After going through director and cast changes (as Renny Harlin and Johnny Knoxville replaced Sam Fell and Seann William Scott, respectively), a tragic on-set death (cinematographer Chan Kwok Hung drowned when shooting boat stunts on Lantau Island) and months of delay (it was initially to be released in December 2015), Skiptrace finally arrived in theaters in July 2016 and gave the Chinese film summer one of its rare hits. Jackie Chan plays Bennie Chan, a dour Hong Kong detective on the trail of a mysterious crime boss known as ‘The Matador’, and who may or may not be businessman Victor Wong (Winston Chao). Nine years ago, after his partner Yung (Eric Tsang) was trapped and killed by The Matador, Chan swore to protect his daughter Samantha (Fan Bingbing). Now she’s in Victor Wong’s clutches and Chan’s only hope is to track down American conman Connor Watts (Johnny Knoxville), who has evidence that could incriminate the Matador. The problem is, Watts doesn’t want to follow Chan to Hong Kong, and he’s himself being hunted by the Russian mob, after knocking up the daughter of a kingpin…
Some of Jackie Chan’s biggest worldwide hits have seen him paired with a comedy-inclined co-star, but his duet with Johnny Knoxville comes at least 10 years after it could have been truly interesting or inspired. Chan and Knoxville don’t share much chemistry, but what they do have in common is that they both do their own fearless stunts. Or rather they did. In, say, 2003, there might have been unique excitement in a film combining both their brands of recklessness, but in 2016, now that they both have settled for safer entertainment, we’re left with two actors who don’t really click together, in a plot cobbled together from countless ‘reluctant buddy movies’, some dating back to the eighties (hell, the fifties, if you count The Defiant Ones). And there’s an entirely mechanical feel to the proceedings, the reliable Renny Harlin proving only that, reliable.
Still, there are various pleasures to be gleaned: the film has a travelogue construct, displaying the varied landscapes, cultures and traditions of China, sometimes in amusingly creative ways: an entire chase scene is built around the traditions of the region in which it takes place, from literal mud-slinging to having to sing a song to be granted passage. With Jackie Chan now in his sixties, the action feels a bit more subdued, his moves look a bit stiffer, but the man still does things nobody his age can do, with riveting skill and precision, and he can still devise creative, sometimes poetic choreographies and sight gags. For instance, there’s a hilarious fight involving a Russian doll that shows that Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin still live on in Jackie Chan.
The role of Bennie Chan is basically a copy of the earnest, honorable and a bit too stuck up Inspector Lee from the Rush Hour film, and thus gives Chan little to stretch with – no matter, Martin Campbell’s The Foreigner is on the way. Johnny Knoxville gets one or two fun physical gags, including rolling around in a trash can or opening doors with his mouth, but he doesn’t seem to have much to bring to the film, while Fan Bingbing is there simply to look beautiful. Much more striking is the formidable Eve Torres as a Russian henchwoman, oozing sexiness and danger to the extent that her role in this film could serve as an audition tape to play a James Bond villain. Her painfully short but superbly fierce fight with Zhang Lanxin (who has the same qualities but a wholly different body type) brings to mind that the Girls With Guns genre could very well be revived. It’s also good to see Eric Tsang, Michael Wong and Winston Chao, even in roles that reflect the film itself: familiar, for better and for worse.
Long Story Short: A familiar, almost mechanical buddy movie, weighed down by a lack of chemistry between its leads, but saved by Jackie Chan’s ever-reliable action work, and an enjoyable travelogue angle. **1/2