Jackie Chan stars as a lowly, unnamed Liang soldier who survives an ambush by Qin forces that decimates his 2000-strong army. The only other survivor appears to be a young Wei general (Wang Leehom) fighting for the Qin, who Chan's character takes hostage and together they set off back to Liang, where he can collect a plot of land as reward for his captive. The injured general needs his captor if he is to reach civilization, but that doesn't stop him attempting to escape, or at least take a swing or two, whenever the opportunity presents itself.
Hotly pursued by Prince Wen (Steven Yoo) and his personal entourage, and set upon by a varied assortment of opportunistic peasants and marauding nomads along the way, the mismatched pair are frequently forced to fight side-by-side to save their hides and sure enough, a begrudging mutual respect slowly develops.
LITTLE BIG SOLDIER is basically a buddy road movie, and narratively it never strays far from the well-worn formula of countless films of that type, such as 48HRS or MIDNIGHT RUN. When done well, however, conventional plotting can be forgiven and writer-director Ding Sheng has turned out a very enjoyable slice of fun, with a story that doesn't feel like it was made up as they went along or cobbled together in an editing suite.
A pet project of Jackie Chan's, the script for LITTLE BIG SOLDIER has reportedly been in development for some 20 years, from Chan's own original story. Initially, he intended to play the general, but as the years wore on, wisely opted for the more mature role. Chan is also named Executive Producer and Action Director, as well as getting a story credit, and he should be more than satisfied with how the film has turned out.
Chan and Wang have great onscreen chemistry, making their characters both genuine and likable, especially Chan, whose opportunistic chancer sports customised armour rigged with blood packs and a retractable arrow tip to feign injury and avoid conflict at any cost. More competent and coherent than THE MYTH, while presenting a more familiar on-screen persona than in SHINJUKU INCIDENT, the result is Chan's most enjoyable film in quite some time, a welcome blend of comedy, action and heroic melodrama for which he is perfectly suited.
If there is a criticism it's that the film doesn't contain enough martial arts, but that said, it is perfectly understandable. Chan is a little past his prime physically, but does his best to show off his trademark ducking & weaving slapstick whenever possible, while leaving most of the actual fighting to his co-stars. It is a far more favorable decision than attempting CG-assisted stunt work, as has been the case in other recent outings.
LITTLE BIG SOLDIER never feels the need to weigh itself down with historical politics, epic battles or unnecessary romantic subplots. So often, recent films of this type suffer from uninspired photography and cheap-looking sets and costumes, but that is certainly not the case here. Filmed almost entirely outdoors in stunning mountain and woodland locations, the film's setting never feels anything less than completely authentic.
Ultimately, LITTLE BIG SOLDIER is an entertaining and engaging action comedy, carried by Chan's wonderful central performance. He is a deserter, a thief, an opportunist and a trickster, yet Chan instills him with enough charisma and humanity that he remains likable and sympathetic throughout. Put simply, LITTLE BIG SOLDIER is Jackie Chan's best film in years.