Trains! They seem to be the latest big thing in Chinese cinema, but at least Railroad Tigers (铁道飞虎, Tiědào Fēi Hǔ) has more rolling stock on offer than the disappointingly CGI enhanced effort which formed the finale of The Vanished Murderer. The latest collaboration between the iconic but ageing Jackie Chan and director Ding Sheng, Railroad Tigers is a kind of western/war movie in which a gang of robin hood style railway bandits decide to get involved with the resistance movement during the ongoing Japanese invasion in 1941. Keeping the action to a minimum and stepping into the background for this comedy ensemble caper, Jackie channels Keaton but makes sure to backup this humorous yarn with a degree of pathos for these fatalistic patriots.
Ma Yuan (Jackie Chan) is a railway worker at a large interstation currently operated by the Japanese. He and his men hatch elaborate plots to raid the incoming supply trains for foodstuffs and Japanese military equipment, but what they’re mostly doing is laughing at their captors rather than actively opposing them. When they return home one day to find a wounded resistance soldier collapsed in their courtyard, the game changes as they decide to help him complete his “secret” mission to blow up a local bridge. Eventually teaming up with a local noodle shop owner who used to be a dashing, sharp shooting hero bodyguard for a defeated warlord, the gang take on the entirety of the Japanese military in Manchuria armed with little more than good humour and hope.
If you were hoping for a nuanced take on the Japanese forces operating in China in the quite climactic year of 1941, you’d best look elsewhere because Railroad Tigers is another bumper outing for the “comedy Kempeitai” who, on the basis of the evidence here provided, could not successfully occupy their own uniforms for any great length of time. Hiroyuki Ikeuchi plays the local commander, Yamaguchi, with the necessary degree of moustache twirling, scenery munching hamminess which the ridiculous set up requires before being joined by the evil and improbable presence of a top female Kempeitai officer, Yuko (Zhang Lanxin), who mostly exists to provide the icy steel so obviously absent from her completely ridiculous countrymen. By and large the gang’s opposition pose very little real threat from the stationmaster who’s always in trouble for smiling too much, to the buffoonish soldier who fails to complete his harakiri because it looks too painful.
Somewhere between the classic western train robbery set piece and the derailment dramas familiar to the resistance movie, Railroad Tigers positions itself as a broad comedy in which it’s slapstick humour rather than high octane thrills which take centre stage. Thus Jackie takes down opponents by jokingly unloading their guns or accidentally knocking them over the side of the train. Enemies are downed as much by trickery as by skill, with several meeting an ignominious end such as being shot in the bum or simply running away. What it lacks in innovative action, Railroad Tigers makes up for with silly comedy set pieces making the most of the real-life father son comradery between Jackie and the recently disgraced Jaycee such as in a slapstick interrogation sequence where they argue about their distinctive noses and which of them is the most handsome.
Wildly uneven in terms of pace, Railroad Tigers takes its time to get moving as we’re introduced to the members of Ma Yuan’s team and their various oppositing counterparts, many of them under drawn in the already crowded rosta. Ding signposts each of the major players with a comic book style illustrated splash featuring names and occupations which is echoed in the stylishly illustrated title sequence and handful of animated segments which follow as well as in the video game style mission heading title cards. Inexplicably, the film begins with a modern day framing sequence of a young boy on a school trip to a train museum in which he wanders off and climbs inside a train, finding the flying tiger marker chalked on the coal hatch. Otherwise redundant and offering little concrete value, the sequence seems only to exist as an excuse for a ten second cameo from one of Hong Kong’s biggest stars. Still, even if far too long, old fashioned in execution and occasionally plagued by substandard CGI, Railroad Tigers does offer enough silly humour and low stakes action to make it fun for all the family, even if guilty of overdoing the patriotic fervour in its lightweight approach to a traumatic era.
International trailer (English subtitles)