Railroad Tigers is an old-school, moderately campy adventure movie, something American directors were focused on making in the ’90s (think 1995’s Jumanji) but audiences have mostly relegated today to the realm of nostalgia. The framing device of a child discovering a relic of the past, and thus becoming transported on a fantastical journey, alludes to a storytelling device once-beloved by the Spielbergs and Lucases of the film world, combining moviemaking and Saturday morning serial (and cereal) consumption with the biggest budgets these grown children could garner. In the case of Railroad Tigers, the obligatory kid only appears at the beginning and the ending of the film, “seeing” everything happen through a magical train engine in a museum, casually tying the present to a heroic past. Like in an Indiana Jones flick, for Railroad Tigers, nostalgia and modernity fight it out as the wartime ’40s are siphoned through a fun-filled genre.
This modern fable begins with a hyper-stylized art deco propaganda-like credit sequence of machinery and industry—the strong lines of accent and garish graphics reflect the action to come, presenting the bullets like bigger stars than the names of cast and crew they overwhelm. This style resurges in a later animated planning stage for the main plot’s big culmination: the destruction of a supply bridge connecting Japanese troops across a Chinese ravine. The film’s focus, set in stages, is on dozens of Chinese characters in their struggle against Japanese occupiers during Japan’s 1941 railway-aided occupation of East China, from Tianjin to Nanjing. The film’s plot and overlapping dialogue is sometimes so incomprehensible that incomprehensibility becomes one of the running gags between the Japanese and Chinese factions, with English speakers often caught in the crossfire. As such, the motivations behind some of the film’s more physically straightforward vignettes (including a train robbery and the hiding of an injured soldier) are easier to follow than others, such as when the crew tries to steal packs of explosives from a Japanese armory.
Throughout, Jackie Chan’s wizened blue collar leader Ma Yuan commands a ragtag group of rebels named the Railroad Tigers, whom their Japanese antagonists call “hicks.” The actors embrace this designation with an earthy wit and humor, letting the physical comedy, acrobatics, ropes and tagteam misdirection play off of a knack Chan and his costars possess for sheepish facial expressions and playful surprise. Their constantly awry plans have the cadence of a Coen brothers movie or the levity of a dry punchline to undercut the most seriously planned aspects of an Ocean’s-like heist.
Much of the film’s aforementioned physicality comes from prop design. The rope, bamboo and basic machinery (pulleys and levers) stunts are a joy to watch. The Rube Goldberg construction of many scenes’ setpieces often provide moment-by-moment instructions that allow the film to click together like clockwork. Even when the film’s editing (also by director Ding Sheng) has a tendency to mistime certain jumps or eviscerate a gag that’d function better as a long take, the tangibility of the art department’s craftsmanship brings out the best in the actors. Playing with the historical props—like Chan forcing an assailant to expend all his shots for a bolt-action rifle or a motorcycle’s sidecar sweeping over Chan’s still-flexible body (despite being in his 60s, Chan flips, fights and performs aerial stunts better than most)—brings a lighter touch to a historical period filmmakers have recently felt obliged to fill with gritty gore and ultra-realistic suffering.
Still, director Ding Sheng’s grasp on action can be flimsy, most obvious when the Tigers are in disguise. Sheng, who cut his chops on other ensemble action films like Little Big Soldier (also starring Chan) and Saving Mr. Wu, takes to the comic beats well but unexpectedly muddles his many combat sequences. Since there’s not enough distinction between the beige uniforms, the micro-action between fighting soldiers on the different train cars becomes impossible to follow even though the macro-action of the train’s movements are simple. The film may often be murky, but when the editing (for some reason obsessed with jarring fades) calms and the jokes land (a couple of seppuku jokes feel particularly mean-spirited), there are sublime laughs to be had.
The film’s flaws, including a plethora of female stereotypes—the matriarch (Xu Fan, a pancake chef), the useless tagalong tomboy (Zhang Yishang), the cold villain who’s terrifying because how else could a woman achieve such a military rank (Zhang Lanxin)—and broadly-drawn Japanese, affect Railroad Tigers only when the momentum slows. When we have time to drink in the dichotomies between the scrappy-yet-beautiful Chinese fields of wheat and the boring, overly-formal robotic militarism of the Japanese, we also notice the homophobia (a prisoner betrays his allies under threat of being kissed by a man) and sexism—not of the era, but of the filmmakers.
Meanwhile, some really bizarre levels of violence (over a dozen necks get snapped) and martyrdom (literal blazes of glory) mar a film that’s mostly silliness. (There’s even a blooper reel moments after what could’ve been a Mel Gibson ending of bloody sacrifice.) But that’s in tune with the film’s overall attitude: Railroad Tigers has so many superfluous characters that it disposes of them without thought or impact, dazzling us like a mediocre roller coaster, reveling in nothing but forgettable motion.
Director: Ding Sheng
Writers: He Ke Ke, Ding Sheng
Starring: Jackie Chan, Huang Zitao, Wang Kai, Darren Wang, Jaycee Chan
Release Date: January 6, 2017