After the superb tragicomic elegy Little Big Soldier and the flawed but interesting single-setting thriller Police Story 2013, Ding Sheng has proven to be one of Jackie Chan’s most interesting collaborators, respectful of the myth but not a yes-man, and able to bring ambitious ideas to star vehicles. Now the two have reunited for a wartime adventure set in the winter of 1941, as Japan takes control of Southeast Asia, using the railways for military transportation and supply. Ma Yuan (Jackie Chan) is a railroad worker who doubles as a Robin Hood figure, using his knowledge of the railroad network to ambush, sabotage and steal supplies from the Japanese convoys to feed the Chinese people, assisted by a team of freedom fighters called the “Railroad Tigers” (including Huang Zitao and Jaycee Chan). One day they offer shelter to a wounded Chinese soldier (Darren Wang), who tells them of a bridge that has to be blown up to cut the Japanese army’s supply route and cripple its war effort. The Railroad Tigers, helped by a former sharp-shoother (Wang Kai) thus set out on their biggest and most dangerous mission yet, while Japanese officers Yamaguchi (Hiroyuki Ikeuchi) and Yuko (Zhang Lanxin) try to stop them.
It takes a while for Railroad Tigers to get going: as often in Ding Sheng’s films, the first 20 or 30 minutes have a jittery, restless and seemingly unfocused feel to them. The first train robbery we see is briskly paced but over too soon after a comparatively protracted build-up. Still, it introduces the audience to the easy-going chemistry between Jackie Chan and his young co-stars. In fact, while the role of Ma Yuan is far from a challenge for Chan, whether it be as an actor or as a stuntman, it nevertheless displays a very appealing, self-effacing benevolence. Now, the man has always been one to foster new talent, but rarely has he seemed so content to be part of ensemble, admittedly central, but without hogging the spotlight. And so it’s one of the film’s consistent pleasure to see Jackie and his ‘sons’ banter, bicker and sing along (one very nice scene has them arguing about what pitch on which to start their trademark song). Jaycee Chan makes a barely-publicized comeback after going to jail and being blacklisted, and he shares a few delightful moments with his dad, especially a hilarious interrogation scene where they trade barbs abou their respective noses. Huang Zitao brings a cheeky sweetness to his role, and Wang Kai brings swagger to the team, but Xu Fan is underused as the Tigers’ auntie.
Then as the Railroad Tigers set out on their big bridge-busting mission, the film finally gathers steam (no pun inten…well, pun intended), and while it doesn’t have any of Jackie Chan’s trademark close-combat poetry and never provides any big-scale action until the final reel, it does delight with countless visual gags and poetic punchlines often reminiscent of Buster Keaton’s The General ; given the obvious and defining influence of Keaton on Chan’s style and career, this is more a full circle than a surprise. The best scene might be the one in which Jackie and Jaycee, hanging on ropes, desperately try to steal explosives in a Japanese warehouse, constantly hindered by sentinels and badly thought-out counterweights. Hiroyuki Ikeuchi is great fun as the increasingly unhinged and disheveled Japanese villain, introduced practicing Karate on his underlings, in an obvious but pleasing reference to the actor’s role in the first Ip Man. He’s ably assisted by the always striking Zhang Lanxin, in a double-act that recalls Nazi villains in an Indiana Jones film.
While Railroad Tigers appears mostly family-friendly, it is nevertheless shot through with fleeting but striking black humour (a hilariously failed seppukku, a major character beheaded almost as a footnote), and possesses an undercurrent of fatalism that sets it above a lot of wartime adventures that use war as a setting that doesn’t preclude a happy ending. Here, the Railroad Tigers realize that they are probably on a suicide mission, and their quiet, matter-of-fact reaction to that realization, is quietly poignant, and ties the film with Little Big Soldier as a tragicomic diptych on the balance of hope and despair, denial and lucidity in times of war. The grand finale is marred by very uneven CGI, but it brings the film’s tragicomic themes to a suitable paroxysm ; with a few more millions thrown into the CGI budget it might have been one of the year’s most impressive scenes. The film is bookended by a modern-day sequence that’s less jarring or ill-conceived than in Dragon Blade or The Taking of Tiger Mountain, but still slightly pointless, despite a cameo from a major star.
Long Story Short: Despite jerky pacing and uneven CGI, Railroad Tigers is a largely successful tragicomic wartime adventure, filled with inspired visual gags, shot through with dark humor, and sometimes even quietly poignant. ***1/2