For 75 years, the United States has dominated the production of World War II action comedies. There’s Spielberg’s 1941 (1979), Cary Grant and Tony Curtis in Operation Petticoat (1959), and the exquisite ensembles in The Dirty Dozen (1967), Kelly’s Heroes (1970) and Inglourious Basterds (2009), among many others. We’re such experts at painting our Nazi enemies as punch lines that it’s possible our outlook on WWII is a little myopic — other countries might want to cinematically savage their enemy aggressors and paint themselves as the heroes, too.
Now, as Hong Kong cinema expands into a formidable world power, it’s promoting its own big-budget WWII historical heroes. With heart, humor and some breathtaking special effects, Ding Sheng’s Railroad Tigers charms and thrills, pitting a merry band of Robin Hood–style peasants led by Jackie Chan in rural China against the Japanese military. The stakes will be clear to U.S. audiences, but one thing that doesn’t translate is the relentless breakneck pacing that prevents any emotional resonance from sinking in. For the heroes to really shine, they require a moment or two of quiet spotlight.
The Flying Tigers swing onto a moving train by balancing on long bamboo poles hidden just out of sight of the conductor. Ringleader Ma Yuen (Chan) and his buddies use their wits to improvise their way past the Japanese. One Tiger offers a train conductor a choice: He can either get knocked out with a hammer or pretend to be knocked out — but the bumbling conductor hits himself in the head and tumbles to the ground. “I said pretend to be dead,” the robber says. The slapstick suggests the Three Stooges or even Star Wars, with the band of rebels cracking wise as they easily eliminate the ultra-frail Stormtroopers.
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When an injured Chinese soldier ends up trapped on Ma Yuen’s property, the Tigers learn that the Chinese army desperately needs to blow up the bridge that leads into a town so the Japanese can’t get weaponry to the front lines. Eager to fight back against the oppressive Japanese regime, the Tigers take up the mission. Thus begins the long road to stealing Japanese explosives and eventually commandeering a train to demolish the bridge.
The film’s second hour is one long, nail-biting action sequence on a speeding train that has to make it to the bridge against all odds. Sheng deftly maneuvers about 15 key characters in the ensemble cast into their own mini-battles on the train, among them Fan Chuan (Wang Kai), a former Chinese military sharpshooter, who has a tense armored-tank duel — on the train! — with Japanese military captain Ken Yamaguchi (Hiroyuki Ikeuchi). I was surprised at how Tarantino-dark this Chan comedy grows, especially when it's at the expense of the bad guys: A Japanese soldier's attempt to commit seppuku fails when he cuts his hand on the sword and whimpers, “It hurts!”
Chan is remarkably subdued in his role as a humble man; it’s the supporting cast who goof in this film. He’s also not performing miraculous tumbling and punching routines here; rather, his character mostly has the strength and abilities of a regular man — though he’s set apart by his smarts. Sadly, as much as we know about Ma Yuen, it’s difficult to fully connect with him. Even when the Tigers admit to themselves that they’re on a suicide mission, the camera never lingers on anyone’s face; we always cut back to action.
The film is beautifully shot, with animated interludes evoking the primary-color block illustration of WWII propaganda posters, and American filmmakers will closely study Sheng’s action sequences. Production notes state that Chan made it his mission on set to increase recycling by 100 percent and always swept up the floors himself after shooting — that's more specifically interesting than anything his character gets to do.