The Myth (2005) / Fantasy-Adventure
aka San wa
MPAA Rated: Not rated, but probably PG-13 for violence
Running Time: 118 min.
Cast: Jackie Chan, Hee-seon Kim, Tony Leung, Mallika Sherawat
Director: Stanley Tong
Screenplay: Li Hai-shu, Stanley Tong, Wang Hui-Ling
Review published November 30, 2005
Director Stanley Tong (Swordsman II, Rumble in the Bronx) and superstar Jackie Chan (Around the World in 80 Days, The Medallion) reunite after nine years with an old-school adventure tale in The Myth, a special effects powered martial arts extravaganza that seeks a larger worldwide audience than your typical Hong Kong fare. Part historical epic and part fantasy/mystery, the storyline weaves itself back and forth between the present and past, ultimately merging in an unlikely showdown that, like so many of Jackie's features, becomes an immersive, extended fight sequence.
The film sees Chan playing two roles. One is as the modern-day Jack, an archaeologist and journalist seeking more information about a myth regarding an ancient emperor and the notion that he commanded an ability to levitate. Jack has also been having strange dreams of late involving a beautiful princess named Ok-soo (Hee-seon, Bichunmoo) and a general that looks remarkably like him, Meng-yi. In the historical past, Ok-soo was a princess destined to become a concubine in the dying Emperor's "harem", but tradition has it that concubines are to be entombed with those they serve. Meng-yi is a loyal subject to his emperor, always following orders, despite his feelings of love that eventually overwhelm him for Ok-soo, who has been imploring him to run away together. A pill of immortality would save both the Emperor and Ok-soo, but varying factions aren't willing to allow the process to take place, causing great danger to all involved. Meanwhile, back in the present day, Jack begins to get close to the source of this myth, while a greedy entrepreneur hopes to gain the riches and glory of the ultimate find.
Outside of the trademark Jackie Chan fight sequences, The Myth is clearly a derivative movie that tries to emulate elements from films that have garnered critical and commercial success. The sweeping epic of the romance is very reminiscent in style to Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, the adventure portion echoes Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and the action-thriller elements have a Tomb Raider-ish quality that probably goes beyond mere coincidence. Further evidence comes from the partial screenwriting credit of Wang Hui-Ling, co-screenwriter of Crouching Tiger attached to this film.
The Myth is full of so many different elements, most of them which would work well enough on their own, but tend to cancel each other out when presented within the context of the same overall story. For instance, there appears to be a conflict regarding the type of movie to be made here, with one tendency to utilize Jackie Chan as a straight actor in a new kind of action film, while still concocting several action pieces that would be right at home in his older films. One such old-school scene, perhaps the most amazing of the film, involved a fight on a machine used in the production of glue traps used for mice, where Jackie and a couple of bad guys try valiantly to fight each other despite parts of their body sticking in glue. It's a great scene for action fans, but when juxtaposed between a mystical romance and tragic war story, it almost feels perfunctory. If Jackie weren't the star of the film, it's extremely doubtful that scene would even be in there.
Like Crouching Tiger, there is a beautiful look and sound to the film, often bordering on elegant. Ang Lee was able to utilize the lush cinematography and gorgeous score to enhance the romance and adventure elements, deepening the poetic resonance, and even making the action scenes feel classy. Stanley Tong, perhaps because of the constant shifts to the rather mundane world of today, isn't able to keep the magic of the story going for long, especially as some of the more cheesy comic elements, another symptom of Jackie's involvement, bring things back down to the pure entertainment level again. Tong wants to craft a lasting story, while also making it broadly appealing to action/comedy fans, and the the mix stymies the progress of the movie in any particular direction. It also doesn't help that the obvious CGI detracts from the realism of many of the film's most engaging battles, reminding us constantly of the artifice of the cinematic elements. And don't even get me started on the historical inaccuracies and blatant anachronisms...
They say that there is no sure-fire recipe for success, but there is one for failure -- to try to please everybody. The Myth doesn't really fail, mostly because it doesn't try to please everyone exactly, but it does cater to two entirely different camps. Those that love Jackie Chan's traditional action flicks may grow restless from the many scenes of drama and romance, things that one doesn't usually find in a feature with his name attached. Others looking for a good epic love story will think the many instances of traditional Jackie-isms to mar the overall feel of the film, often encroaching into the realm of cheese.
My take: Jackie Chan is still an amazing talent after all these years, and when he fights, it's a beauty to behold. The costumes, locale work, and cinematography are all very impressive, as is the rousing score. This should have been Jackie Chan's finest film, but it ends up being a near misfire, saved only by the high production values and great cinematography. The story involving the bad guys of the modern era should have been excised altogether, as it is easily the least interesting element of the entire story. Jackie Chan action-comedies vs. epic martial arts romances -- two great tastes that don't quite taste great together. If you can forgive one to enjoy the other, you'll probably have a good time despite it all.
©2005 Vince Leo