By Dennis Hartley
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 8, 2023)
In my 2010 review of Sheng Ding’s Little Big Soldier, I wrote:
I will confess that I have not gone out of my way to follow action star Jackie Chan’s career. According to the Internet Movie Database, he has made 99 films; after a quick perusal of that impressive list, I’d guesstimate that I have seen approximately, let’s see, somewhere in the neighborhood of, oh, around…four.
So when I say that Little Big Soldier is the best Jackie Chan flick I’ve ever seen, you can take that with a grain of salt. There is one camp of Chan’s devotees who would tell you that you can’t truly appreciate his prowess as an entertainer until you’ve seen one of his Hong Kong productions; I think I understand what they are talking about now.
Of course, you could easily apply this caveat to any number of accomplished actors from Europe or Asia who, due to their broken English, give the impression of impaired performances when they star in Hollywood films.
For example, let’s say I was a (what’s a polite term?) casual ‘murcan moviegoer who had never heard of The Last Metro, The Return of Martin Guerre or Jean de Florette, and my first awareness of Gerard Depardieu was seeing him in 102 Dalmatians. “Loved the puppies, but who was that dopey fat French dude?”
So, while Chan’s latest Hollywood vehicle, The Karate Kid inundates 3700 screens, in the meantime this splendidly acted and handsomely mounted comedy-adventure-fable from director Sheng Ding sits in the wings, awaiting U.S. distribution.
Now, 13 years later, as of this writing, I can officially count the number of Jackie Chan films I’ve seen on one hand: Police Story, Police Story 2, Drunken Master, Little Big Soldier, and his latest starring vehicle, Ride On (in theaters only).
It’s interesting kismet that Ride On (written and directed by Larry Yang) opened in the U.S. on Jackie Chan’s 69th birthday (April 7th) because on a certain level the film plays like a sentimental salute to the international action star’s 60-year career.
That is not to suggest that Chan appears on the verge of being put out to pasture; he still has energy and agility to spare. That said, the shelf life of stunt persons (not unlike professional athletes) is wholly dependent on their stamina and fortitude. It’s not likely to shock you that Chan is cast here as (wait for it) Lao, an aging movie stuntman. Lao has fallen on hard times; movie gigs have become far and few between.
The good-natured Lao and his faithful horse/stunt partner Red Hare (who he has raised from a foal) have been reduced to working odd jobs and street performing to scrape by. When an attempt to seize Red Hare as collateral escalates into an altercation between Lao and a trio of thuggish debt collectors, a cell phone video of the incident goes viral and puts Lao and Red Hare in the spotlight. Lacking the money to retain a lawyer, Lao swallows his pride and enlists his estranged daughter Bao (Liu Haocun) and her attorney boyfriend (Kevin Guo) to help him keep Red Hare. Father and daughter slowly rebuild their relationship.
While not saddled by a complex narrative, Ride On gallops right along; spurred by Chan’s charm and unbridled flair for physical comedy (sorry, I had a Gene Shalit moment). And the stunts, of course, are spectacular (in the end credits, it’s noted the film is dedicated to the craft). In one scene, Lao views a highlight reel of “his” stunt career; a collection of classic stunt sequences from Chan’s own films; it gives lovely symmetry to the film and is quite moving.
When he is enlisted to do a stunt with Red Hare on a big-budget film, Lao is aghast at the idea of CGI enhancement in post; he politely insists that the director allow him to perform the stunt au naturel. There are other self-referential touches; Lao laments that “jumping down is easy…stepping down is hard.” The film’s best line is surely a stunt man’s credo: “Action! Jump! Hospital!” I don’t know if Chan contributed that one …but he most certainly has lived it.
This quiz is for non-Chicago residents only: If I say to you “Chicago comedy scene”, what’s the first thing that comes to mind?
If you answered, “Second City”, that’s understandable. Chicago continues to be the home of the longest running (and most famous) improvisational comedy troupe, which has served as the breeding ground for a healthy number of notable actors, comedians, writers, and filmmakers.
However, ladies and gentlemen, the filmmakers behind the new documentary Out of the Loop (available on digital platforms starting April 11th) prefer to direct your attention to the Windy City’s stand-up scene, which not only boasts its own rich history, but continues to be alive and well, thank you very much.
Directed by Michael Alexander and edited and produced by Scott Perlman, the film is a fairly straightforward talking heads fest, featuring current and former Chicago-based performers like Hannibal Buress, Tom Dreesen, Marsha Warfield, TJ Miller, Megan Gailey, Jeff Garlin, Jimmy Pardo, the late Judy Tenuta, et.al. sharing personal anecdotes and giving their perspectives on Chicago’s comic voice, as it were.
What emerges is that Chicago comedy doesn’t necessarily have one identifiable voice, but rather a diversity of comedic sensibilities. This is due in no small part to distinctive “North side/South side” vibes that are delineated by cultural differences (e.g., a joke that “kills” with a predominately white audience might go over like a lead balloon with a predominately black audience, and vice-versa). While arguably, you could make the same observation regarding the comedy scene in any large metro in the U.S., Chicago also has a unique sociopolitical history. The film delves into this fascinating dichotomy a bit, but ultimately drops it.
Therein lies the problem with the film; it can’t seem to find its focus. It has its moments; the inevitable “hell gig” stories are always a hoot, and it was interesting to learn about the late Bernie Mac’s visionary impact on the scene (in fact, it felt like there was enough potential material there alone to warrant its own feature-length documentary).
Not required viewing, but I won’t heckle any avid stand-up fan who wants to give it a whirl.