During China's Warring States Period a cowardly soldier of the Liang (Jackie Chan) not only survives a bloodbath of a battle against the Wei, but captures their wounded general (Leehom Wang.) Hoping to turn him in to his King for a reward so that he can finally settle down to the simple life of a farmer, he drags the wounded general across Phoenix Hill, while trying to avoid the enemies that seek them out, the victims of a war-torn land, and the roving bandits who plague it.
Rumor has it, that this film has been a pet project of Jackie's stuck in development hell for nearly twenty years. While I have a hard time believing Jackie Chan would have trouble doing anything in China, this film has a level of quality to it that we haven't really seen from Jackie in nearly a decade. Essentially, this boils down to a "road" movie, with the major conflict derived from the various scrapes the two get themselves into while traveling to Liang and the relationship they build. Jackie Chan tends to get pigeon-holed into roles of with a lot of physical slapstick comedy (especially in the states,) but where he's always really shined (shone?) is in more subtle and universal situational comedy. Some of the situations this movie sets up are really conceptually fantastic, and Jackie executes them flawlessly. But straight comedy this isn't. The characters both have fully realized personalities (broad though they may be) and they are fully humanized by the end of the film. The film has things to say about the war torn time period and the type of people that live there-in. The character growth displayed is progressive throughout the film, so the character's actions by the end of the movie don't feel false. Jackie's character of the cowardly but clever pauper, and the Wang's honor-bound but weakened general play off each other in the best way, and help each other to their own epiphanies in the way a 'road' movie always aspires too, but usually fails.
One of the reasons, I think, Jackie Chan has been taking a lot of criticism from his fans lately, isn't just that his age is taking it's toll on some of the things he can do physically, but also creatively. Most of the fight scenes and stunts we've seen him do recently have been full of ideas borrowed from his older movies. (I'm getting to the point where I want to just fast forward the movie whenever he walks into a room full of vases.) There are a couple of fight scenes like that here (One where he throws rocks at his pursuers reminded me of the clog scene from 'Who Am I?' for example) but there are also sequences that are just totally clever not quite like anything he's done before. Also interesting is that his character is not the best fighter in the film, not by a long shot. His character is a coward, and even though he's a trained soldier, he's definitely out of his pay grade in most of the situations he finds himself in. It requires him to use creativity above physicality to get out of situations, and Jackie has always been the best at implementing that. The movie is light on the high profile stunts Jackie's been doing all his life, but the martial art scenes are really the same quality choreography and inventiveness that he was giving us a decade ago. If getting old means Jackie has to stop and fight more instead of escaping with parkour, then I am all for Jackie Chan getting old.
Jackie Chan has had a long and storied career to be sure, and while
there have been highlights here and there since 2000, there hasn't been much he could really hang his hat on and say "This is a movie I can be proud is in my filmography." 'Little Big Soldier' is a complete success of a film, something that reminds us of why we fell in love with Jackie Chan in the first place, and arguably his best film since 'Legend of the Drunken Master.'
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