Big action star tries a little something new ~ That Movie Blogger Fella

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Big action star tries a little something new

Little Big Soldier
My rating:

Jackie Chan is one of one of the hardest-working entertainers to have ever lived. He can also be terribly lazy. The Spy Next Door, The Forbidden Kingdom, and Rush Hour 3, anyone? But notice that those were his last three Hollywood films; by now, it's obvious that the ones he returns to Hong Kong to make are the real Jackie Chan movies. (Although honestly, I liked Forbidden Kingdom, but that was definitely Jackie lite.) I deliberately stayed away from The Spy Next Door simply because of how banal and worn-out the premise is - it actually annoyed me that Chan would slack off on something like this.

But if his Hong Kong movies are this good, he can go ahead and make as much Hollywood crap as he wants.

It is 225 B.C., during the Warring States period in China. The army of Liang has ambushed the forces of Wei in a bloody massacre that has left both sides completely annihilated - except for a wily old soldier from Liang (Jackie Chan) and the young general of Wei (Wang Leehom). The soldier takes the wounded general prisoner with the intention of claiming the reward for his capture. First they must get to Liang, and along the way they will encounter an alluring songstress (Lin Peng), a group of war refugees forced into thievery, and a band of tribal warriors. But hot on their heels is a troop of Wei soldiers led by Prince Wen (Yoo Seung-jun) - whose intentions towards the general are less than merciful.

Aaaargh. Who edited this thing? It's credited to Mainland Chinese writer-director Ding Sheng, but in a Jackie Chan movie it's hard to tell who's really responsible for what. (Chan's credits on this: lead actor, producer, executive producer, action director, and "story by".) The editing is choppy as all hell. It careens wildly from shot to shot and scene to scene with nary a pause for breath. In many of Chan's and Wang Leehom's dialogue scenes, I could barely make out who was saying what. Plot elements are blink-and-you'll-miss-it, and the impact of emotional scenes is truncated and diminished. Even the quiet, reflective scenes seem rushed; it's as if Ding and/or Chan was desperate to trim the movie down to 90 minutes. It's inexplicable and annoying, because Little Big Soldier is a good movie.

Jackie Chan has reportedly had this story idea for 20 years, and its culmination was worth the wait. It's a classic Hong Kong film - it combines slapstick comedy, brutal violence, poignancy and tragedy, and makes it all work. It's a Jackie Chan movie that's also a meditation on the pointlessness of war. It's the medieval Chinese Midnight Run, and anyone familiar with that 1988 Robert De Niro-Charles Grodin-starrer knows that to be compared to it is high praise. It is every bit as smart, fun and funny, but Midnight Run would never dream of being as weighty and dramatic as Little Big Soldier dares to get.

Weighty and dramatic are things that Chan attempted last year in Shinjuku Incident, with reportedly mixed results. (I haven't seen it.) This film proves that he doesn't have to stretch the limits of his acting ability too far to make a good movie - and that said movie doesn't have to be pure fluff. His unnamed soldier is lots of fun, with his bag of tricks for playing dead and staying alive, his country-bumpkin cheerfulness, and his oft-repeated wish for nothing more than a plot of land to farm in peace. But although Chan is the funny man to the general's straight man, he's no one-dimensional comic relief. There is tragedy and pain behind his cheerful reminiscences of his family, and there is a pride behind his avowed cowardice.

In fact, there are surprising dimensions to all the main characters here. Early on, one of the general's men attempts to rescue him from the soldier - and the general promptly kills him, arbitrarily suspecting him of betraying his army to the enemy. And this is one of the good guys, the other half of this buddy pairing, and played by popstar heartthrob Wang Leehom. Prince Wen gradually becomes sympathetic and honourable, but first he's a vicious brute who smirks as he murders peasants. All this is consistent with the film's theme of how the powerful treat the weak callously, and applies it to hero and villain alike. Although it can get somewhat on-the-nose - at one point the soldier outright tells the general, "in peacetime, we could have been friends" - this is still pretty darned sophisticated storytelling. I didn't know Chan had it in him. (Or maybe it was Ding, who has the screenplay credit.)

But this is still a Jackie Chan movie, so it's still funny and action-packed and often both at once. His character is no kungfu-fighting badass here; he's a farmboy who wants nothing to do with war, and has made a career of surviving and deserting every chance he gets. So when he challenges his hostage to a sword-sparring session, he gets pwned by the obviously better-trained general. But this really isn't a departure for him. Chan has always had the uncanny ability to kick ass in a way that looks like he has no real asskickery skills to speak of. There are plenty of his trademark action scenes here in which he fights off one combatant after another with seemingly nothing more than quick reflexes and sheer luck. Oh, and there's also a bear and a buffalo.

And there's also that moronic editing. Make no mistake, this is a fine movie, and likely Chan's best in years. But whoever edited it really deserves a tight slap, even if it was Chan himself. I haven't even mentioned Wang's acting; he's decent, but he could clearly have been better if the camera didn't keep cutting away before he could fully sell a scene. Still, go watch this for a taste of Jackie Chan doing both what he does best as well as something fresh and new. In Hollywood, he's a product to be marketed to as low a common denominator as possible. In Hong Kong, he's an artist with enough respect and clout to execute his own vision. And Little Big Soldier proves that there are still exciting new horizons to his vision.

(But seriously, Jackie? Please go back to the editing suite for this. Please!)

NEXT REVIEW: Valentine's Day
Expectations: bah cynical celebration of commercialized sentimentality


TMBF said...