Jackie Chan's latest China-set action comedy revolves around a team of saboteurs who target Japanese soldiers during World War II.
"Talk less": That's what Jackie Chan's character says in Railroad Tigers when his fellow fighters ask him for a stirring speech prior to their final assault on their Japanese enemies. More than just the rugged renegade's advice about actions speaking louder than words, the motto is perhaps director-screenwriter Ding Sheng's conclusion as to what works best for his veteran Hong Kong star these days.
In their third collaboration in six years, the director and star have left behind the morals and moral dilemmas anchoring their 2010 swordsman comedy Little Big Soldier and the more somber Police Story 2013. Revolving around a fictional group of Chinese railwaymen's near-suicidal mission to sever a major transport link for the Japanese army during World War II, Railroad Tigers is a capable wartime caper that thrives on the dynamism and efficient action choreography that manage to conjure a spectacle out of even the most ploddingly penned Jackie Chan vehicle.
Chan's second new release in 2016 is certainly nowhere near his best, but at least it accomplishes the film's modest mission. A less cosmopolitan and clownish affair than Chan's previous outing, Skiptrace — a Sino-US co-production directed by Renny Harlin and co-starring Johnny Knoxville — Tigers offers everything the young Chinese film-going demographic expects out of a Chan movie or a comical WWII-themed blockbuster. A generation that grew up with both state-backed and privately produced anti-Japanese rhetoric, these young patriots should find ample pleasure in the running battles between the daring Chinese fighters and the cartoonish Japanese villains.
Beyond its home market, where it was released Dec. 23 and has already taken more than $40 million, Railroad Tigers' international performance will probably be more of a challenge. Action-film aficionados and Chan's hard-core fans will be crucial to the title's success during its inevitable global run, beginning with its limited release in the US on Jan. 6.
Returning to his favorite role of the ordinary-looking smalltime hero, Chan plays Ma Yun, the leader of a band of seemingly meek railroad porters who ambushes passing trains and strips, robs and humiliates Japanese soldiers traveling on them. Their vigilantism is finally given a purpose when a Chinese soldier Daguo (literally "Big Country," and played by Taiwanese actor Darren Wang) asks the troupe to blow up a bridge in order to halt the Japanese onslaught toward China-held territory.
Thus begins the transformation of ragtag mercenaries into proper patriots, as Ma's men find maturity and their moral compass in battling Japanese antagonists that include —surprise! — a mustachioed sadist (Hiroyuki Ikeuchi, Ip Man), a forbidding female-killing machine (Zhang Lanxin, Chinese Zodiac) and a selection of other sly and slippery types.
As most JChan movies did, Railroad Tigers offers plenty of physical derring-do. While it could certainly be tightened by at least 10 minutes, the final fight on a moving train offers a handful of raucous sights.
As a piece of supposedly family-friendly entertainment, however, the film has a surprisingly high body count. And that's not just limited to the bloodthirsty villains: Unlike in the more conventional Chan romps, the good guys here twist and break Japanese necks like there's no tomorrow, something that might resonate with a young generation reared on outlandishly violent and caricatural anti-Japanese historical dramas.
Meanwhile, there's a lot of meta-humor at work, including a line in which Chan refers to an Internet meme mocking him last year. He also shares a gag-fueled scene with his son Jaycee, whose performance here as a freedom fighter is his most prominent since his release from jail last year after a six-month sentence for marijuana possession in Beijing.
In fact, Chan spoke last year about his desire to make a film with his son to mend their relationship. In a way, Railroad Tigers is probably a movie that allows Chans Sr. and Jr. to get things off their chests. But it also offers a certain type of catharsis for the audience, too, as Ding and Chan present a simplistic, unambiguous blockbuster that plays to the nationalistic sensibilities of unquestioning viewers. It's a throwback to Chan's wham-bam action comedies of the past, and a pretty effective one, too.