March 12, 2012

Tai-Pan is the sort of epic adaptation of a best-selling novel that has become almost completely the province of the TV miniseries. And, frankly, that wasteland seems like a good place for such a thing. With television, you can always give up early, or occupy your time with odd jobs during the slow parts. Tai-Pan traps you in a dark theater for two hours.

It’s pretty bad. The thing is based on a fat novel by James (Shogun) Clavell, who seems to love the sort of intricate plotting that might be reasonably interesting spread out over 10 hours, but which is darned near incomprehensible squeezed into two. This one is all about the founding of Hong Kong in the 1840s and the dynasties that sprang up thereafter. Lotsa sprawl, lotsa brawl, lotsa exotic women in silky gowns.

It follows two warring English traders: Struan (Bryan Brown) and Brock (John Stanton) who deal largely in opium as a means of getting Chinese tea. The reasons for this are much too complicated for their own good; what it boils down to is that these Occidentals get kicked out of China and have to take their business elsewhere.

So Struan masterminds Britain’s takeover of Hong Kong, and builds up the little island. Naturally, Brock wants control, too. But things don’t even begin to get messy until Struan’s son (Tim Guinee) and Brock’s daughter arrive from England—they’re about the same age, and marriageable, and….

Also in the mix is Brock’s son (Bill Leadbetter), who is even more evil than his father. And then there’s Straun’s mistress, a Chinese concubine (Joan Chen), who is not merely forced to fulfill her master’s wishes but also to spout some of the worst fractured English since Charlie Chan was ushered off the screen.

I suppose it’s possible this might have been fun, but under the sluggish direction of Daryl Duke, nothing ever seems to happen. It’s the first American film made in mainland China, and there are a few pieces of handsome window-dressing, but nothing to redeem the poor storytelling.

This, despite millions of bucks from the Dino De Laurentiis company, including some top-notch collaborators: scenarist John Briley, who wrote Gandhi; composer Maurice Jarre; cinematographer Jack Cardiff.

The cast also is leaden, although Brown, the likable Australian actor who recently played the hero in F/X, tries to get something going. He’s decked out in swashbuckling clothes and he does a fair imitation of a Scotsman (Sean Connery’s accent seems to have been the model). But he’s defeated by the overall lack of anything like direction or focus or passion.

With nowhere left to turn the viewer is left with the often unintentionally funny dialogue, which is of the “I shall not kneel before any man” variety. But even this game gets dull after two hours, and you’re left wishing the whole disaster had gone directly to network television, where we all could have ignored it much more easily.

First published in the Herald, November 7, 1986

A thoroughly dismal experience; I can’t even imagine it would serve for Bad Movie Night. Bryan Brown seemed to wander into a lot of projects like this, although he never seemed to care much. The good new is, this kicks off a week of postings to exotic locations in Eighties movies.