For a moment, around the time of The Forbidden Kingdom, it looked like Jackie Chan was going to start “acting his age”. This prospect had the satisfying feeling of things coming full circle, with the potential for Jackie to deliver some entertaining mentor roles like those Simon Yuen did for him decades ago in Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow and Drunken Master. Things have not gone according to plan.
Given the downward trend of Jackie’s career of late, Little Big Soldier makes a fascinating case study. Doubly so as it is directed by Ding Sheng, who instead of building on what this film does well, would go on to direct a string of middling fare — culminating thus far with the nice looking but unnecessary remake A Better Tomorrow 2018 — and the terrible Railroad Tigers, which tried and dismally failed to recapture the spirit of Jackie’s 80s Hong Kong action-comedies. Little Big Soldier takes the right approach, aiming to do the best it can with what it actually has and while it never really zings, it at least produces a fairly unique film.
Jackie Chan plays The Soldier, basically a human-sized hobbit character from the Lord of the Rings trilogy — a down to earth chap caught up in wider events. His fighting gimmick is also being a crack shot with a thrown stone. Unlike the brave, but naïve hobbits who leap into the fray, The Soldier is more world-weary and would rather avoid fighting.
Leehom Wang (My Lucky Star) plays The General, an injured enemy leader captured by The Soldier after a battle leaves most of both sides dead. The rest of the film concerns the efforts of The Soldier to drag The General back to his home for a reward. It’s a smart twist on the usual buddy film setup from most of Jackie’s Hollywood movies. Rather than being thrown together by circumstance, it’s the direct decision of The Soldier, even in the face of many an obstacle, that keeps these two together for most of the story. Jackie also gets to be the wiseguy, rather than the straight man as in most of his American buddy films. Leehom Wang therefore gets to be the stoic and resolute one. They have some team-building moments throughout the film, but the development in their relationship is constantly being reset which makes a lot of what happens feel like it doesn’t mean anything.
Hunting these two through the wilderness is a villainous posse led by Prince Wen, played by a decidedly unmenacing Steve Yoo (Man of Tai Chi, The Wrath of Vajra), who nonetheless gets to show off how buff he is at the eleventh hour. A group of nomad bandits are lurking around as well, and a couple of other characters cross paths with the central duo, but they don’t get much screen time. The Songster (Lin Peng) gets less than ten minutes on screen and a story so vague it makes little sense. Yu Rong Guang livened up a few Jackie films (e.g. Shanghai Noon and New Police Story) in supporting roles, but there’s only so much an actor can do with two minutes. Wang Baoqiang (Kung Fu Jungle, Monk Comes Down the Mountain) as an army messenger has the best cameo, but that’s because it relies on humour.
The film is not trying to be a comedy caper though. The opening scene features The Soldier looting the battlefield dead and much of the humour shades toward the black end of the spectrum. In fact, the whole proceeding is draped in an air of melancholy. Those sweeping views of mainland China often associated with historical epics feel desolate here, as the magnitude of events is mostly inferred and the scope narrows to focus on an isolated human response. The music too complements the low-key focus, shying away from grand themes in favour of a more folksy style. It’s unfortunate the strings kick in to signify when it’s time to feel emotional, as the story and acting don’t really need it and come off more melodramatic as a result.
Even the action is scaled back from the former Jackie standard. He spends a lot of time hiding, scampering, and relying on trickery to avoid combat. This leads to a couple of funny moments putting real-world practical film tricks to use. When it comes down to it, The Soldier is not that great a fighter if he can’t peg a rock at someone. On one level this is a bummer, but I appreciate the seeming acknowledgement that it’s time for Jackie to slow down. It really seemed like a deliberate statement that the most complex action scene in the movie isn’t even “real”.
With the overall restraint on show, what ultimately has to carry the film are the characters and story. The Soldier makes for a winning everyday protagonist and The General makes a decent foil without being pompous and annoying. Their journey is a kind of road trip rumination on what’s worth fighting over, and the conclusion is surprisingly affecting. Also like a road trip though, it’s in danger of becoming monotonous and there are a couple of unnecessary detours. Little Big Soldier is no classic, but it succeeds well enough within the limits it sets for itself.