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Little Big Soldier
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by Jay Seaver

"Very nice to see Jackie Chan giving his all to a good movie."
5 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2010 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: Jackie Chan's been in the movie business a while, and the last decade or so has certainly looked like the inevitable decline phase of a man who became a star based in large part on his physical gifts succumbing to the passage of time. He's been alternating often painful Hollywood projects with Hong Kong pictures that were merely considered mediocre, and even for longtime fans, a new Jackie Chan picture was nothing to get excited about. Lately, however, he looks primed for a comeback - he's gotten good reviews for his parts in "The Shinjuku Incident" and "The Karate Kid", and his latest movie is a delight.

In it, it's the 2nd century BC, the height of China's "Warring Kingdoms" period. The two specific warring kingdoms are Liang and Wei, and the battle of Mount Phoenix is particularly fierce; it ends with only two left alive: One, a middle-aged peasant foot soldier for Liang (Chan), played dead for the entire battle; the other, a younger Wei general (Wang Lee-hom), is fierce but injured. Thus, the grunt captures the general, planning to take him back to Liang for the award of five acres of good farmland. It will not, of course, be that simple; the general is naturally trying his best to escape, and has enemies of his own within the Wei hierarchy, including his immediate pursuers, Prince Wen (Yoo Sung-jun) and General Wu (Yu Rong-guang). Plus, they're an easy target for bandits and barbarians across the countryside.

Little Big Soldier has been a pet project of Chan's for years, long enough that when he originally conceived it (he wrote the screenplay with director Ding Sheng), he would have been playing the young general. It's hard to imagine that now, and not just because Chan was already middle-aged when he made his big splash in America with Rumble in the Bronx. Jackie Chan's screen personality has often been that of a man who gets caught up in something but rises to the occasion, and that's a much closer match to the peasant than the general. Just looking at this film, though, even someone who had never seen a Jackie Chan movie before will have to smile at just how well he slides into the role. His character is a little world-weary but mostly optimistic, a gregarious fellow whose homespun and chatty nature should not be taken as a sign of weakness or stupidity; being friendly does not preclude him being clever or resourceful, or having depths to his personality that need to be teased out.

Wang Lee-hom makes a good foil for Chan. The general is actually the character that lets an actor play to the rafters a little bit more, and Wang spends the first half of the movie just on the right side of the line between his character being a haughty but capable complement to Chan's and an arrogant, unlikable prick. He warms up nicely as the pair start to get used to and rub off on each other, although always staying true to himself. And though it's mainly a two-person show, the rest of the cast does all right, too. Yoo Sung-jun and Yu Rong-guang are also good as the pursuers, with Sung-jun making the prince an immature and nasty little piece of work and Rong-guang doing quite well at implying that there's much more logic and twisted rationalization to their treachery than the film has time to state directly. Lin Peng has a brief but memorable turn as an ethereal but potentially deadly girl whose paths cross with the general and the peasant.

Though what perhaps makes Little Big Soldier notable in Chan's long filmography is that he gives a fine late-career performance, make no mistake, this is still a Jackie Chan movie. There's plenty of action, crazy stunts, excellent martial arts, and comedy - an early scene where Chan and Wang scramble for a dagger while blocking each other with a log and a bench is classic Jackie Chan fight choreography, and the outtakes running over the end credits are not just flubbed lines, as has often been the case in his American films. But while they are great sequences, it doesn't feel like Chan and company built the film around the fights and then did what was necessary to pad it out to feature length; the action and the comedy arise naturally from the story, and the film comes to a satisfying and conclusion because we believe in the characters' journey, not just because Chan wins the last fight.

It's also a very well-made film in other ways, too. Ding Sheng's list of credits isn't long, but he acquits himself well. There's a great deal of comedy, but not in a way that makes the deadly serious villains seem out of place. The movie moves at a comfortable clip, and he knows enough to shoot the action so that it's clear what Chan, Wang, and company are doing is impressive. It's also a beautiful looking film, too - the location crew has found some very pretty spots for the characters to journey through, and the battered but believable costumes and sets look as genuine as something out of a grander wuxia epic.

Mostly, though, it's just a thorough pleasure to see Jackie Chan in a role that takes advantage of his talents and persona. It's been easy to forget just how much fun he can be in a good movie, and that he's also a fair actor when he puts his mind to it. Here's hoping it gets an American theatrical release, because audiences could use the reminder.

link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=20846&reviewer=371
originally posted: 08/06/10 03:33:10
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2010 New York Asian Film Festival For more in the 2010 New York Asian Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2010 Seattle International Film Festival For more in the 2010 Seattle International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2010 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2010 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2010 Chicago International Film Festival For more in the 2010 Chicago International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: Actionfest 2011 For more in the Actionfest 2011 series, click here.

User Comments

8/24/10 Gita Astuti simply j.c. at his best in the last 10 years or so... 5 stars
IF YOU'VE SEEN THIS FILM, RATE IT!
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USA
  N/A
  DVD: 23-Aug-2011

UK
  N/A

Australia
  14-Feb-2010


Directed by
  Sheng Ding

Written by
  Jackie Chan

Cast
  Jackie Chan
  Lee-Hom Wang
  Ken Lo
  Rongguang Yu
  Peng Lin
  Sung-jun Yoo



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