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. 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 that pit 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. 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.