After over 100 appearances on screen, it shouldn’t come as a shock to anyone that Jackie Chan, one of the foremost names in action cinema, can’t do the daring, often insanely dangerous stunts that he used to perform. Time catches up to us all, but the well meaning, generally entertaining action flick Railroad Tigers stands as proof that the Chinese superstar still has a lot to offer as a performer beyond punching, kicking, and dangling precariously from great heights without a net. He does plenty of those things in Railroad Tigers (often with creative camerawork or CGI embellishment), but not nearly to the extreme he once did, often deferring to other cast members and stuntpeople in his world renowned team to do most of the heavy lifting. It’s a pretty lightweight film on the whole, but one can’t say that the producer and star doesn’t still give all that he can. As long as Chan cares about his material, the film around it succeeds, and he clearly cares about this one.
Railroad Tigers is the third collaboration between Chan and director Ding Sheng, following 2010’s Little Big Soldier and 2013’s admittedly lacklustre Police Story: Lockdown, and it’s probably their most successful. It’s a historically minded action yarn about the titular group of do-gooders who attempt to turn the tide of the war between the Japanese and the Chinese in 1941. There’s a good chance that Chan has gravitated towards this material because it’s a good blend of serious action and comedy, but also because he’s a bit of an admitted train buff. There are worse reasons to make a film, and Chan has certainly made worse, but this probably won’t be among his mostly fondly remembered efforts and will likely be remarked upon with a good natured shrug by anyone who sees it.
Pitched somewhere between a heist film and a lighthearted take on Inglourious Basterds, Railroad Tigers casts Chan as Ma Yuan, a railway worker turned leader of a bunch of freedom fighters who cause havoc to Japanese invaders. Initially, they’re just trying to steal food and supplies for locals, but eventually they find themselves pushed to a point where they agree to a potentially suicidal mission that not even China’s most militant freedom fighters will take on. The crew begins a plan to hijack a train and blow up the Hanzhuang Bridge, a major route that the Japanese use to bring troops and supplies in and out of Southeastern Asia. If the Tigers can cut off the path, it would severely cripple the Japanese war effort.
Chan remains front and centre for the most part, but this is still an ensemble effort overall. Each member of the crew has a specific function, day job, and even a catchphrase that gets told to the viewer via an animated introduction every time a new cast member appears on screen. None of these characters save for a scant few have any real depth, which quite amusingly creates parallels between Railroad Tigers and the similarly wonky Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. There’s a tailor (Zitao Huang), Ma’s right hand man (Jackie’s real life son, Jaycee Chan, showing a lot of his dad’s charisma), a noodle shop owner who happens to be a sharpshooter (Kai Wang), and a kindly pancake saleswoman (Fan Xu) who serves as a reliable lookout and deus-ex-machina throughout. The Japanese army constantly underestimates the ragtag resistance as being a bunch of hicks, rubes, and local yokels, but guess who ends up saving the day for their country in the end?
The relationship between these characters and each person’s individual motivations are confusing, muddled, sometimes incomprehensible, and often of little consequence. Even in the film’s closing blooper reel (a mainstay of Chan efforts) the actors seem to have a hard time remembering who it is they’re playing in the first place. That would be a major hindrance in a film that wanted to look at such events from a serious, historical perspective, but Sheng instead chooses to keep things breezy, funny, and fast paced until it’s time to get serious about the dangerous nature of the mission.
Railroad Tigers seems mostly content showcasing the sillier elements of Chan’s repertoire, relying on the leading man’s sense of comedic timing and overall likability. The actor seems invested, and the rest of the cast follows his lead. If he’s goofing around and having a fun time, the film around Chan follows suit. If Ma Yuan feels the need to get serious or sorrowful, things tend more in that direction. It’s a bit of an ungainly locomotive to try and drive, but Chan does so nicely, almost to a point where he feels like the true director of everything that’s happening and not Sheng (and some clips in the blooper reel certainly tend to support that theory).
Not once does Railroad Tigers feel historically accurate and anything more than convenient and contrived, but at least it takes things as seriously as it has to in the film’s second half, which is largely just one giant action sequence involving dangerous track switches, a train car full of explosives, shootouts, and tanks shooting at each other while on the train. It’s dazzling in terms of its technical acumen and it’s fun to behold, but Sheng remembers that he’s making a war film. Things start getting bloody, graphic, and uneasy between the comedic beats. Suddenly, there are stakes that the viewer is reminded of, and an emotional investment in the material gets renewed when the film needs it the most.
I realize that the way I describe the film before this makes the second half of Railroad Tigers sound like a massive tonal shift, but I think it’s actually what made me like the film. I had no clue who most of these characters were thanks to the underwritten, messy screenplay and unrelenting forward momentum of Sheng’s direction, but everything that came before the climax was so genial and well done that I didn’t want any harm to come to these characters.
I thought back to how cold the lack of character depth left me in Rogue One and began questioning how I could feel something stirring in me while watching a B-grade Jackie Chan action flick with a long past their prime star and so little watching an entry from one of the most lauded franchises in cinematic history. While I in no way want this to sound like I think this is a better made film than Rogue One (which for all its litany of narrative sins remains a great technical achievement), I will go on record saying that I felt more enjoyment watching this. If I can’t care about the people embarking on a suicide mission as part of a largely faceless squad, I can’t care about their inevitable peril, and that sense of making the viewer care makes Railroad Tigers more satisfying, if admittedly empty comfort food.
Railroad Tigers opens on January 6 at Cineplex Cinemas Yonge and Dundas in Toronto, Cineplex Cinemas & VIP in Markham, ON, the Mayfair Theatre in Ottawa, SilverCity Riverport in Richmond, B.C., and Cinema City Movies 12 in Edmonton.
Check out the trailer for Railroad Tigers: