Railroad TigersReviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 01/10/17 13:16:15
To fully grasp how disappointing "Railroad Tigers" is, start with one basic truth: Action sequences are generally something like 20% better when set on a train, whether you choose “on” to mean “riding” or “on top of”, but despite this film being a string of those, it never quite gets exciting. And that’s before it dawns on one how few of them feature Jackie Chan doing something that stands out as impressive. Indeed, the whole thing seems muted, often unable to even go big on the broad comedy or aggressive nationalism that can at least make mainstream Chinese pictures at least an unusual experience.The film has Chan playing Ma Yuan, the head porter at a rural train station during the Sino-Japanese war whose crew also liberates the cargo belonging to the occupying Japanese government. They aren’t exactly at the top of the Emperor’s most wanted list - they’re pretty small-time - although that may change after a Chinese soldier stumbles into the neighborhood he calls home: He’s the only survivor of a unit set to blow up a bridge before a major shipment comes over it in four days time, which means that if it’s going to be done, Ma and his friends will have to outsmart not just Captain Yamaguchi (Ikeuchi Hiroyuki), but recently-arrived troubleshooter Yuko (Xu Fan).
From the start, the gang is talking about “missions”, and writer/director/editor Ding Sheng divides the movie up that way, whether they be heists, rescues, or supply runs, with titles popping up on screen the same way character name/job/catchphrases do when introduced. A lot of movies are built that way, but Railroad Tigers feels odd in that this structure seems to highlight how much it’s running in place, with the results of each action scene neither feeling like it has brought the characters closer to a goal or even set them back, instead just running the clock until the big finale. There’s not even a sense of the team gelling or individual stories reaching turning points through this action.
That might be fine if the action scenes themselves were exceptional, but they never seem to be quite as great as they could be. Part of the reason is that Ding almost never emphasizes the speed of a train, and while it’s not always a bad thing that the action is built around people being able to move around without the slightest misstep breaking a character’s neck (or, worse, that of a stuntperson), there’s a point in the climax where the hijacked train literally grinds to a halt just short of its goal, and though the fighting doesn’t stop at that point, the feel of momentum that train-based adventure gives an audience is drained a bit. It’s also very much worth noting that, for a Jackie Chan movie, there is not a lot of creative martial arts - Jackie gets a fun bit or two in the middle, but his big stunt at the end has a lot of effects work and the climactic fight one expects after seeing Yamaguchi demonstrate his judo skills toward the start never materializes.
Which isn’t to say Ding doesn’t get some good bits in - when he and action director Alan Ng Wing-lun (a senior member of Chan’s stunt company) are able to start piling one thing on top of another toward the finale, the fun really does grow. There are cannons and tanks on the train, for instance, and it’s not just fun, but kind of clever, to see how Yamaguchi and Fan Chuan (Wang Kai), a late addition to Ma’s party, escalate their gunfight over the course of the last act. Though there’s some iffy digital work at points, the traditional closing credits reel indicates that a fair amount was practical on the way to the train having the crap blown out of it by the end.
And, even if Jackie Chan in his sixties can’t pull off the same sort of athletic action he could in his twenties, a little extra weight and a scruffy beard serves him well here; he pulls off the small-town guy with a likable demeanor that contrasts with some real pain nicely. While the large ensemble cast is often too big for its own good - Edison Huang Zi-tao and Zhang Lanxin feel like they should have had more to do as the youngest members of the gang - there are fun spots: Darren Wang Da-lu as the big dumb lug of the group, Wang Kai’s cool sharpshooter, and Ikeuchi Hiroyuki’s entertaining evolution from a cool menace to prime scenery-chewing. On top of that, an argument between Ma and the gang member played by his son Jaycee still plays as funny even if one doesn’t recognize how hard they’re winking at the camera.
That takes place after the pair have been captured and are about to be tortured, which does highlight some of the weird shifts in tone the movie makes. That it often plays as a light comedic adventure despite having the characters express real sorrow and anger about the Japanese occupation isn’t that much of a flaw, but the kid-friendly framing bit (including a gratuitous star cameo) makes some of the later violence more than a bit weird: The movie will be chugging along, doing some fairly comedic action, and then the sound of someone’s neck snapping will be on the soundtrack, or a character will literally vanish from the scene rather than meet a particularly violent end, like the filmmakers had to make weird cuts to pass the censor board.As much as the action does pick up by the end, it doesn’t quite get big and exciting enough to make up for how lackluster the movie is as a whole. A new Jackie Chan movie will seldom be a truly negative experience, even as he continues to rely more on charisma than choreography, but something like "Railroad Tigers" can’t help but feel like it should have been much better.
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