Little Big Soldier Review
For years Jackie Chan has been trying to be taken seriously. It's ironic that so many comedians would love to show another side to their acting talents, as I'm sure many action stars yearn to take on more weighty, dramatic efforts. Jennifer Aniston and Sandra Bullock have both shown promise in more serious dramas (The Good Girl and The Blind Side, respectively) and yet they both seem to be relegated to lazy rom-coms. High-kicking Jean-Claude Van Damme even made a whole film about the notion of being pigeon-holed and never allowed to express his full worth (he was pretty dramatically convincing too), but really it's no wonder these actors get so typecast: after all, if your talent (or, more often, popularity) lies in one particular genre, why not mainline in those kinds of movies?
Jackie Chan made his bread and butter in fast-paced, light-hearted, family-friendly action-comedies, from his early Drunken Master, through the Police Story franchise, to even his more recent work. For the few films that he has done in Hollywood, comedy has been a requirement (the Rush Hour and Shanghai movies), and even when he returns to Hong Kong he doesn't appear to quite reach the dramatic peak he is aiming for. Police Story 4 (aka New Police Story) went some way towards changing this, however, as did his recent Shinjuku Incident, which featured none of his trademark martial arts whatsoever. In between two more child-friendly Hollywood productions (the lacklustre Spy Next Door and the promising Karate Kid remake - although technically it's not Karate: it's set in China, not Japan) he finally managed to get one of his dream projects off the ground, a production that has been in limbo for some 20 years: Little Big Soldier.
The Warring States Period took place during the last few Centuries of the Dynastic reign, just prior to the unification of China. During this period the two opposing States of Liang and Wei collide in a massive bloodbath that leaves thousands dead on both sides, and only two survivors: an old Wei foot-soldier who feigned death during the battle, and a brave young Liang General who survived through sheer luck. Capturing the wounded General, the old soldier figures that he can get an honourable discharge and a fair chunk of land to farm if he takes his valuable prize back to his own camp. But the General proves to be a slippery eel, consistently condescending towards his captor, and pretty skilful with a sword too. And with a group of Liang assassins hunting them with a clandestine mission to kill their own General, getting rich off this little plan may just be a harder task than the old Wei soldier envisaged.
Jackie Chan apparently wrote this story some 20 years ago, at which time he planned on taking the role of the young General. Unfortunately (probably largely because Chinese period martial arts movies were not as popular then) the production was shelved for two decades, leaving Chan forced to now take the older role of the foot-soldier and recast the General (using Lust, Caution actor Wang Lee-Hom, who makes for a decent serious foil). Honestly, though, I cannot see how this movie would have worked half as well with the roles reversed. Chan is on top form as the ostensibly cowardly but actually quite honourable older man. His Wei foot-soldier's instinct for self-preservation is always in overdrive, and whilst that often saves the lives of him and his companion, it also makes him look distinctly chicken. And yet, when starving and faced with the notion of killing a pregnant rabbit for dinner, he sets her free. It's a lovely role for an older Chan, far from heroic - but with a good heart, enabling him to play to his comedic strengths (he fakes death using a pop-up arrow-end, which makes him look like he's been shot) but also revel in a marginally more demanding role than his normal, generic, throwaway stuff. Sure, this may not be weighty drama, but it is also seldom truly silly, instead running the same kind of tasteful balance that Chan succeeded in achieving for his Rush Hour or Shanghai endeavours, only with a lavish Chinese Dynastic period backdrop.
Aside from Chan's contribution (which is, of course, pervasive) much of the narrative, drama and even action is played totally straight, the performances all reasonably convincing, as if this were a proper wuxia period drama which is just dominated by classic Chan antics every time he takes centre stage. The battles are comparatively bloody, the opening animated segment culminating in two opposing soldiers impaling each other with swords. Most of the characters are injured at one point or another, many facing the wrong end of a very sharp sword, and by the end of the fairly short (at least for this kind of period offering) runtime the body-count is relatively hefty. When you finally find out what the assassins are truly trying to do, and encounter the tough nomads, you know you're in for a few brutal fight sequences, and know that the stakes are quite high.
Even Chan himself gets some more serious moments, particularly towards the sombre end of the movie, which - despite its buddy-buddy we-don't-like-each-other '48 Hours' theme - often tries to remind you that this whole story is taking place during a very dark and bloody part of China's important history, and even paints it as one of the stepping-stones towards the country's unification. I'm not sure it wholly convinces in this regard, but it sure comes close.
Far more adept at blending wuxia period adventure-drama with classic Jackie Chan action-comedy antics than some of his similarly themed word (The Myth failed in this attempt), Little Big Soldier is probably one of the best Chan films in the last few years. Sure, it does not give him the all-out dramatic role that he so desires, but it also doesn't just play to his typecast strengths. Don't get me wrong, it does have some superbly choreographed scenes that still show he's got those famous lightning-fast moves, and also plenty of nice little amusing touches (often involving being tied together) that play to his Buster Keaton-esque timing, but it also gives him a shot at a much more well-rounded character. This is all reflected in the film itself, which is instilled with a nice sense of comedy amidst its quite serious action. Most importantly though, throughout all of this, the movie is (thankfully) left bereft of all of the silliness that you would normally associate with classic Hong Kong Jackie Chan films. Recommended.