Given Jackie Chan’s recent output, and by recent we mean the previous two decades, you’d be forgiven that alternating between the well-meaning but weak dramatic roles in Hong Kong he craves (read: New Police Story and Shinjuku Incident) and the genuinely ghastly Hollywood guff that keeps the enormous entourage of the JC stunt team in work (The Tuxedo and The Spy Next Door being but two of the worst offenders) was all that was left in the tank for the littlest of the Seven Little Fortunes. Quite the contrary; Little Big Soldier proves that the ever affable, if ageing, action star has another pearl among the pantheon of Kung Fu classics.
China, the Warring States period: just prior to the unification of China, the nation states of Liang and Wei are bashing each other to a blood-soaked standstill. Amongst the bloodbath, in another homicidal hack n’ slash fest, is an unnamed Liang soldier (Jackie Chan), the sole survivor of his state’s latest encounter with the Wei. On the opposite side is the sole survivor of the Wei army, a general (Wang Leehom). Scarpering from the scene with the wounded general bound and trussed, the simple little Liang soldier must carry his big captive half the way across China to recoup his awaiting reward of a most modest plot of land he can call his own.
However, to complicate matters (naturally), the remnants of the revengeful Wei army are in hot pursuit and wandering bandits, out for whatever they can steal, are only too willing to stand in the way of the plucky little infantryman and his fulfilled dream of a peaceful life as a toiling farmer…
Assuming the mantle of many a mediocre martial art-house epic of late, Little Big Soldier immediately upsets the applecart with some chortlesome character twists. For a start, Jackie Chan is more hamstrung humble anti-hero than handsome wuxia hero; he’s a cowardly cretin with a funny few ways to fake his own death and flee the actual nastiness of hand-to-hand combat. The Wei general fares little better: he’s is a proud but pompous political figure in the midst of a familial power struggle; his army don’t want to secure his release, they want to silence his ambitions once and for all.
Jailor and captive therefore bicker, back-chat and beat each other about the head over the course of their cross-China journey in the finest traditions of the “we-hate-each-other-at-first-but-come-to-a-common-understanding-at-the-end” buddy movie. What makes this a winner is the interplay between the comic character of Chan’s low-born wannabe farmer and Wang’s haughty high-born socialite.
Indeed, Chan is a charmingly cowardly figure whose hatred of the higher classes gets a reality check when breaking down the infuriating etiquette of his quite contrary quarry. Perhaps pertinently, this simple setup is based on a script developed by Jackie Chan himself since the time of Project A. Originally taking the place of the treacherously taciturn general, yet now far too aged to do so, the intervening years have seen the role of the older underclass character unwittingly evolve into a perfect fit for Chan.
Past his fisticuffs prime Jackie Chan may be (and the obvious use of JC stunt doubles does little to obscure this), the blend of comic Kung Fu and brilliant Buster Keaton physical comedy is nonetheless among Chan’s greatest ever work. Attacking every opportunity to amp the tired, if trusted, buddy formula, the film is an absolute delight as each of the two protagonists resort to ever more desperate measures to out do the other and realise his goal.
There is something of a sombre end to proceedings, perhaps in due deference to the pseudo-historical accuracy that the plot duly demands, but this only serves to subvert the silliness that has gone before, adding another layer to the enjoyment of this unusually coherent Hong Kong whole. What is interesting is that Jackie Chan has been here before and made an absolute hash of it (The Myth anyone?) and yet Little Big Soldier is an excellent example of why we all fell in love with the vulnerability of Jackie Chan movies in the first place.