Railroad Tigers is a special breed of cinematic import so rooted in cultural normalities, it’s as if a wall stands between overseas viewers and total immersion. At heart, Jackie Chan’s latest adventure is a dangerous hicks-vs-military underdog mission – but comedic buffoonery distracts and disengages. Clarinets and oboes (or related instruments?) provide a bubbly soundtrack for a damning suicide mission, never to embrace the seriousness of sacrificial heft. Gunshots ring out as characters joke, while Chan’s cutesy martial artistry evokes a less-enthusiastic Drunken Master who fumbles clashing tonalities. I mean, it’s an immediate red flag when you endure more character-card introductions than Suicide Squad – that’s one runaway train you don’t want to imitate.
Chan stars as Ma Yuan, a humble railroad worker who also moonlights as a member of the Flying Tigers gang. Together, with his clan of misfits, Ma Yuan rebels against Japanese invaders. They break into traincars, knock out soldiers and paint their symbol for all too see – but the Tiger’s next adventure is of a more dire circumstance. An injured soldier, Da Guo (Darren Wang), stumbles upon Ma Yuan and tells of his orders to blow up the Japanese-controlled Hanzhuang bridge. Ma Yuan sees this as a chance to help his fellow countryman, and so do his Tiger brethren. This is the big mission they’ve all been dreaming of, with national servitude to boot.
Unfortunately, Chan’s sensibilities don’t play to such a story, and director Ding Sheng mirrors the same kind of slapstick values. While soldiers are being mowed down by enemy machine guns, light-hearted Chinese tunes bounce like cardboard dragons in a New Years parade. Tigers sacrifice themselves for the greater good, but their deaths are never felt. Shen attempts to wrangle historical reverence through big-budget warfare means, but comes out with a knee-slapper lacking battlefield grit. Tempered comedy and weightless action – like getting a Black & White cookie with the frosting licked off.
The above-mentioned introduction cards represent one of the film’s bigger problems – ignored plot establishment. Ma Yuan is introduced with little more than a line reading “Head Procter” and a catch phrase: “Shut up!” No backstory or grand entrance besides an aerial launch onto a moving train. “Here he is!” Well, OK – now what?
So a few characters get title cards, what’s the big deal? The “big deal” is that we’re not talking about a few title cards being tossed up for reference. Based on my notes, a total of 16 bios are thrust into frame (name, occupation, and most with a meaningless “catchphrase”) – no matter how far into the film we are. A roster of characters from “noodle man” to “pancake seller” pop up like fighter introductions from a Street Fighter game, gone before we ever get a sense of personality or importance. It’s no “the more the merrier” comedy situation, as conflict sequences are over-bloated by nameless fighters whose identities we desperately try to recall. Is that the magician? Or the wounded soldier? Or the thief? Have fun spinning your head trying to continually connect names to faces, distracting from actual plot material.
That’s not to say Sheng doesn’t orchestrate some old-school Chan-Fu, but Jackie doesn’t exactly showcase the usual pep in his step. Son Jaycee is along for the ride, with a few other native heavyweights, yet – again – Sheng doesn’t push full-throttle during combative bouts of choreography. Chan wavers on beams like he’s about to fall and hams up the sillier side of dueling fisticuffs, yet it’s never much more than expected cinematic swiftness.
Better action comes during on-train brawls once the Tiger clan starts hurdling towards Japan’s all-important bridge, but even then, shoddy CGI sullies boxcar brawling and traded gunfire. It’s unfocused, less impactful glory than the Japanese/Chinese conflict demands, coming across as childhood patriotism without sincerity or grit. Like a bedtime Scholastic story yearning to be some Tom Clancy thriller.
Maybe audiences who are already privy to this easy, breezy filmmaking will appreciate Ding Sheng’s Railroad Tigers, but American moviegoers will have an especially hard time digesting Auntie Qin’s pancakes (you know, the pancake maker introduced in scene one!). A story of freedom fighting à la Red Dawn feels stunted and mismatched with jokier sentiments, as Jackie Chan attempts to let his supporting cast shine – all, like, seventy-billion of them. Bullets fly and bridges are fought over, but when the dust settles, indistinguishable bodies leave little to reflect on. Unfortunately, this is one of Chan’s more forgettable films in recent memory. Name recognition alone just doesn’t get it done anymore.
Railroad Tigers is an action epic that wants to be a comedic goofball, as it fumbles both aspects when trying to meld them together.