Preliminary thoughts on the late-period Jackie Chan film SKIPTRACE

To live as a Jackie Chan superfan in the 21st century means travelling a lonely road, armed only with a cast-iron spirit and unconquerable soul. I made a decision long ago to stick with Hong Kong’s most famous export through thick and thin, ’til death do we part, and the journey has mostly taken me through rocky terrain. Though I’ve basked in the lukewarm breeze of The Karate Kid, The Forbidden Kingdom, Shinjuku Incident, and Little Big Soldier, and adapted to the damp, soggy conditions of New Police Story, Shaolin, and Dragon Blade, I’ve also suffered through the long winter frost of The Tuxedo, Rush Hour 3, The Spy Next Door, The Myth, The Medallion, Robin-B-Hood, and Chinese Zodiac (although, to be honest, that one was kinda funny), and the cataclysmic Biblical downpour of Chan’s politics (detailed in this powerful #longread by yours truly).

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Academy Award winner Jackie Chan

Even incurable Chanologists like myself have learned to expect mostly disappointment from our hero by now, but that’s not really the point. Since it’s unrealistic to expect a 62-year-old action star to keep the ol’ pulse racing, or to hope that the world’s second-highest-paid actor will drop everything and start working with Jia Zhang-ke, the pleasure of Chanology now rests in watching this most famous of Chinese actors adapt to the whims of fashion, politics, and history. Since his first screen appearance in 1962*, he has amassed a body of work that is far greater than the sum of its parts — a filmography that charts the evolution of the Hong Kong and Chinese film industries, and a brand that has become globally popular while remaining profoundly Chinese.

With this in mind, I was particularly eager to see Skiptrace, the latest film from what I’ll call Chan’s People’s Republic Period. Chan’s recent work has combined his patented action/comedy template with hilariously didactic political sermonizing, travelogue vistas of The Beautiful And Historic Sights In Your Chinese Vacation Package™, and past-their-prime Hollywood actors (Dragon Blade’s John Cusack and Adrien Brody, Chinese Zodiac’s Oliver Platt) in a bid for the American market. A baldfaced attempt to recapture some of that Rush Hour magic, Skiptrace is the story of an elderly Chinese cop and a middle-aged American gambler who run around China looking very tired. In the Chris Tucker/Owen Wilson slot, we have Johnny Knoxville, in a part once earmarked for Seann William Scott. In the director’s chair, instead of one of Chan’s usual stable of journeymen (your Stanley Tongs, your Benny Chans, your Ding Shengs), we have Renny Harlin, onetime director of Die Hard 2 and Cliffhanger, now passing the time until retirement with whatever international co-productions he can find. And yet despite the presence of so many saleable elements, a Chan/Knoxville/Harlin buddy-cop comedy was apparently deemed too 2002 for even a one-week contractually-obligated run at the Carlton Cinema. I’m not saying that I resorted to less-than-legal means to see it, but I am saying that someone I know might have torrented it, and might have pressed “Play” while I was in the room, and my head might have been facing the TV screen for the next 107 minutes.

Chan stars as Benny Chan (no relation to the aformentioned Bennie Chan), a Hong Kong cop, and in the opening scenes he watches as his partner is killed by a mysterious mob boss called “the Matador” (I wouldn’t dream of revealing if the fact that his partner dies in the opening scene but is played by fourth-billed Eric Tsang means that he might still be alive). Nine years later, Chan is still in mourning when he learns that his partner’s daughter (Chinese megastar Fan Bingbing, not breaking much of a sweat) has run afoul of the Matador’s crime syndicate. Chan suspects the murderer is corrupt Hong Kong businessman Victor Wong, and to nab his target, he must recruit a shady American gambler (Johnny Knoxville) who witnessed a murder in Wong’s casino to testify.

Here are a few more bullet points: Knoxville is in trouble with some bad people for getting a Russian mobster’s daughter pregnant. Chan must transport from Macau to Hong Kong while fending off mobsters from both Russia and Hong Kong, while also keeping Knoxville from escaping. Along the way, they visit the Gobi Desert, a Kongming lantern festival, the Monihei Carnival, and other Sites Of Historical And Cultural Interest. Nobody stops to ask why Chan is at least 35 years older than his coworkers.

With rigorous efficiency, the movie hits most of the beats from Midnight Run. There are such classic comedy perennials as a scene where our heroes have to jump from a moving train, and a scene where they ride a raft down some rapids while fleeing the police (don’t ask). There are emotional moments, as when Knoxville finally agrees to testify against Victor Wong because of his friendship with Chan, despite the fact that they have shown no warmth or chemistry. Most of the comedy is delegated to Johnny Knoxville, and the comic high point comes when some kids dump a pail of mud on him and he growls, “Why you little…” with full Moe Howard gusto.

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The action scenes are pretty damn limp, but since Chan is a 62-year-old man who presumably lives in a state of constant pain, it’s nice that he can still raise his arms to punch. I particularly enjoyed the parts when he jumped between railings. Any morsel, I’ll take it. There is some embarrassingly bad CGI in which Chan and Knoxville ride a zipline between two cliffs, which almost tauntingly invokes a similar scene from Chan’s Supercop. I’m happy to report that he still indulges in his fondness for wild mugging, particularly in several scenes in which he and other characters are kicked/whacked in the balls.

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Classic comedy

Otherwise, Chan plays it disappointingly straight, and his English line-readings rival his legendarily stilted delivery of “I’ve brought down dictators! How bad could three kids be?” from The Spy Next Door. As for the chemistry between Chan and Knoxville, the less said the better. My colleague/podcast cohost Justin Decloux speculates that they were CGI-ed together in most of their shots.

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You can’t prove they were really there.

For Chanologists, Skiptrace will be of interest as a faded simulacrum of a certain kind of Jackie Chan movie, as well as a lesson in the unforgiving nature of time and context. Though not significantly worse than, say, Rush Hour 3, it feels (if possible) like even less of a living text than that was. Not unlike Steven Seagal’s recent movies, the only way to make sense of Skiptrace is to project our memories of its star as a younger man onto the sixtysomething martial artist onscreen, and to nostalgically dip into the reservoir of goodwill generated from earlier his earlier films in this template. Incidentally, news has just broken that Chan will soon be returning to the Shanghai Noon franchise.

The film’s other most important contribution to Chan’s legacy is the scene in which he sings “Rolling in the Deep.”

*(First film: the now-lost Big and Little Wong Tin Bar, in which Chan, age 8, appeared with his Chinese Opera classmates)

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