Kicking their way to the top of the box office charts this week are two highly unlikely martial arts champions — strangers in strange lands who wind up making the world a little sweeter place.
There’s Adam Sandler’s crack Israeli commando who’d rather be a New York hairdresser in “You Don’t Mess with the Zohan.” And there’s Jack Black’s pudgy Chinese panda who works in his dad’s noodle shop but reluctantly becomes the “chosen one” to save the Valley of Peace from a tyrannical snow leopard in DreamWorks’ animated “Kung Fu Panda.”
As with Robert Downey Jr.’s “Iron Man” at the beginning of the summer and Will Smith’s “Hancock,” a streetwise superhero with a major attitude problem, waiting in the wings, quirky characters are this summer’s new addition to the superhero formula.
“Kung Fu Panda.” won at the box office, probably because it’s animated, PG rated, and cute. It’s Enlightenment Lite, this millennium’s reminder that the introduction to Eastern thought for many of us came with the TV series “Kung Fu.”
In that show, David Carradine — who subsequently became old and dissipated enough to play Bill in Quentin Tarantino’s brilliant yet deranged “Kill Bill” — was still young and innocent enough to play Kwai Chang Caine, a novice Chinese Shaolin monk on the lam in the old West.
The TV series gave the “Ozzie and Harriet” generation our first opportunity to ponder the sound of one hand clapping and other Zen riddles. It would flash back to its hero’s training in the old Shaolin monastery where his master called him “Grasshopper,” alluding to his — and our — minds’ habit of hopping all over the place. But each episode left room for Caine to kick someone silly before the final credits rolled.
“Kung Fu Panda” follows the same action formula, only with cartoon panda for a hero. Go figure. There’s not a grasshopper in sight, but there is Mantis (voiced by Seth Rogen), along with Viper (Lucy Liu), Crane (David Cross) and the exotic-eyed Tigress (Angelina Jolie). They’re all martial arts students under the guidance of a Yoda-like panda, Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman).
The settings are exotic, the animation is action packed and the story of the reluctant “chosen one” is … uh, well … strange. It’s as though Jack Black and the writers wandered into this exotic realm and didn’t know what to do there, so they resort to happy one-liners that make ancient China and today’s Hollywood sound like the same place.
It works well enough for the kids in the audience. But like the old joke about Chinese food — or the film’s final image of Po and Master Shifu — it leaves the adults still hungry at the end.
“Kung Fun Panda’s” gimmick is chopsticks. This limits the marketing potential for burger tie-ins. The producers were probably banking on early Olympic excitement, not taking into account Tibet protests or the cataclysmic earthquake that have complicated that matter so immensely.
Adam Sandler and pals — including co-stars John Turturro and Rob Schneider, and co-writer Judd Apatow — have the temerity to try to make jokes in a political minefield just as dangerous.
The idea of a cheery Israeli commando who prefers making New York City matrons’ hair “silky smooth” while satisfying their long forgotten desires with his own insatiable sex drive is far-fetched enough.
But the concept of Jews and Palestinians realizing their common humanity is even more radical. It would be like putting Rodney King, with his simple message, “Can’t we all just get along,” in charge of the United Nations.
Although Sandler’s raunchy, infantile brand of crotch humor is the bull’s-eye for most critics’ target practice, I’ve always liked the guy. And the role of the Jewish superhero, with thick accent and the guileless naivete to fall in love with the Palestinian owner of his salon (Emmanuelle Chriqui) turns out to be as touching as all the gross-out gags turn out to be frequently hilarious.
In his Polyester wardrobe, “Zohan” does his ’70s-style sex strut on thin ice. The political premise is an equal-opportunity offender and stereotype buster, and the subtlety in the writing — not to mention all the accents — fly right over the heads of Sandler’s lowbrow fan base.
But still, there’s something lovable about the enterprise. It’s liberating for a moment to believe that good hearts on both sides could extinguish fires smoldering since biblical times.
Then you leave the theater. And get back to the real world. Enough of this silliness. Hate awaits.
• Contact Rick Chatenever at firstname.lastname@example.org