NYAFF 2010: LITTLE BIG SOLDIER Review
For most of its surprisingly brief 96 minute running time, I loved Jackie Chan's Little Big Soldier. Let's say for for 93 of its 96 minutes as a ballpark figure. But then comes the final scene, the final shot that seems to upend what appeared to be the movie's overall theme about the futility and uselessness of nationalism. In the aims of preserving the ending for you, dear readers, I won't elaborate on what happens in those final 3 minutes or so, but it's enough of a disruption to nearly downgrade the movie for this me.
Taking place during the Warring States Period, it stars Chan as an unnamed soldier who's made a practice of surviving the vicious clashes on the battlefield by picking his spot and playing dead. Inventive and humble, he simply wants to survive the war and return home to a plot of land and start a farm. Living by the wisdom of his father, he finds simply his continued survival "marvelous" - a frequent refrain throughout the film and seemingly the thematic underpinning of the entire film.
This soldier finds his fortunes improved when he stumbles across a wounded general from the enemy army (Lee-Hom Wang): you see Jackie's kingdom will pay any soldier who returns an enemy general alive in money and a plot of farmland. So, Jackie's Soldier trusses the unnamed General up on the back of a cart and begins making the trek home. Of course, nothing ever being easy in a war, Soldier must protect himself from the imperious young General who would rather die nobly than remain a captive, and the Soldier must protect them both from elements of the General's army that would rather he not make it back alive.
I'm not being hyperbolic when I say that I loved most of this movie - Chan makes it and himself loveable. Chan has been the centerpiece of dozens of roles over the decades, each with characters that Jackie wants us to love (to varying degrees of success). There's a rich vein of physical comedy throughout the film but there's also (for most of the movie, at least) a sense of sincerity that I've never felt in any of Chan's other films. I suspect that Chan, who's cultivated a public persona of hard-working affability might empathize with his character here, who just wants to live, work, and be loved.
Sure, some of his classic physicality is on display, but that's not what Little Big Soldier is about. It's not his best martial arts film (that remains Drunken Master 2) but I think it's his best performance. Most of the action here consists of Chan playing defense, generally trying to avoid being killed by the bears, bandits, and barbarians. His Soldier isn't a particularly skilled fighter, but he's an expert survivor. And here's the important part, the key to my affection for this movie: he doesn't avoid fighting out of cowardice (as the General claims often) but because he values life above all things - both his own and that of others.
Make no mistake, when I say it's Chan's movie, I mean essentially that. The movie bears the imprint of the prolific performer coming from a place of familiar comic sensibility. The difference is that there is (dare I say it) a maturity to Mr. Chan's performance that is largely absent from many of his other comic films and even some of his dramas. This is, according to the IMDB, his 99th film, and I can detect the weight of his years of experience in his screenplay (the 12th of his career). Together, with 2nd-time director Sheng Ding, Chan crafts a lived-in world, populated by survivors, not heroes.
But then there's that final scene. Again, I don't know how to go about explaining it, but the scene feels like it belongs to another movie entirely. I wish it had been cut, and that the movie had ended with a few minutes before. Still, despite this flaw, I'd love to see the movie again, and I'd love to see this Jackie Chan again.
Charles is a freelance writer and game designer. Check out his blog, Monster In Your Veins.