Bollywood superstar Akshay Kumar, in his roles, tends to regularly shift from playing it silly to playing it serious, and most times he does this in the same movie. CHANDNI CHOWK TO CHINA is a fusion of fatuous farce, mawkish sentiment and high adventure, of Bollywood conventions and soaring Chinese martial arts. There's much to like about this movie, but also much to groan and roll your eyes at.
In China the village Zhange struggles under the oppression of the murderous smuggler lord Hojo. In desperation the villagers consult a wise man and learn that salvation lies in the shape of the legendary, centuries-dead warrior Liu Sheng, who has been reincarnated in today's world. Except that Liu Sheng has been reborn to another nationality, another country: in India.
Akshay Kumar plays Sidhu, a dimwitted vegetable chopper plying his trade at a roadside food stand in Chandni Chowk, one of the busiest market districts in Delhi, India. Discontented with his lowly lot, Sidhu (who, remember, is dimwitted) is lured away to faraway China by two Chinese elders. It's actually more Sidhu's friend Chopstick's fault. Chopstick, of possibly Indian-Chinese descent, is one of those manipulative, self-absorbed sorts, and he seizes an opportunity. The two old Chinese men are, of course, Zhange villagers, and they believe Sidhu to be their reincarnated protector Liu Sheng; they ask that Sidhu return with them to kill Hojo. Instead Chopstick (the vaguely Asian-looking Ranvir Shorey), purposely mistranslating, tells Sidhu that he will be feted as a king should he journey to China. So off goes the gullible Sidhu with Chopstick riding his coattails, from Chandni Chowk to China.
I like much of the film's tongue-in-cheek internal mythology. During its best outrageous moments CHANDNI CHOWK TO CHINA is reminiscent of Stephen Chow's very awesome Kung Fu Hustle (Axe-Kickin' Edition). In both films, kung fu practitioners disregard the laws of gravity as they make impossible leaps and perform other outlandish stunts. Vicious contact propels bodies to improbable distances and with lethal impact (but then folks just get up and dust themselves off). Speaking of internal mythology, the film never does confirm whether Sidhu was indeed the modern day Liu Sheng. And, oh yes, I have to mention the fairly outrageous Cosmos Thumb.
Considering the source (Bollywood), the wushu is actually pretty decent, even though I don't quite buy Akshay Kumar as a kung fu fighter (although he's certainly done plenty of action movies). But the inclusion of Chinese actors like Gordon Liu and Roger Yuan - both very good as, respectively, the fiendish Hojo and the kind of insane amnesiac beggar/police inspector - make it a respectable martial arts venture. Liu (best known probably for The 36th Chamber of Shaolin and the KILL BILL flicks) and Yuan are convincing in their acting and in their kung fu, even if Hojo's hat trick had already been done by a James Bond villain. And, for the sake of cinematic resonance, it doesn't hurt that Roger Yuan bears a striking resemblance with Takashi Shimura, the leader of the SEVEN SAMURAI. But if you've already seen films featuring Jackie Chan or Jet Li or if you've seen KUNG FU HUSTLE, then there's really no surprise in the fight scenes.
The stunning Deepika Padukone takes on dual parts. She plays the conventional love interest Sakhi, a spokesmodel of Indian-Chinese descent working for Tele-Shopping Media (Sakhi is known as Ms. TSM). But the meatier of the two roles is that of Suzy (or Meow Meow). Suzy is Sakhi's villainous twin sister and, as one of Hojo's henchmen, her kung fu is strong. It says something about Padukone's grace and physicality that I find her more believable as a martial artist than I do Akshay.
As Bollywood films are wont to do, the first half starts out in a silly vein as Sidhu's vacuous nature is again and again demonstrated, giving rise to moronic situations (one fellow airline passenger persistently asks Sidhu: "Are you stupid?"). Akshay Kumar seems to get a kick out of starring in madcap comedies, but I find that the quality of these films tends to come and go. Having said that, there was that airplane bit where Sidhu had trouble closing the overhead luggage compartment. For minutes afterwards I was giggling (but in a manly way). But, yes, Sidhu is one of those aggravating dopes, the type who ends up believing that a potato is a god.
And, as usual with Bollywood, the second half takes on a more serious tone, and this is where Akshay Kumar's goofball character transforms himself into an action hero. Akshay, when he turns it on, has tremendous acting chops. (*SPOILER* in the rest of this paragraph.) Akshay is very good and sympathetic during the death of his character's father, the tragedy which fuels Sidhu to master kung fu and to get even with Hojo. Afterwards, though, I did think that he went to the well too much with the blubbering for his dead dada.
Yes, the humor is predominantly cheesy, but there are several genuinely funny moments scattered throughout. I've already mentioned the airplane scene but I also laughed hard and plenty when Akshay gets strapped with the Dance Master G9 device, and at that short musical interlude with the odd little Chinese inventor and during Roger Yuan and Akshay's brawl with White Bull in that little diner and then during the training sessions, with Akshay and Yuan showing very good tongue-in-cheek apprentice/master chemistry. I'm sure I missed other moments.
The DVD, by way of bonus features, also offers 8 and a half minutes of eight additional scenes, the scene most worth watching being the one with Sidhu frantically trying to evade Hojo in a restaurant kitchen. And that's it for bonus features.
Three and a half stars for CHANDNI CHOWK TO CHINA, an entertaining film somewhat undermined by the banal stuff and by all the overwrought shedding of tears. This being a Bollywood vehicle, much emphasis is placed on the importance of family; Sakhi, for example, travels to China mainly to commemorate her long dead father's passing; the amnesiac beggar's memory is fully restored when he glimpses a photo of his family. Another Bollywood trademark is the song & dance, and the musical numbers here are nicely picturized. I enjoyed the lavish "Chandni Chowk to China" and even "Tere Naina," a brief song which lends to a surreal magical vision of Sudhi and Sakhi gently floating in the air, buoyed by an engineered umbrella. Also note that Akshay handles his own rapping during the song "Chandni Chowk to China (CC2C)" during the end credits. It's a bit disconcerting, though, watching these Bollywood stars in their dance numbers being backed up by Chinese dancers. "Disconcerting" being another good word to describe this movie overall, and I think in a good way. I mean, it's got singing and dancing, a bit of Chinese mysticism and some romancing, and everybody's kung-fu fighting. That is very neat.