As writer, director, producer and star, Stephen Chow wears more hats at one time than most players in the movie game, but his comic sensibilities are a bit of a throwback. Likely best known in the United States for Shoalin Soccer, Chow mixes slapstick and action with no discernible preference for either and more than general facility with both.
He specializes in underdogs and bumblers who somehow rise to the occasion, another nod to the humble earlier days of comedy. Yet his movies are better in theory than in practice.
CJ7, his latest, is a family-friendly tale about a struggling day-worker named Ti (Chow) who barely earns enough to take care of his young son (Xu Jiao). What little Ti scrapes together he uses to keep in son in an expensive prep school, but when the boy asks for a toy, Ti does what any father in his position would do -- he dumpster dives and finds a discarded treasure that turns out to be a tiny alien with unique powers that was left behind by its people.
The toy allows the young boy to fight bullies, execute X-Games-styled feats and raise the dead, all of which go a long way toward impressing his peers.
Intriguingly, Chow seems comfortable taking a backseat as an actor, but the son serves as an obvious surrogate for Chow once the narrative kicks into gear. And by that time CJ7 starts to feel like a spin-off of ET with a looser, more playful spirit that gets a bit out of hand, as any kid's dream come to life might. Rather than go for a sense of wonderment, Chow takes us to the outer limits of imagination and youthful excess. The toy becomes the vehicle for purely absurd fantasy, and even when reality intrudes -- life and death -- there is no shying away.
But even here death cannot be played for laughs, and this is where CJ7 starts to fray. The tonal shifts are not fluid, leaving audiences feeling like some connection hasn't been made. It could be that, initially, much time is devoted to creating characters that while broad types have some distinctive traits, but once the toy is introduced, it pushes them out of the frame. And after it takes center stage, we quickly realize it lacks character itself. CJ7 never completely feels like a real tangible entity and it has none of the personality we would associate with ET or a pet.
It could be argued that Chow pushes forth a notion that technology offers a suitable alternative to a more natural expression of imagination and human interaction. The advanced alien toy stands in for the Game boys and X-Boxes that dominate our culture and have taken away the more organic fantasy of creating something out of nothing, which is really at the heart of what Chow's Ti is all about.
The father strives to be the best parent he can, and because he can't afford expensive toys and gadgets, he entertains his son with whatever's available. There's a hilarious sequence in their compact home where they make a game of killing cockroaches that comes off like a real-life analogue videogame. It's loose and fun and involves a father and son, two people interacting together without the benefit of technology. This kind of sequence is what's missing when so much time is devoted to the alien toy and the real human comedy that Chow doesn't quite update as well as he could.
To be fair, Chow's light approach at times feels as fun and funky as Robert Rodriguez (think his Spy Kids series). And based on his most recent and more Western-audience-friendly projects like Soccer and Kung Fu Hustle, Chow forgoes the excesses of genre whoring that sometimes taint Rodriguez's best instincts (his loose Desperado trilogy or his Grindhouse contribution Planet Terror).
Chow is a funnyman, pure and simple, and bending special effects to his comedic will can certainly separate him from the broad, action-crazy pack. But Chow shouldn't get too caught up in gazing at the likes of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin -- we need to get to know him on his own terms and maybe someday the distractions and narrative clutter won't overpower his manic spirit. Grade: C-