Little Big Soldier is a good Jackie Chan movie! Apologies for the backhanded compliment. But Chan has had difficulty recapturing his earlier glory since making a play for Hollywood in the late nineties. The reasons why are open to debate – shifting audience taste and image problems are two potential issues. But there is one undeniable fact: Jackie Chan is not young anymore. Chan can no longer pull off the Police Story or Project A antics. And it’s been tough for him to find a proper showcase for his aging persona and dwindling athleticism. Little Big Soldier fills that need quite nicely. Providing a character and a story in which Jackie Chan can shine.
In Little Big Soldier, Jackie Chan (Thanh Long) throws rocks and doesn’t really fight anyone, and the result may be his best film in years. There are some unexpected moments, and Chan doesn’t pull out the action stops like he used to, but this is a welcome and even surprising entertainment. The class of the 2010 Lunar New Year season.
Based on a script from Chan and director Ding Sheng. Little Big Soldier (Dai Binh Tieu Tuong) picks up during the Warring States Period when numerous states in China were angling to conquer each other. Chan plays the Old Soldier, a farmer conscripted into the Liang Army to do battle against the Wei. The Qin and whoever else may be knocking on Liang’s doors. The Old Soldier is a pragmatic coward; during battles he usually plays dead, choosing to expend energy when scampering away from danger. The Old Soldier’s frequent escapes provide opportunities for Jackie Chan to nimbly avoid harm. Something he’s been an ace at since he started his unique brand of creative. Buster Keaton-inspired action comedy back in the 1970s.
Potential fortune arrives for Old Soldier when he captures a wounded Wei Prince (Leehom Wang). The Old Soldier hopes to give the Prince to his Liang leaders in exchange for some acres of land. But the situation isn’t as easy as simply carting the Prince to his home territory. The two have a great distance to cover. And the Prince isn’t cooperative. Sometimes getting violent in his attempts to escape.
Nature and predictable circumstance get in the way; local bandits threaten the duo. And the two even meet up with a bear. The biggest problem: the Prince’s brother (Korean actor Steve Yoo) is after the the Prince in order to kill him and usurp the Wei throne. With so many obstacles against him. Can the Old Soldier bring the Prince to Liang and get his retirement package? Or can the Prince somehow convince the Old Soldier to let him go and do the Kingdom of Wei a favor?
Narratively, Little Big Soldier is largely conventional. But Ding Sheng manages to make even the most predictable moments surprising. Conflicts arise over kingdom and country, brotherhood and family, as well as simple circumstantial need. And the way in which the story unfolds is entertaining and involving. The script is smartly commercial, with exposition rendered through recurring bits that tie the disparate characters together. Ding makes even his most minor characters seem unique. And also shows a consistent sense of humor, forcing few of the film’s funny moments. Probably the most obvious gag involves a parody of Confucius, and even that comes off as rather subtle. Ding humanizes everyone, even the bad guys, leading to emotions and resolutions that feel satisfying and even complex. Conclusions aren’t provided for all the characters. But the story never creates that necessity.
As the could-be buddies, Jackie Chan and Leehom Wang make fine screen partners. Wang hasn’t turned in standout performances before. But his role as the honorable prince makes good use of his handsome looks and youthful righteousness. However, the film belongs to Jackie Chan. The Old Soldier is not a typical Chan good guy; the character makes use of the actor’s age while giving him a cynical, pragmatic edge that departs from Chan’s usual pronounced decency.
However, the character is still decent. And when he makes unselfish choices. It feels rewarding for the audience. Unlike the usual Chan roles, the Old Soldier is actually a character. And not some outline for Chan to inhabit with his own personality. Maybe it’s because Chan’s role here is just a gentle tweaking of his established screen persona. And not an against-type reversal like in Shinjuku. But the Old Soldier feels like a breakthrough for Chan.
However, those looking for spectacle may be disappointed. There’s plenty of smaller, tightly-choreographed action, but no large set pieces that make use of the widescreen frame. The film takes place entirely in the wilderness with few crowds. And the dirty costumes and art direction only make the production seem smaller. Chan’s character is not a fighter, so there’s little chance to see Chan in any one-versus-many fisticuffs.
Most of the time his fighting involves bluffing. But the moments still allow Chan to show off his creative way with action. Also, the Old Soldier may not be a good fighter. But he’s really good at throwing rocks, providing yet another unexpected opportunity for creative Jackie Chan action film (phim co trang chien quoc). The rest of the cast also gets some action opportunities, with Leehom Wang doing decently in his few chances at swordplay. If Chan fans are here only for action. Then Little Big Soldier is probably not going to satiate them.
But Jackie Chan has never been just an action actor. He’s really an action entertainer. And that creativity and showmanship shine through brightly in Little Big Soldier. Ding Sheng handles all his elements sharply, delivering a much wider range of emotions than one might expect. That surprise also applies to the film’s end, which adds effective and – some might argue – unnecessary pathos. Despite the larger themes offered. Little Big Soldier never claims that it’s so meaningful that a somber ending would be required.
The ending could be seen as pandering to China. As it’s possible to read some nationalism into the film’s “someone unified China” ending. At the same time, the mystifying close may possess some silent criticism of The Powers That Be. Regardless, the shifting tones and subsequent blooper reel only add to Little Big Soldier‘s success. This is an entertainment that crosses multiple genres and doesn’t confine itself to a single tone or emotion. In stretching what Little Big Soldier might have been, Ding Sheng and Jackie Chan have done more than deliver. They’ve achieved.