Ant-Man and the Wasp is just around the corner, but Michael Douglas already has a blockbuster lighting up the silver screen. Animal World is one of the films kicking off China’s busy summer season, and it’s getting a limited release in North America and the UK, courtesy of CMC and Cine Asia, respectively. That’s good news for Douglas fans, unless you happen to live in China: the summer season is a blackout period in the Chinese market, meaning domestic products only, and foreign products like Marvel’s latest will be held back a couple months. Chinese fans will have to get their fix from Animal World in the meantime, but Western audiences can happily overdose with a Michael Douglas summer blockbuster double bill.
Rest assured, there is no actual risk of exceeding daily recommended amounts of Douglas. He’s only in Animal World for a handful of scenes, maybe ten minutes altogether. His character is pivotal, however, for reasons I won’t divulge (no spoilers, but I can’t imagine Ant-Man and the Wasp having a mid-credit scene quite as nonsensical as the one in Animal World). Douglas plays Anderson, a mysterious crime lord who operates the Destiny, a large ship that sails international waters and hosts a dangerous card game. Players from all over the world are rounded up and pitted against each other, generally against their will; some are thrill-seekers looking for a big score, but most are hapless victims knee-deep in debt. The winners can have their debt wiped away, while the losers face consequences worse than death (but sometimes also death). Meanwhile, the world’s elite gamble on the outcome.
The hero of the story is Zheng Kaisi (Li Yifeng), who finds himself in a world of trouble after his childhood friend, Li Jun (Cao Bingkun), convinces him to mortgage his mother’s apartment and lend him the money. Li is already in debt and tries to use Zheng’s money to hit a payday in Macau; needless to say, they both end up on board the Destiny. Animal World follows them as they gamble for their lives, and as long as we’re following this action, the film is a genuinely slick and engaging thriller. Zheng uses his knowledge of maths and game theory to outsmart other players, with the film’s visual effects conveying this information stylishly and effectively. The film continually introduces new characters and twists that help keep the experience interesting and lively. It’s not a great film, but it’s a good bit of escapism.
The problem with Animal World is that it struggles to keep its eyes on the prize, so to speak, and routinely weighs its gambling plot down with loads of unnecessary baggage, while simultaneously propelling the running time, quite unnecessarily, beyond two hours. Animal World is an adaptation of Fukumoto Nobuyuki’s Tobaku Mokushiroku Kaiji (Gambling Apocalypse Kaiji, or Ultimate Survivor Kaiji), a manga which has seen multiple adaptations in Japan, including two seasons of an anime and two live-action features. I am unfamiliar with the source material, but from what I understand, Han Yan’s Chinese adaptation adds some unusual and unnecessary details. It smartly pares the focus of the game down to one variant, a rock-paper-scissors game of statistical strategy, where the source has multiple; but it adds a completely new thread that diverts focus from the main narrative and causes it to spin off wildly into multiple fantasy sequences, inexplicably skyrocketing its budget.
Han Yan’s film opens with an animated sequence of a television show about a clown massacring monsters on a subway, before transitioning into a live-action version of the same events. Zheng Kaisi, our protagonist, is obsessed with clowns, and imagines himself transforming into a murderous and psychopathic clown whenever he experiences stress. The people around him will suddenly transform into grotesque monsters, a videogame gallery of easy targets, allowing for Zheng to let off a little steam. These flights of fancy also include one particularly over-the-top car chase. There’s something moderately fascinating about these scenes, up to a point; the idea of a summer blockbuster with a male hero hopelessly burdened by financial debt and struggling to keep his life together, that only features expensive special effects driven spectacle as an imaginative escape for his socioeconomic prison, might be subversive. But that’s not Animal World. The film tries to use this thread to say something about society’s animalistic tendencies, but that message is muddied and underdeveloped, and then all but lost when Zheng’s story builds to a predictable and melodramatic conclusion, seemingly designed to appease China’s notorious media censorship board.
Animal World, while fun, has too many serious problems to genuinely recommend it. The gambling storyline is engaging, but everything around it is misguided. The film spends way too much time setting up the main story; the major action scenes, as such, are mere distractions, delaying Zheng’s arrival on the Destiny. And while Zheng’s backstory and character quirks are a problem, the rest of the narrative context is just as problematic. The only speaking role for a woman is Zheng’s girlfriend, Liuqing (Zhou Dongyu), who is also a nurse looking after Zheng’s mother, who is in a coma. That is the extent of the female roles, and Liuqing’s only notable scenes involve scolding Zheng and promising him that she will spend her whole life waiting for him to marry her. It’s a movie, so she only has to wait a little over two hours; but at no point does the film offer a good reason for why she would ever be interested in him.
The final cherry on top of Animal World’s hodgepodge narrative, hilariously, is a flashy “to be continued” neon graphic that, after over two hours, feels more like a threat than a promise. But, fair play, it might also be the biggest laugh I’ve enjoyed in a theatre all year, so it’s not for nothing. It’s a bold strategy; let’s see if it pays off for them. But if they don’t already have Michael Douglas locked up in a multi-film contract, I won’t be betting on them.