China, 2016, colour, 2.35:1, 125 mins.
Director: Ding Sheng 丁晟.
Engaging wartime action comedy is the best film by Cheng Long [Jackie Chan] since CZ12 four years ago.
Shandong province, Japanese-occupied northern China, Dec 1941. Ma Yuan (Cheng Long), head stevedore at Zaozhuang railway station, leads a small band that steals supplies from trains on the Gousha-Zaozhuang line. His colleagues include fellow stevedore Xiaohu (Wu Yonglin), huge platform coolie Dakui (Sang Ping), young tailor Dahai (Huang Zitao) and train repairman Rui (Fang Zuming). Ma Yuan’s daughter, Xing’er (Zhang Yishan), who likes Dahai, also helps out, though Ma Yuan discourages her. The group is also aided by widowed pancake-seller Auntie Qin (Xu Fan), who likes Ma Yuan. Despite his best efforts, local military commander Yamaguchi (Ikeuchi Hiroyuki) can’t find any proof as to who are stealing the supplies. While Ma Yuan & Co. are at Auntie Qin’s house in the hills one night, a wounded Eighth Route Army soldier, Daguo (Wang Dalu), arrives. They manage to hide him when the Japanese come searching and next day smuggle him onto a train out of town. En route, Daguo tells Ma Yuan how his troupe failed to blow up the Hanzhuang Bridge, as part of an operation to disrupt the Japanese army’s north-south supply network. Daguo is then killed by Yuko (Zhang Lanxin), a newly arrived military supervisor, but Ma Yuan manages to escape. Ma Yuan’s colleagues persuade him to blow up the bridge – even though the mission is likley to be suicidal – and he asks the help of noodle restaurateur Fan Chuan (Wang Kai), a onetime sharpshooter and bodyguard to a warlord. When Fan Chuan refuses, Ma Yuan & Co. go ahead anyway, stealing some explosives from a Japanese warehouse and taking them towards the bridge by train. They’re cut off, however, by pursuing Japanese, and Ma Yuan and Rui are captured. Yamaguchi transports them to execution by train, intending to flush their colleagues into the open. But all doesn’t go according to plan.
A wartime action comedy in which the crafty Chinese run rings round the stupid Japanese, Railroad Tigers 铁道飞虎 is a Cheng Long 成龙 [Jackie Chan] vehicle that finally breaks his recent blah run that started with the iffy Police Story 2013 警察故事2013 (2013), continued with the lame Dragon Blade 天将雄师 (2015) and hit rock bottom with international co-production Skiptrace 绝地逃亡 (2016) last summer. (Another cycle looks set to begin with the feeble KungFu Yoga 功夫瑜伽, 2017.) The success of Tigers is entirely due to Mainland writer-director-editor Ding Sheng 丁晟 and his regular team who have come up with a slickly assembled production and a serviceable script in which the 62-year-old Hong Kong star is simply part of a large ensemble, isn’t required to over-extend himself on the action side, and can’t just coast on his cheekie-chappie routine. If you took Cheng out of Tigers, it would lose little and still be an enjoyable, well-constructed action romp.
It’s Ding’s third outing with Cheng, following the okay Little Big Soldier 大兵小将 (2010) and the misfire Police Story 2013. Though Ding’s best work is still on non-Cheng vehicles – The Underdog Knight 硬汉 (2008), He-Man 硬汉2 奉陪到底(2011), Saving Mr. Wu 解救吾先生 (2015), all with Mainland actor Liu Ye 刘烨 – Tigers is at least an honourable collaboration this time, in which Ding’s imprint is at least as large, if not larger, than Cheng’s. None of this would matter if the result wasn’t up to scratch, but at every level Tigers is quality genre entertainment – from its casting and playing, through its nimble re-invention of action staples, to its sheer production values. Ding’s editing alone deserves a major nod, especially in the repartee between the central group that helps to knit the ensemble together. The only major blot on the script is a modern sequence that bookends the story, as pointless as similar framing devices in The Taking of Tiger Mountain 3D 智取威虎山 (2014) and Dragon Blade.
The opening setpiece in which the amateur guerrillas – made up of railway workers and ordinary locals – take over a train and steal its supplies sets the tone, with humour marbled into the action and Cheng especially playing down his usual look behind a beard and hat. The way in which the action is first and foremost character-based is supported by the choreography of He Jun 何钧 (from the Jackie Chan Stunt Team), which stresses agility over physical spectacle, and particularly suits the sexagenarian star. The blend of character and comedy is best showcased in a later warehouse sequence featuring Cheng and (real-life son) Fang Zuming 房祖名 [Jaycee Chan] that even manages to make the latter look good. As in Monk Comes Down the Mountain 道士下山 (2015), Fang is only credited in the end crawl, not in the main titles – still paying a price for being convicted of marijuana-related charges in China in Jan 2015 – but Tigers, in which his features are also played down by his wardrobe, is one of his better, more credible performances. Apart from one joke about his and Cheng’s characters looking similar, there’s no nudge-nudge between father and son elsewhere in the movie.
