How do you sell an international comedy-action superstar to an American audience? Sony Pictures, the distributors of charming Hong Kong action-fantasy Journey to the West: The Demons Strike Back, still haven’t figured out how to pitch comedian-turned-filmmaker Stephen Chow outside of Asia, especially since Chow has stopped starring in his own movies. Sony (and fellow Chow distributors Magnet Releasing) didn’t put much effort into a domestic release of 2013’s Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons, co-written and -directed by Chow. Or the follow-up, the Chow-produced/scripted The Demons Strike Back, a loose adaptation of Wu Cheng’en’s popular novel. Or 2015’s Chow-directed fantasy-comedy The Mermaid. That might be leaving money on the table: Conquering the Demons made approximately $18,000 in America (on a measly 7 screens) despite earning $196 million in China, while The Mermaid grossed $3 million (on 106 screens) compared to its titanic $526 million Chinese take.
Sony could advertise Chow’s latest as a bromantic comedy between a celibate man and a hotheaded monkey-god — with fights. In the new The Demons Strike Back, ostensibly opening in the states on February 3, a likable love/hate relationship develops between Brother Tang (Kris Wu), a naive Buddhist monk on a pilgrimage to India, and his reluctant disciple Sun Wukong (Kenny Lin), a quick-tempered monkey who becomes immortal after he invades Heaven and gorges on magical life-extending peaches. That gives human stakes to the larger-than-life action set pieces pitting mountainous Buddhas and Lord of the Rings–style giant spiders against shape-shifting Wukong (who increases his size until he’s as big as King Kong) and his fellow animal-god companions: vain pig-man Pigsy (Yang Yiwei) and slow-witted talking fish Sandy (Mengke Bateer).
Chow’s scenario features several perfunctory but infectiously batshit fight scenes, but The Demons Strike Back is essentially a buddy comedy, albeit one with a couple superfluous buddies (comic relief Yiwei and Bateer are consistently distracting and painfully unfunny). While Pigsy and Sandy are characterized by tic-like behavior — Pigsy lusts after anything shiny, and Sandy interprets everything literally à la Amelia Bedelia or Guardians of the Galaxy‘s Drax the Destroyer — Tang and Wukong are defined by a unique master/servant power dynamic.
Whiplash-quick flashbacks remind us that Wukong killed Tang’s girlfriend Duan (Shu Qi) in Conquering the Demons after Buddha forced Wukong to protect Tang during his travels. Despite this transgression, Tang, a clueless optimist, trusts Wukong, and assumes his pupil will eventually mellow out. Unfortunately for Tang, Wukong is an egotistical cynic who hates authority figures.
Wu and Lin’s finest moments as a comic odd couple come when Tang ignores Wukong’s warnings and dashes into trouble. Wukong warns him not to accept charity from demonic pseudo-good Samaritans that they encounter during their travels. Lin wins big laughs just by wincing and rolling his eyes while Tang giddily chit-chats with tarantula succubi who disguise themselves as beautiful women in order to seduce and devour men. And Wu aces the slapstick comedy, especially when Wukong uses a body-controlling magic spell to force Tang to perform an awkward impromptu striptease for a tyrannical, child-like king (Bei-er Bao). Wu and Lin have great chemistry, but only because Chow was smart enough to reimagine Journey to the West as a rare character-driven big-budget action-adventure — the kind of thing Americans might love if they knew it existed.