If Michelle Yeoh’s starring vehicle “The Touch” has parts of it that looks familiar, it’s probably not because it shares more than a few surface resemblances to the “Indiana Jones” movies as many reviewers have pointed out. The fact is, the “Indiana Jones” movies are only known to the older set, and it’s guys like me who notice that “The Touch” is based more on the Lara Croft “Tombraider” videogames (and movie adaptation) and the TV series “Relic Hunter”, which was itself based on Tombraider. The question of homage vs. plagiarism aside, “The Touch” concerns itself with Chinese myth and Buddhist lore.
Headliner Michelle Yeoh stars as Yin Fei, the star acrobat in a performance art troupe that puts on a show called “The Touch” around the world. Yin has been running the troupe ever since her father passed on; her father was so obsessed with an old Chinese legend that he patterned the entire show after it. A former member of the troupe is Eric (Ben Chaplin), a Caucasian street urchin who Yin’s father took in when he was just a boy. Eric has abandoned the troupe (as well as his lover Yin) a while back, and is now a professional thief.
After getting involved in a theft involving a vital part of the legend Yin’s father was obsessed with (but not knowing it), Eric goes to Yin for help, having stolen the artifact back from self-described megalomaniac Karl (Richard Roxburgh). After a series of encounters, badly choreographed fights, and a lot of supposed hilarity, Yin and Eric goes in search of Yin’s younger brother Tong (Brandon Chang) in the Chinese countryside, where the lad has fled along with his girlfriend in an attempt to prove his father’s obsession correct. Since Tong also stole the artifacts necessary to locate the thingamajig everyone is after, Karl pursues.
More Jackie Chan than Jet Li, “The Touch” seems to be going for comedy first, action second. This makes sense, since the movie handles its action scenes poorly. There are actually only two all-out action sequences — one near the beginning, when Yin invades Karl’s estate to rescue Eric, and later in the film, when everyone gathers for a final showdown inside a cave filled with flaming arrows. The rest of the film is played for laughs, although this is made somewhat awkward by the presence of two cold-blooded murders. The first cold-blooded murder, when Karl executes one of his bumbling men, is not nearly as cold-blooded as the second one, when one of Karl’s henchmen brutally stabs a Buddhist monk in the back.
If you factor out those two violent acts and the film’s final Third Act, which takes place on a soundstage that’s supposed to be an ancient cave filled with fire, “The Touch” could be classified as a comedy. The writing by Julien Carbon and Laurent Courtiaud, the duo responsible for the excellent “Running Out of Time”, with help from J.D. Zeik (“Ronin”), is mostly encumbered by Peter Pau’s bad direction. Pau, a longtime cinematographer, doesn’t appear as if he has his act together because “The Touch” looks sloppy and unimpressive.
For the most part the visuals are just barely serviceable, which is not a good thing for a film of this budget and ambition. Even top-billed Michelle Yeoh, who is usually a dependable performer in both martial arts and drama, seems hindered by the film’s lack of energy. I’m not sure who choreographed the film, but the action scenes are not up to par with your standard Hong Kong actioner. As a result, Yeoh doesn’t flourish or shine like she usually does, which is not a good thing when she’s your big main box-office draw. Written and shot entirely in English, “The Touch” was obviously intended for the international audience.
On the other hand, if you were to approach “The Touch” as a comedy, it does work — somewhat. Co-star Ben Chaplin (“Murder by Numbers”) is in a second film where he plays second fiddle to a strong leading lady, and Chaplin seems fine with the role. His Eric is mostly incompetent, but very likeable. As the villain, Richard Roxburgh is neither very exciting nor very menacing. As the intelligence-challenged brother Tong, Brandon Chang mostly just walks around looking intelligence-challenged.
The bulk of the film’s highlight comes from Roxburgh’s interaction with his idiot henchmen, who seems to never run out of dumb questions to ask their boss. Of note is American comedian Dane Cook, known mostly for his energetic and physical stand-up comedy. Cook plays Bob, one of Karl’s dumb henchmen; at one point in the movie, Bob utters the immortal line, “It’s time to Enter the Bob!” referring to, of course, the Bruce Lee movie. Cook brings a lot of raw energy to the film, and it’s too bad the movie leaves him behind halfway through because his presence was sorely missed.
“The Touch” never worked as an action-adventure film, which it was obviously going for. Peter Pau, a usually reliable cinematographer, seems to have buckled under the stress of directing. Known mostly for his work as the cinematographer on Ang Lee’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”, Pau shows that he hasn’t learned very much while under Lee’s tutelage. Never as exciting or thrilling as it should or could have been, “The Touch” does manage to be funny until its CGI-heavy finale, which is just…dull.
Peter Pau (director) / Julien Carbon, Laurent Courtiaud, J.D. Zeik (screenplay)
CAST: Michelle Yeoh …. Yin Fei
Ben Chaplin …. Eric
Richard Roxburgh …. Karl
Brandon Chang …. Tong
Dane Cook …. Bob