Martial arts superstar Jackie Chan and India’s very own Sonu Sood headline a film about a lost treasure of the ancient Magadh empire. Chan plays Jack, an archaeologist and kung fu expert in China who teams up with a young Indian professor (Disha Patani) and her assistant (Amyra Dastur) to locate the missing hoard in Kung Fu Yoga (KFY). Their quest is interrupted by the mercenary Randall (Sood), a descendant of the original owners of the treasure.
It takes immense talent to pull off this kind of action adventure where you want to stir myth, martial arts, humour and pop philosophy into the mix without looking stupid. Director-writer Stanley Tong – who has had great success with Chan in two Policy Story films and Rumble in the Bronx (1995) – does not manage to even lift KFY off the ground.
To be fair I must point out that I watched the Hindi version of this English film, and the dubbing was just passable. While this may have partly affected the viewing experience, the messy storyline, ludicrous clichés and middling action can hardly be blamed on sub-par dubbing.
Why is it called Kung Fu Yoga? Not because there is lots of kung fu and lots of yoga in the film. No ma’am! KFY has plenty of kung fu but almost no yoga, which suggests that the name was chosen because in the filmmaker’s view, kung fu epitomises China and yoga epitomises India. Maybe he can christen his next one Panda Maharaja or CurryNoodle to indicate once again that it brings together Indian and Chinese characters? The lazy titling is irritating.
If Hollywood had stereotyped Asians in this fashion in 2017, critics would have – justifiably – told them off. What do you say to one of your own though (Tong is from Hong Kong) doing much worse than any high-profile Hollywood director has done in years?
The level of stereotyping in Kung Fu Yoga is bizarre. Since Randall is Indian, he just happens to have lions wandering around his home. Jack just happens to find a lion in an SUV he steals from in front of a modern hotel in Dubai. The introduction to the Dubai visit must of course be through a prince showing his foreign guests a camel race. (For the record, the poor beasts foaming at the mouth in that scene are a disturbing sight.) A regular Indian bazaar – not a tourist resort, but a regular market – just happens to be filled with snake charmers, a rope-trick performer, a levitating mystic, fire eaters and sword eaters, which makes you wonder if this is the kind of exotica Tong actually expects to find on Janpath or in Sarojini Nagar. All this is apparently routine stuff for Asians, in the filmmaker’s book.
It is not easy to write and direct rubbish, and get an intelligent audience to laugh. As someone who refuses to brush aside David Dhawan and Rohit Shetty’s work, I can vouch for the fact Kung Fu Yoga is a pile of nothing.
It is a measure of Chan’s innate charm that he comes across as his usual warm likeable self despite being surrounded by zero content. His kung fu moves though, needed better choreography than this film offers. They are sadly unimpressive.
As for Sood, the Hindi film audience knows that he’s equally good at handling gravitas and nonsense since we have seen him in films ranging from Jodhaa Akbar to Dabangg. Try as he might though, he fails to look convinced in this silly action adventure.
Patani (who drew attention in her debut Hindi film, M.S. Dhoni: The Untold Story, last year) and Dastur are wasted on the sidelines, though we do get a glimpse of their ability to throw punches well on screen. Maybe Indian cinema should seek them out for better quality action films.
Apart from the couple of laughs Chan manages to elicit and a somewhat interesting episode in which the younger cast try to escape a pack of hungry hyenas in Randall’s abode, there is truly nothing to recommend Kung Fu Yoga.
This is the kind of film that sometimes gets funny simply because it is so poorly thought out. The mashed-up cherry on top of the half-baked cake is Tong’s shot at doing a Bollywood-style song and dance number right at the end of the film. He is clearly not in tune with the changes in Hindi cinema, or he would have known that our better directors these days – unlike in the 1990 to 2005 period – try to ease their film into the song, if they choose to end with one. No such effort here. The characters are talking and fighting before a statue of Lord Shiva that Jack is trying to save from Randall, and then… boom! … they all start dancing.
If you want to see a foreign production doing an excellent job of adapting Hindi cinema’s fondness for concluding a film with a group song and dance, watch the thoroughly enjoyable finale of Tarsem Singh’s Julia Roberts-starrer Mirror Mirror. That film’s smoothly executed climax was an intelligent homage to a tradition from another industry. Kung Fu Yoga’s effort at a bow to Bollywood is diluted by the dated notion of India that precedes it, in addition to the unmemorable tune and unimaginative moves. It does not help that Sood is terribly awkward in that number.
Still, the closing is not a complete washout. It is energetic, the cinematography is lavish, Patani is easy on the eye, and Chan truly seems to be having fun. For viewers who are nostalgic about him (I am one of them), perhaps that is something to hold on to in this otherwise clumsy, dated, impactless film.
Now excuse me while I go off to do some yoga in the company of my pet tiger, while my pet cobra watches over me in my palace courtyard. Nummusste!
Footnote: A 1-star rating is an act of kindness towards Kung Fu Yoga. Unfortunately, our software does not permit less than one, which is why you see the rating that you see at the start of this review. I meant to award a 0.5 star to the film.