Monday, January 02, 2017

Railroad Tigers: The Jackie Chan Stunt Team Rides the Rails

Wouldn’t it be nice if Chinese cinema devoted one fiftieth of the time and attention they spend on the Japanese occupation to the events of the Tiananmen Square Massacre and the Cultural Revolution instead? At least the war and the resistance offer opportunities for good action sequences, which is all we’ve really asked of Jackie Chan. To his credit, Chan has found ways to act his age and still be an international action movie star, most notably in collaboration with director Ding Sheng (including Little Big Warrior and the bizarrely under-appreciated Police Story: Lockdown). Produced with the Mainland market in mind, Ding’s Railroad Tigers (trailer here) opens this Friday in New York.

Ma Yuan is the grizzled leader of a gang of petty thieves ostensibly working various jobs related to the railroad. They regularly pull off small-scale capers targeting the Japanese authorities and collaborators as best they can. However, they get the call-up to the big leagues when Ma Yuan shelters a wounded Eight Army commando charged with blowing up a critical supply-line bridge. The dedicated soldier isn’t going to make it, so Ma Yuan and his tigers adopt his likely suicide mission.

Of course, they will need help, so they manage to recruit Fan Chuan, a Rick Blaine-like noodle shop owner, who was once the sharp-shooting bodyguard of a Nationalist warlord. Unfortunately, the Japanese also get reinforcements when legendary Inspector General Yuko Nakashima arrives. She is fierce (played by Lanxin Zhang, a frequent femme fatale henchperson in Jackie Chan films), but one could argue her high rank makes the occupying Japanese look weirdly progressive.

Once again, Chan largely (but not entirely) acknowledges his sixty-some years during RR Tigers. Throughout most of the film, he is the terse-speaking center of the team, sharing the action duties with the rest of the ensemble on equitable terms. Of course, he takes over the big climatic set piece sequence, but by that time many characters will be dead, in accordance with the conventions of Dirty Dozen-style big mission movies. Old Man Chan also develops some truly appealing chemistry with Fan Xu, glammed down to look at least ten years older as his love interest, the widowed Auntie Qin. Frankly, it would have been nice to see more of them together.

The first two acts have their share of entertaining stunt work, but nothing that will really dazzle fans’ minds. However, the climatic blowing-the-bridge sequence is a doozy. It is nice to know JChan can still get the job done. It is also always good fun to watch Zhang Lanxin throw it down.

RR Tigers has also garnered attention for the unheralded return of Chan’s son Jaycee after his pot conviction. They even share a scene together that Mainland-HK audiences have read considerable irony into. You have to feel a little for Chan fils. If he grew up in the Hollywood establishment, nobody would care about a minor pot bust. He’d working again after a quick “mistakes were made” non-apology. It also seems tough that he was transparently named after his father, but does not have the benefit of being a “junior.” As a further Easter Egg, look out for a fleeting cameo from one of the world’s biggest movie stars in the wrap-around framing device.

If you are already a JChan fan, you can watch RR Tigers without any cringing or regrets. The Jackie Chan Stunt Team aims to please and their skills are admirable. It is not bad, but for those who are not rabid Chan loyalists, this latest outing from Chan, Ding, Zhang and company is probably too uneven to win over ardent converts. Recommended for the faithful, Railroad Tigers opens this Friday (1/6) in New York, at the AMC Empire.