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Film Review: ‘Railroad Tigers’

Variety logo Variety 12/28/2016 Peter Debruge
© Provided by Variety

When was the last time you saw a good Jackie Chan movie? Sure, the “Kung Fu Panda” movies are great, but they don’t really count, since that’s just his voice. What has it been — 10 years? 15? — since the chance to see Chan in action really justified the price of admission?

After a long stretch in which he made one, maybe two, movies a year, Chan is scheduled to release five more movies in 2017, after the Chinese action-comedy “Railroad Tigers” (granted, two are voice roles in animated movies). More importantly, though “Railroad Tigers” itself is a tired, often incomprehensible mess about a group of Chinese resistance fighters who use a train loaded with Japanese ammunition as a weapon against their unwelcome invaders, for genuine Jackie Chan fans, it’s evidence that he wasn’t ready to retire from action movies after all, despite comments made to that effect back in 2012. Between this and last year’s Renny Harlin-directed “Skiptrace,” Chan is back to his old pyrotechnic tricks, even if there’s no denying that he’s not the nimble stunt master he once was.

Ageism is a serious problem in Hollywood, and it’s disheartening to see how the industry constantly throws out established talents in favor of younger models, as if the first sign of wrinkles has anything to do with acting ability. And yet, when it comes to action stars, the opposite tendency seems to be in effect: Audiences have always been reluctant to let their favorite butt-kickers go, despite the fact that, like great athletes, the window in which they’re in prime shape for such a physically demanding profession technically ought to expire somewhere in their mid-30s. That leads to all sorts of embarrassing past-their-prime cash grabs in which one-time action stars pretend to be capable of feats beyond their actual abilities — witness Steven Seagal’s embarrassing “Contract to Kill,” in which what looks like a blind man in an inflatable Steven Seagal suit flails and hobbles his way through a number of badly edited fight scenes, some of them staged while the actor was sitting down.

I’m hardly the first critic to comment on this phenomenon. The notion that such action stars won’t retire without a fight is essentially the premise of both the “RED” and “Expendables” franchises, which a columnist for Vulture cleverly dubbed “geri-action” movies a few years back. Still, you know things are getting bad when an instantly forgettable, nearly impossible-to-follow, Chinese-language action movie manages to score a U.S. release simply because of Chan’s involvement.

Set in 1941, during the Second Sino-Japanese War, “Railroad Tigers” takes its name from a fictional gang of small-time rebels who agree to a suicide mission that even the professional soldiers in the country’s Eighth Route Army couldn’t accomplish: the aforementioned hijacking of a Japanese supply train to destroy a strategic bridge.

Prior to this, the Railroad Tigers have largely steered clear of the conflict, preferring to orchestrate small sneak attacks in which they raid passing trains for provisions; up to now, they haven’t done anything that would endanger their own lives, or strike a serious blow to the invading Japanese. However, after a Chinese soldier returns from the front too badly injured to sabotage the bridge himself, Chan’s character, Ma Yuan — who works as head porter in a rural railway station — decides it’s time to do something big for a change, enlisting his fellow Railroad Tigers on the high-risk mission.

The others are similarly unsuited for such a dangerous operation, being an underdog gang comprised of an inexperienced tailor (Huang Zitao), a couple of maintenance workers (including choreographer Alan Ng), and a local noodle shop owner (Wang Kai) — all hicks in the eyes of the Japanese military police officers who serve as the film’s villains.

It’s not easy to keep the characters straight, especially since the introductions are handled via quick, Guy Ritchie-esque freeze frames, in which the name, occupation, and catchphrase for each is swiftly splashed across the screen (an approach that works when the film itself is fast-moving, though this one takes nearly 45 minutes to get started). Even more confusing, the Railroad Tigers all call one another “Brother,” though one is actually the son of Ma Yuan’s girlfriend (Fan Xu), a local pancake seller who pitches in by doping some of her delicacies and feeding them to unsuspecting Japanese officers.

That’s the sort of detail that passes for humor in a comedy that relies heavily on Three Stooges-style slapstick, where bullets are more likely to hit bad guys in the butt than anywhere fatal, and characters can pretend to be Japanese by fake-saluting while repeating “Banzai!” at the top of their lungs. By this point in his career, Chan has made more than 100 movies (this is actually his third with “Police Story: Lockdown” director Ding Sheng), and audiences basically know what to expect. There’s even a scene in which the opera-trained actor gets to sing a few lines.

Naturally, the railroad-bound action scenes are the most exciting, and though the stunts aren’t nearly as demanding as those that made Chan famous during his younger days (including the spectacular train sequences in “Supercop” and “Shanghai Noon”), it’s fun to watch a character armed with little more than a pipe, fending off a tank attack. But the finale can’t help but disappoint, cobbled together as it is from bad writing and even worse CG. And while it aspires to “The Bridge on the River Kwai”-level theatrics, the movie resorts to a lame contemporary framing device and last-minute cameo from beloved Hong Kong star Andy Lau to please its local audience.

Yet, while his action contemporaries get rickety, the fact that Chan can still maneuver his way around a fast-moving train — a reminder that he remains the most gifted physical comedian the movies have produced since Buster Keaton — should merely renew the anticipation for “Rush Hour 4” or “Shanghai Dawn” on the American front.

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