Jackie Chan leads a group of rebels against the Japanese in Ding Sheng’s action comedy.
“[Imitates speaking Japanese]”
In recent years, Jackie Chan has chosen to work less on the sorts of comedies that made him famous in the eighties and nineties in favour of more dramatic fare. Sometimes they’re light-hearted and fun like in Little Big Soldier and other times he goes fully serious, with movies like The Shinjuku Incident or The Foreigner. Occasionally, however, he throws back to the style of old … with varying levels of success. Railroad Tigers, from director Ding Sheng, might actually be one of his better recent action comedies, but that’s certainly not saying much.
Chan plays Ma Yuan, a railroad worker at the height of the second world war, who leads a band of revolutionaries against an aggressively-expanding Japanese occupation. A railway – stretching from Tianjin in north China to Nanjing in the East – has become something of an important strategic tool for the Japanese military, but has a perfect target for the group’s next mission: a bridge, which – if destroyed – would completely ruin the war effort from the Japanese. Yuan and his company hatch a plan, all the while getting into shenanigans with the Japanese, and their ruthless General Yamaguchi (Hiroyuki Ikeuchi).
If CZ12 was Jackie trying to capture the feeling of the Armour of God films again, then Railroad Tigers is his attempt at redoing Project A. Both films feature a period setting, with Chan playing a character who’s facing off against something much bigger than he, with some nationalist Chinese overtones thrown in for good measure. CZ12 was something of a bust – and I’ll no doubt get into that film at some point – but it did have some good classic Jackie Chan-style kung fu, with one notable example being the couch fight midway through. Railroad Tigers is a bit more of a departure for Chan, instead mixing that classic Kimchi Western feel of The Good, The Bad, the Weird with a much more bombastic adventure closer to his American movies like Shanghai Noon.
Compared to a lot of his recent comedies, this one wasn’t the worst of the bunch – although considering some of the stuff that’s been out lately, the bar isn’t super high. Chan, in the last few years, has lost a lot of the bright-eyed goofy charm that made him such a likeable actor in the past – both on and off screen – and even when he plays the affable nice guy, his world-weary and sometimes controversial self just can’t help but make itself shown. Recent public issues with his son and daughter have certainly mired his public image somewhat, and it’s telling that the best character moments in the movie happen between Jackie and his once-estranged son Jaycee.
Ever the proud nationalist, Jackie has made a career fighting off invaders and threats to his Chinese heritage. Back in the day, it was the British (and the handover did nothing to change that, as seen in Rush Hour), and in Railroad Tigers it’s the Japanese, whose lust for control over Asia has been well-documented in many Korean period pieces as well. But while the actors both Chinese and Japanese give great performances, the villains are often seen as incompetent, boorish and cruel in a Disney fashion, and it strips them of any real humanity. Actors Hiroyuki Ikeuchi, Asano Nagahide and Koji Yano do a great job with what they’ve been given (Ikeuchi is very down for it, having played a similar, albeit much more serious role in Ip Man). But it’s Zhang Lanxing who revels in playing Japanese miniboss Yuko and whose final confrontation has her troll-haired and wild-eyed.
It sounds like I’m hating a lot on this movie and that’s because it’s not very good. Its biggest sin is that it’s very slow – which shouldn’t be the case at all for a big action-heavy movie like this – and there are tonal issues everywhere. But where it shines is in its action, when steel crashes into steel in a cacophony of explosions and kicks. The film has four big set pieces, most of them involving a train and looking something like a level in Uncharted, and they’re all quite fun ranging from traditional, homegrown Jackie Chan stunts to bigger, dynamic sequences reminiscent of Pirates of the Caribbean. It’s a shame it takes so long to get from one bit of fun to the other. Sure, it might be a bit more sluggish than what we’re used to, but it’s still entertaining.
In the end, Railroad Tigers is a flawed film which, with some editing, could be a lot better. Chan feels more at home here than he has in previous recent action comedies, and although nobody ever shuts up (this movie is really noisy, you guys), the characters are all fun to watch, when their names and favourite catchphrases aren’t plastered on the screen for us to immediately forget. If you’re looking for some fun throwback stuff, this might scratch that itch and it did for me certainly more than CZ12 ever did, but I think it might be futile for Chan to try to recapture the magic of the past. But at least the poster brings back that big-head style.
Verdict: Semi-decent, but not as good as it could have been, Railroad Tigers suggests that Chan’s old-school Hong Kong comedies should stay in the past.
Overall entertainment: 6/10
Sex: Not nearly enough
Names: I honestly can’t remember half of them
Catchphrases: I can’t remember if anyone actually used theirs
Andy Lau: Loves him a period Jackie Chan cameo, doesn’t he?
Railroad Tigers (2016)
Also known as: 铁道飞虎 (Rob the Train)
Director: Ding Sheng
Writer: Ding Sheng
Jackie Chan – Ma Yuan
Huang Zitao – Da Hai
Wang Kai – Fan Chuan
Darren Wang – Da Guo
Sang Ping – Dakui
Xu Fan – Auntie Qin
Jaycee Chan – Rui Ge
Hiroyuki Ikeuchi – Yamaguchi
Zhang Lanxin – Yuko