China/Australia (2017) Dir. Leo Zhang
Well, I celebrated Jackie Chan’s birthday by watching one of his films and ironically, on the seventh anniversary of this blog I have another of his films to watch, this time one of more recent efforts. I fear however, we’ll be seeing a very different Jackie Chan here…
In Hong Kong, special agent Lin Dong (Chan) has to make a terrible decision – be by his sick daughter’s side for a life saving operation or do his job, protecting scientist Doctor James (Kym Gyngell) whose witness protection cover has been breached. Lin chooses the latter and is seriously injured in a shoot out against a group of dangerous hi-tech attackers at the same moment his daughter dies in hospital.
13 years later in Sydney, Australia, novelist Rick Rogers (Damien Garvey) is murdered by a mysterious woman (Tess Haubrich) wanting to know the source for his latest novel Bleeding Steel. Also interested in this are Lin and computer hacker Li Sen (Show Lo) disguising himself as a hooker to steal the information first. It seems however, the key to this is college student Nancy (Ouyang Nana).
Whilst it is remarkable Chan is able to continue at the pace he does in his action films, alternating between straight dramas, some of the vehicles he chooses are subject to the law of diminishing returns. It’s not that Bleeding Steel is irredeemably bad – it trumps Kung Fu Yoga – but the potential for a decent cyberpunk thriller is only half met.
Director Leo Zhang shares writing duties with Erica Xia-Hou and Siwei Cui but they find themselves having to work it around being a “Jackie Chan” film, which isn’t a bad thing, but the only person who knows how to pull that off is Chan himself. In other words, this would have served better as a straight-up action thriller either starring Chan or someone else.
But Chan has marquee name value and as co-producer clearly believes in the project, but the intermittent comedy and fight scenes undermine the drama and gravity of the sub-sci-fi plot involving bio-engineering, its worth to medical science, mankind, and of course, the criminal underworld. It’s ripe for something engrossing and prevalent but the handling of the narrative is disappointingly maladroit.
Standing out as the main issue is the way the salient details are shared, with the script drip-feeding the information as when it feels necessary to reveal them. This works in certain circumstances but not this one, and leaves the viewer frustrated at not knowing why things are happening or why people are acting the way there are.
Chief among them are the motives of the main antagonist Andre (Callan Mulvey), who we first see in the opening scene trying to get to Dr. James. He is strong, violent, and resolute in his objective, looking odd with his half painted face, but what does he want? He is eventually blown up by Lin but miraculously survives and is now a cyborg and has also relocated to Australia.
Why Australia? Again, this is revealed later on in the film via a flashback info dump from Lin during some dramatic down time when he reunites with his former colleague Susan (Erica Xia-hou) to plan their next move against Andre and his Amazonian assassin. All of this should have been part of the main narrative but Zhang decides that making us wait and build up some mystery first is the way to go – and it isn’t.
Once these vital details come forth the story not only starts to make more sense but also changes the dynamic of the plot, revealing some gut wrenching drama that could have giving the film – no pun intended – much needed heart. More interestingly, it puts Andre in a more sympathetic light, his backstory framing him as being right to be angry with Dr. James and why he is after the mechanical heart James has built.
Now things get really interesting – a mechanical heart that not only has immense and speedy regenerative powers but can only modify the blood and genetics of the recipient, giving them superhuman abilities, something the military would benefit from. This puts Andre’s plight into perspective but where does Nancy fit into all of this? And what exactly is hacker Li Sen’s interest in Nancy and Dr. James’ work?
I won’t say any more but it actually comes together quite nicely, and as far as Li Sen is concerned, this is the only delayed revelation that actually benefits from being kept until the end. Had this been the lone example and the script took a linear approach, audience investment in the characters and the drama would be higher and the pay off certainly more rewarding.
Because it is a Jackie Chan film this means plenty of fight scenes, dangerous stunts, and literal explosive action sequences, including a good old fashioned car crash, a Star Wars style shoot out, and a fight on top of Sydney Opera House. Chan is getting older and slower so he lets a stunt man do the really insane stuff but Jackie still gets stuck into it for most of the big spots.
The nameless female antagonist is as pantomime as they get, her black cape, PVC fetish outfit and armoured bio-droid back-up give off a Darth Vader vibe but with less menace and acting ability. Andre meanwhile looks like a cross between Arnie’s Mr. Freeze and The Borg from Star Trek:TNG, lacking the cheesy one-line humour of the former. And let’s not start on the dodgy CGI or how the obvious Mandarin dialogue has been dubbed into English.
Ultimately, Bleeding Steel is perfectly acceptable action-packed popcorn entertainment for the masses but should have been considerably more had the sci-fi elements been used elsewhere or maybe explored in greater depth, leaving Jackie Chan with something pathos driven for the human drama instead. A promising idea clumsily executed and let down by a script that tries to hard be too clever.