Railroad Tigers (Cert 15)
1 Disc DVD/Blu-ray (Distributor: Kaleidoscope Entertainment) Running Time: 124 minutes approx.
Showing no signs or intention of succumbing to old age or retirement, the legendary Jackie Chan reunites with director Ding Sheng for a third time (following Little Big Soldier and Police Story Lockdown) for this high spirited if patchy patriotic comedy-action outing, set during the Second Sino-Japanese War.
The railroad between Tianjin to Nanjing is the main transport route for supplies for the occupying Japanese army. In Shandong, a group of railroad workers with an extensive knowledge of the train network under the guise of renegade group The Flying Tigers, led by foreman Ma Yuan (Chan), regularly ambush the trains, but only to take food and essentials for their compatriots.
When a soldier from the Eighth Route Army Da Guo (Darren Wang) stumbles injured into Ma’s courtyard, he explains that he failed to blow up the connecting Hanzhuang Bridge to cripple the Japanese lifeline to their supplies. Da Guo is shot when trying to escape leaving Ma to decide that it is time to step up and the Tigers do something meaningful for once and blow up the bridge themselves.
Fans of Jackie Chan might be disappointed to learn that he doesn’t perform any of his renowned martial arts scenes nor are there any of his death defying stunts that have thrilled fans for years and caused many producers and insurers to soil their pants. Then again, at 63 years-old that would be expecting a lot from Chan and frankly, he has deserved the right to take it easy.
But don’t mistake that for Chan being an inert presence here, he is still sprightly and gets involved in a lot of physicality – he spends a lot of time on top of a moving steam train for heaven’s sake – albeit a bit slower and safer than before. Chan still has that glint in his eye and certainly doesn’t slow his younger co-stars down at all, generously given them plenty of opportunity to shine and indulge in some fun stunts.
The titular rag tag crew are made up Ma’s fellow rail worker Dagui (Ping Sang), amateur tailor Dahai (Huang Zitao), and pickpocket Xiao Qi (Alan Ng). Also associated with the group to make following who is who even more difficult are former Warlord bodyguard Fan Chuan (Wang Kai), Rui (Jaycee “son of Jackie” Chan) and Ma’s love interest pancake seller Aunt Qin (Xu Fan), whose son is also part of the group, as is Ma’s daughter.
Rather refreshingly, the Japanese villains are not portrayed as the usual heartless, vicious sadists as they have been in previous films set during this period, a reflection more on the comedic nature of the script than a sign of balance. Captain Yamaguchi (Hiroyuki Ikeuchi) oversees the running of Shandong until the continuing raids by the Tigers forces the imperial army to send in stern commander Yuko (Zhang Lanxin) to sort things out.
Yamaguchi repeatedly falls foul of many pranks and deflective tactics of the Tigers, including eating drugged pancakes and being shot in the bottom, but he is a disciplined officer and holds the Chinese peasants in typical contempt. In contrast to the hapless nature of his folly, Yuko is something of a female Terminator in the film’s final act, able to punch her way through glass windows and survive near death experiences.
It is mostly for comic effect however, rooted in the broadest of strokes found in classic slapstick and Chan’s earlier works, often doing a disservice to the main thrust of the freedom-fighting plight of the Chinese against the Japanese oppressors. When the jokes are subtle, like a self-referential exchange between Chan senior and junior, they are more effective, it is when they aim low and go for the cheap laugh that things feel a little puerile and fall short of the mark.
The story takes a while to develop – almost 40 minutes before Da Guo appears – and the expansive cast means character development is at a premium, so Sheng compensates by ensuring the action sequences are suitably big and eventful to distract us from this. Opening with an in transit train raid by the Tigers, the inventiveness of their rudimentary gadgets is kept within the boundaries of the period detail to appear convincing.
One particular scene involving Ma and Xiao Qi being caught by a Japanese guard trying to steal explosives via a pulley system controlled by their weight, is an example of the humour working through the daftness of the scenario and the physicality involved. It is a simple set-up that could have been lifted from The Marx Brothers or Laurel and Hardy but Chan puts his own unique stamp on it.
But Sheng truly saves the best until last and, putting aside some iffy CGI, the climactic train journey during the final attempt to blow up the bridge is a bona fide thrill ride, complete with practical effects and stunt work on board real moving trains, great camerawork and a late injection of heartfelt drama to boot. If you can imagine what the end of Buster Keaton’s The General with a bigger budget and improved technology, this serves as keen hint as well as a respectful homage.
Prior to this, the film is beset with irritating little touches such as choppy editing, awkward pacing, lack of proper definition and distinction for many characters, which extends to the Japanese interlopers, painting them as flimsy antagonists. Perhaps it was intentional not to turn this into a propaganda piece but the poignancy of the story feels underplayed to the point of superficiality.
Since Railroad Tigers rests mostly on Jackie Chan’s marquee name and reputation, it is fair to say that he has made better films and he has made worse films, putting this in a respectable middle ground. The 124-minute run time is a bit excessive but if you can ignore these flaws, there is solid entertainment here and signs that there is plenty of steam left in Chan’s engine!
Mandarin 2.0 Stereo
Mandarin 5.1 Dolby Digital
English 2.0 Stereo
English 5.1 Dolby Digital
Rating – ***
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