Film Review: Railroad Tigers

Plucky Chinese rebels plot to blow up a strategic bridge while battling Japanese soldiers in an uneven adventure starring cinema treasure Jackie Chan.
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Some 20 years ago Jackie Chan starred in Drunken Master 2, a remake of the 1978 movie that helped cement his reputation as an action star. Drunken Master 2 opened with a flat-out incredible fight that took place in, over, under and around a period passenger railroad train, showing off Chan's spectacular physical skills and dedication to difficult stunts.

Railroad Tigers, Chan's latest role in a surprising career renaissance following last year's unexpectedly good Skiptrace, repeats some of Drunken Master 2's gags, to lesser effect. Overall a slapdash and silly movie, Railroad Tigers is still a treat to watch, even when it slips into violence and propaganda.

Chan hands off most of the action to supporting players, including his son Jaycee, resurrecting his career after a drug arrest. Choreographed by Je Hun and the rest of Chan's stunt team, the movie's kicks, spins, leaps and falls are impressive despite obvious wire work and CGI.

As "Ma Yuan," Chan and his gang work at a railroad depot occupied by Japanese soldiers, led by despotic Ken Yamaguchi (Hiroyuki Ikeuchi) and his dominatrix compatriot Yuko Nakashima (frequent Chan co-star Zhang Lanxin). As in many Chinese movies, the Japanese are cruel, cowardly villains with no ethics or morals. So it's no big deal when they die, which they do by the scores.

Yuan and his rascals loot freight trains and rob passengers, mostly for fun and profit until a wounded Chinese soldier on the run tells them about a key bridge guarded by the Japanese. Unless it's destroyed in four days, the enemy will complete its supply network.

Improvising a scheme to blow up the bridge, Yuan and the others break into a warehouse, grab some explosives, and barely escape with their lives. Next is a more serious attack on a train loaded with weaponry.

Chan has always admired the work of silent slapstick stars like Buster Keaton, and Railroad Tigers does a good job in reworking some of the sequences in Keaton's The General. The movie is also a throwback not just to Hong Kong cinema of the 1980s, but to Chan's youth as a member of the Seven Little Fortunes.

Trained in Peking Opera, the Fortunes specialized in acrobatics, slapstick, and comic routines. Here Ma Yuan's cohorts fall into similar roles, bickering over meals, teasing each other during fights, turning props like hammers and benches into weapons.

But Chan's co-stars, among them Wang Kai, Zhang Yishang and Huang Zitao, are no match for the Fortunes, who included Sammo Hung, Yuen Biao and other martial-arts masters. And while the train sequences here are wonderful to watch, the movie as a whole is a shambles. The writing is lazy and illogical, the tone veers uneasily from comedy to tragedy, and the stunts lack the precision and expertise of Chan's best work.

And yet Railroad Tigers is never a chore to watch. At times it's even fun. And give Chan and writer-director Ding Sheng credit for some of the best train footage in recent memory.

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