“Jumping down is easy, stepping down is hard” an ageing stuntman reflects in Larry Yang’s meta Jackie Chan vehicle Ride On (龙马精神, lóngmǎjīngshén). The Chinese title, like the English, may hint at late career resurgence but the film at times feels more like a swan song for Chan himself as it lovingly looks back at some of his greatest action hits while gently suggesting that his era may have passed in this new age of CGI and greater awareness of health and safety regulations. 

That does certainly seem to be the case for his stand-in, Luo, who has fallen on hard times following serious injury and financial ruin. These days he mainly works as an extra and supplements his income posing for photographs with his beloved horse Red Hare whom he saved from being euthanised at birth and has raised since he was a foal. When the twin forces of vicious loansharks and a weird, wealthy businessman who collects horses come calling for Red Hare it’s like they want to take the last dregs of Luo’s legacy away from him all of which forces Luo to reconnect with his estranged daughter Bao (Liu Haocun), a law student engaged to a rookie lawyer. 

The familial themes play into those of celebrating the brotherhood of stuntmen (and one woman) as one large family who must necessarily take care of each other given that their line of work is incredibly high risk. Yet it’s also true that Luo’s reconciliation with Bao seems to come too easily given her original animosity towards him for being unable to play the role of father to her seeing as her parents separated when she was an infant and she’s met him only a handful of times in her life. Nevertheless, she’s quickly won over by Red Hare even if perhaps identifying a little with him as Luo refers to the horse as his “son” only to belatedly realise that he may have been mistreating him by forcing him to perform dangerous stunts pretty much against his will despite his obvious affection for him. 

Likewise, Bao comes to a new appreciation of her father after watching videos of his old stunts many of which show him incurring serious injuries. The clips are all famous scenes from Chan’s movies such as the shopping mall jump from Police Story or the bus and umbrella stunt which are posited as the glory days of action cinema, yet from a modern perspective we might ask ourselves if all this risk is worth it for simple entertainment even if as Luo later suggests it’s the risk that makes the action entertaining. After getting back on the horse, literally, Luo is offered a series of new stunt jobs one of which requires him to perform a dangerous jump on a badly designed set, while on another he’s told he doesn’t need to perform the dangerous part because they’ll fill in the rest with CGI. Luo is outraged and insists on performing the stunt in camera only to think better of it when considering that he’s making a decision on Red Hare’s behalf that he might not have the right to make. 

The film laments the passing of the age of daredevil stuntmen, but there is a minor irony in the fact that Ride On makes fair use of CGI itself as it fully admits in the closing outtakes which feature several stagehands dressed in green to be erased later. It’s also less a celebration of stunt people than it is of Chan himself and his legendary career as an action star which may be nearing its end which would be fair enough seeing as Chan is now 69 years and clearly making (occasional) use of stunt doubles. Nevertheless, there’s an undeniable sweetness in the relationship between Bao and her fiancé Mickey (Guo Qilin) as they commit themselves to saving Red Hare and forge new familial bonds with the rough and ready Luo that echo the themes of familial reconciliation even if letting Luo off the hook a little too easily for his absence from his daughter’s life. “Stepping down” might be hard, but it doesn’t necessarily mean walking away completely only entering a new phase of compassion and solidarity and not least for a wily horse in search of a loving home.

Ride On is in UK cinemas now courtesy of CineAsia.

UK trailer (English subtitles)

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