other hand, features cameos by the likes of Rob Schneider and Luke Wilson, and if they're meant to represent the apex of New Hollywood, then let's raze the film capital at our earliest convenience. Everything about this production seems tired, from Chan's fight routines to the soggy humor to the brief visit by Arnold Schwarzenegger, looking rather ghastly as a lecherous Turkish prince sporting skimpy duds, a hideous wig and a jaundiced complexion. 1/2
DODGEBALL: A TRUE UNDERDOG STORY Soul Plane didn't do the trick, and Anchorman looks dubious based on that preview. But luckily for devotees of dum-dum cinema, here's Dodgeball to placate the lowest common denominator while also allowing discerning filmgoers to slum in style. Oh, sure, writer-director Rawson Marshall Thurber didn't have to look further than his weather-beaten VHS copy of Animal House for inspiration, and some of the jokes not only thud to the ground but then spend a few uncomfortable seconds writhing in agony. But when it has its game face on, this offers a satisfying number of laughs, characters that we care to follow, and cameo appearances that (in contrast to those in Around the World In 80 Days) are positively inspired. Vince Vaughn, often tagged to play villains, stars as the loser-hero, while Ben Stiller, generally typecast as the amiable nerd, is on board as the preening bad guy; this run of smart casting extends to the supporting ranks, where we find Rip Torn as a dodgeball vet who has to turn Vaughn's band of misfits into a top-notch team before the championship games (telecast on ESPN 8). The unrefined antics include people getting hit in the head with tools ("If you can dodge a wrench, you can dodge a ball!"), and the fact that one of the teams is called the MILFs (don't ask, don't tell) hints that Thurber originally had an R in mind rather than a PG-13 (I imagine the DVD will feature additional unrated footage). But at a time when many ambitious studio films are aiming high and falling short, here's one that delivers on its low-pressure promise.
THE NOTEBOOK Every summer seriously needs at least one picture to fill that Bridges of Madison County / Ya-Ya Sisterhood slot (otherwise, we'd completely choke on the sweat and testosterone), and this adaptation of Carolina writer Nicholas Sparks' popular weepie arrives as this year's bit of alternative programming. The story is fairly standard stuff that we've seen before in some variation or another: She's young, beautiful and rich, he's young, handsome and poor, and they're forced to contend with obstacles both personal (her disapproving mom) and public (WWII) in order to keep their love alive. Nick Cassavetes is too demure a director to make this pulsate with the proper degree of overriding passion -- as the son of minimalist indie filmmaker John Cassavetes, such instincts probably don't come naturally to him -- and except for a powerful finale that will move anyone who's ever lost someone to Alzheimer's (raising my hand here), the modern-day sequences featuring James Garner and Gena Rowlands feel less like organic storytelling and more like a gimmick. Yet the reason to consider catching this is to watch the terrific performance by Rachel McAdams, whose luminescent work, coupled with her turn as the meanest of the Mean Girls, marks her as a compelling newcomer. McAdams is so vibrant, in fact, that it's easy to overlook the contributions of Ryan Gosling as her soft-spoken sweetheart -- until you realize that he first made a name for himself as the neo-Nazi skinhead in The Believer. 1/2
THE CHRONICLES OF RIDDICK The 2000 sleeper hit Pitch Black turned out to be one of the better Alien rip-offs to hatch over the years, but anyone expecting a repeat of that movie's high level of excitement and imagination will be sorely disappointed by this sequel, which places the character of Riddick (Vin Diesel) in a fantasy tale in the dour Dune/Stargate mold. Deadly dull at the outset -- here's one Diesel-fueled vehicle that's neither fast nor furious -- the picture improves as it progresses, though not enough to warrant two hours of invested time. Diesel's Riddick is part of the problem: An intriguing character when kept in the shadows for much of Pitch Black, he's become infinitely less interesting as an out-and-out action hero.