Other casting has a non-starry feel, with Taiwan’s Wang Dalu 王大路 (Our Times 我的少女时代, 2015; 10,000 Miles 一万公里的约定, 2016) in a bright-eyed guest spot as a wounded Communist soldier, Mainland TV actor Wang Kai 王凯 bringing a smooth humour to the role of a sharpshooter, and even former boybander Huang Zitao 黄子韬, 23, making a reasonable impression (after his debut in the feeble rom-com You Are My Sunshine 何以笙箫默, 2015) as the boyish tailor of the group. This being a Ding/Cheng film, women don’t get much of a look-in: one time taekwondo champion, and a Cheng regular since CZ12 十二生肖 (2012), Zhang Lanxin 张蓝心, 30, has some fun as a Japanese nasty in a cool cloak but gets less action than in Skiptrace, while newcomer Zhang Yishang 张艺上, 20, has even less to do as the plucky, tomboyish daughter of Cheng’s character. Among the older cast, Xu Fan 徐帆 is okay as a pancake-seller and Japan’s Ikeuchi Hiroyuki 池内博之 (terrific as the sadistic general in Ip Man 叶问, 2008) manages to give his Nipponese baddie a smidgeon of dignity inbetween being made fun of by the Chinese.
Despite its two-hour running time (of which a large part is set on or around trains), and a momentary dip around the 80-minute mark as yet another train-hijack sequence starts up, Tigers manages to click back into gear with a tense, on-board standoff and then to work up enough steam for a slam-bang finale. Visual effects are OK and not so high-end that the film loses its grounded feel. However, the lack of spatial geography, especially in the bridge finale, reduces some of the tension: audiences need to know, via aerial and long shots, where characters and things are in relation to each other to become fully invested in such cliffhanging drama.
The eclectic, often wild score by Ding regular Lao Zai 捞仔 [Loudboy], aka Wu Liqun 吴立群, mixing western symphonic, Peking Opera, crazy vioin solos and the rest, makes a change from the musical wallpaper that has become the norm in Mainland action vehicles. The photography by Ding’s regular d.p., Ding Yu 丁豫 (unrelated), relishes the wide-open locations in the director’s native Shandong province, where the story is actually set. In China the film hawled in a very warm RMB700 million, beating the previous two Ding/Cheng collaborations (Little Big Soldier, RMB 157 million; Police Story 2013, RMB534 million) but below Skiptrace and well below KungFu Yoga.
Presented by Beijing Sparkle Roll Media (CN), Shanghai Film Group (CN), Beijing Going Zoom Media (CN). Produced by Shanghai Film Group (CN), Beijing Going Zoom Media (CN).
Script: He Keke, Ding Sheng. Story planning: Jia Zhijie [Alex Jia], Xu Yang. Photography: Ding Yu. Editing: Ding Sheng. Music: Lao Zai [Loudboy]. Art direction: Feng Ligang. Costumes: Cao Yangui. Styling: Wang Yi. Sound: Chen Chen. Action: He Jun. Visual effects: Daysview Digital Image, China Film Digital Film Production Base, Beijing VFX & Special Effects, Massive Pictures, Beijing Soar Dragon of Legend Cultural Communication, Nova Film Technology.
Cast: Cheng Long [Jackie Chan] (Ma Yuan, head stevedore), Huang Zitao (Dahai, tailor), Fang Zuming [Jaycee Chan] (Rui, train repairman), Wang Kai (Fan Chuan, noodle restaurateur), Ikeuchi Hiroyuki (Yamaguchi, military commander), Sang Ping (Dakui, platform coolie), Wu Yonglun (Xiaohu, stevedore), Xu Fan (Auntie Qin, pancake maker), Wang Dalu (Daguo, wounded Eighth Route Army soldier), Zhang Lanxin (Yuko, military supervisor), Na Wei (Huang Yifeng, Zaozhuang station deputy head), He Yunwei (Feng Banxian, fortune teller), Asano Nagahide (Sakamoto, translator), Yano Koji (Sasaki, Zaozhuang station head), Zhang Yishang (Xing’er, Ma Yuan’s daughter, handywoman), Takagi Sadahiro (Kameda), Liu Hailong (Er Pang, blacksmith), Liu Di (thief), Ding Yicheng (young boy), Gong Chengqi (Keiko), Qi Fang (Mrs. Gui), Wu Zhenlin (Japanese woman on train), Deng Jun, Hao Yunming (train drivers), Ding Sheng (train passenger), Liu Dehua [Andy Lau] (Tiger’s father).
Release: China, 23 Dec 2016.