“I never would have figured you for an Adele fan.”
As the much awaited Rush Hour 4 hasn’t materialised yet and the third of the Shanghai trilogy, Shanghai Dawn, has just been announced for what feels like the millionth time (I’ll believe it when I see it) the well of once prevalent Jackie Chan buddy action comedies has dried up. Until now that is. Taking us back to the late nineties/early 2000s is Skiptrace, a film that has all the components of Chan’s Chinese-American action comedies of yesteryear just without the reliable presence of Chris Tucker or Owen Wilson. Plus it’s been years since Chan was making these types of films. Chan running rings around his hapless yank co-star is one of the reasons these films were so good but even Rush Hour 3 (arguably the end of the Chan-buddy genre) was almost ten years ago. Is Chan past it now?
Luckily the answer is an resounding ‘no’. Maybe our mere mortal bodies will run out of steam when we get to 60 but not Chan. Things are ever so slightly slower than back in his heyday, and the stunts aren’t quite as big, but Chan hasn’t missed a beat. The master of action comedy has still got it and the fights are as energetic as ever. The films stand out action scene comes when Chan’s Bennie goes to Russia to retrieve American con man and key witness Connor Watts (Johnny Knoxville) who has evidence that would take down popular billionaire Victor Wong (Winston Chao). Bennie believes Wong is actually ‘the Matador’, a ruthless crime boss responsible for his partner’s hilarious death at the beginning of the film. After a superb and physics defying sequence where Chan wheels Knoxville around in a large bin, fighting the bad guys using his fists, feet, and Knoxville’s trash receptacle, the action is moved to a babushka doll factory (this is Russia after all). Chan climbs up things, rolls over things, jumps on things, all with the agility of a man half his age. The choreography is stellar as always, and Chan and the stunt team use the environment and verticality of the industrial factory space to great effect. The scene is full of Chan’s trademark comedy fighting, with one babushka doll related punch up being laugh out loud funny. This is the film’s best moment but other scenes shine too. The opening scene sees Chan fighting inside houses floating on a Hong Kong river, culminating in Chan jumping out of each one in turn as they collapse like dominoes. How much is actually Chan at this point is disputable, especially in this age of film making when disguising a stunt person is very easy. But at least most of it looks like Chan, and judging from Chan’s record on doing his only stunts. I don’t think he’d have it any other way.
Behind the camera on Skiptrace is journeyman director Renny Harlin. Like Brett Ratner, the director of Chan’s Rush Hour trilogy, Harlin used to be a man you’d get to direct your film if you wanted a safe, reliable, and perhaps a somewhat unspectacular approach. It’s not a bad thing like some critics would have you believe; not that every director has to be an auteur. And these types of directors have directed some of my favourite films of the past couple of decades. Martin Campbell, arguably the best of the journeymen directors, is responsible for brilliant films like The Mask of Zorro and two of the best Bond films ever; Goldeneye and Casino Royale. He’d come in, do a great job, and then move on to the next studio project. Renny Harlin is more of a mixed bag. He’s got some solid action work under his belt with Die Hard 2, Cliffhanger, and the extremely underrated The Long Kiss Goodnight. But he’s had some misfires too (The Legend of Hercules, 12 Rounds) and at least one film that’s destroyed an entire studio (Cutthroat Island). Skiptrace isn’t bad though and Harlin looks like he’s trying at least some of the time. The film is marred by dodgy editing at times and a few questionable green screen scenes but Harlin does a good job for the most part. He shoots the action clearly, letting the awesome choreography be seen, and there are enough nice shots of Mongolia and China that you begin to wonder if the film was funded by the East Asian tourism department. It won’t do for Mongolia what Lord of the Rings did for New Zealand but it’s harmless enough, and these places really do look wonderful.
The American half of this Chinese-American co-production is Johnny Knoxville. He plays Connor Watts, an American con man and gambler, a role originally meant for Seann William Scott. No stranger to being the funny sidekick to an action hero (see: Walking Tall, The Last Stand) the unfortunately underrated Knoxville is great once again here. The years of Jackass have prepared him well for slapstick style of Chan’s films and him falling over or getting hit will never not be funny. The whole film is pretty funny, mainly due to the interaction between Chan and Knoxville. While not quite the Chan/Tucker level from Rush Hour, the chemistry between the two of them is great. They’re obviously having a great time and it shows. There’s a bit of random humour in there, mostly funny due to the sheer strangeness of it. There’s a strange sub-plot involving Knoxville’s character getting a Russian mobster’s daughter pregnant and an even stranger moment where Chan breaks out into song with a surprisingly good rendition of Adele’s ‘Rolling in the Deep’ while camping with a Mongolian tribe. Soon everyone’s singing and you sort of just go with it at that point. Chan’s music career is massive in his homeland of China so I can only assume this was the reason for it’s inclusion. Whatever the reason though, it’s hard not to crack a smile.
The bottom line: Skiptrace isn’t going to win any awards. The plot is paper thin and barely even worth mentioning. But that’s not why you watch a Jackie Chan buddy movie. Like the Rush Hour films before it, Skiptrace is an excuse to watch two funny and likeable leads kick people in the face and goof around for 2 hours. Knoxville and Chan are hilarious together and the action is as good as you expect from Chan and his stunt team. Skiptrace will take you right back to the simpler times when movies had outtakes during the credits and action movies had some humour to them. Just now with added Adele.