Jackie Chan's latest action picture, directed by Ding Sheng, is more than respectable.
Jackie Chan last found success in Hollywood by mentoring young Jaden Smith in a remake of the surprisingly decent The Karate Kid. That was more than six years ago.
Since then, Chan has rarely been seen in North American theaters. Most recently, historical action epic Dragon Blade and buddy comedy Skiptrace both received token releases here; each has its own problems and neither represents Chan at his finest.
Railroad Tigers sees Chan reuniting with director Ding Sheng for an action picture that really moves. That's a weak but true statement; for a late-period Chan movie, Railroad Tigers features a series of action sequences that sometimes defy the laws of physics but are mostly fun to watch unfold.
Chan and Sheng began their collaboration with Little Big Soldier, which featured a solid performance from Chan, followed by Police Story: Lockdown, which our own James Marsh described as a letdown in which "most of the time, Chan just looks like a sad puppy."
Set in 1941 (per the press notes), during the time when the Japanese and Chinese armies were at war, Railroad Tigers revolves around Chan as Ma Yuan, a factory worker who has also formed a small team to steal valuable things from the trains that run through a small town in China. The town is occupied by the Japanese military police, overseen locally by Yamaguchi (Hiroyuki Ikeuchi from Ip Man).
One day a wounded Chinese soldier named Daguo (Darren Wang) stumbles into town. He is the only survivor of a mission to blow up a bridge that is key to the war effort in the area. He asks Ma Yuan to deliver a message to the army, letting them know that the mission was a failure and that the bridge still needs to be blown up in the next two days. But before he can explain how to contact the army, he's killed.
Like almost everyone else in town, Ma Yuan has lost a family member to the war. So he decides to carry out the soldier's dangerous mission, and his team members quickly join him, along with an independent thief, a blacksmith, and Fan Chuan (Wang Kai), a noodle shop owner who was formerly a sharpshooter with the Chinese army.
The balance of the film is spent on the mission. First, though, they'll need explosives...
Laid out in a simple and direct manner, Railroad Tigers initially features the expected broad humor to liven up the introduction, which takes an extended period of time to establish the reluctant yet patriotic amateur warriors. They are set against Japanese characters as caricatures of evil, first the nasty Yamaguchi, Captain of the local Japanese Military Police, and then Inspector Yuko (Zhang Lanxin), his superior, who easily tops him in brutish behavior.
They are more than balanced, though, by Ma Yuan and his relentlessly likable team. It's easy to root for them because all are modest in their personalities and forthright in their loyalty. Ma Yuan even has an age-appropriate love interest in the widowed Auntie Qin (Fan Xu), a pancake seller, and they each have children who are about the same age. Her son Dahai (played by Chan's son Jaycee Chan) and his daughter Xing'er both end up on the mission, giving Chan the actor an opportunity to display his parenting skills.
Sheng co-wrote the script and also served as film editor. As a director, he wisely favors sweeping tracking shots and knows well how to showcase the action provided by the Jackie Chan Stunt Team. As things progress and visual effects force their way into more complex sequences involving the principal train, it's difficult to disguise those effects, but by that point it's a bit too late to start nit-picking.
While Railroad Tigers falls quite a bit short of Chan's masterpieces of the 1980s and early 1990s, it's a more than respectable action movie that provides a refreshing change of pace and serves as a good throwback to World War II-era military train pictures.
The film opens in select theaters in the U.S. via Well Go USA on Friday, January 6.