I’ve always liked Jackie Chan. Sure, even his fans can admit that Chan hasn’t gotten that much of a break from Hollywood with movies like “The Spy Next Door”, “Rush Hour 3” and “The Medallion” messing up his resume and it would be hard to recover from such bad luck. Let’s be honest, Chan isn’t young anymore and he cannot pull off the same awesomeness that he used to do in movies like “Drunken Master”, “Armor Of God” and “Police Story”. His latest movie, “Little Big Soldier” does have Chan fighting but not as much as before and it may well be his best movie in 3 years. The film is based on a story by Jackie Chan and director Ding Sheng that takes off after the Warring States period in China where states such as the Wei, Liang, and Qin are determined to conquer each other.
A farmer and old soldier (played by Chan) who has been enlisted in the Liang army to do battle with the Wei army survives an encounter that ended with the annihilation of both armies. This hardheaded farmer’s actions may seem cowardly as he had played dead to avoid death in the battlefield. He does luck out when he manages to subdue the weakened Wei Prince-General (Leehom Wang) and intends to exchange him to his Liang lords for some acres of land. The two have a lot of ground to cover, and they often bicker, fight and make attempts to outsmart each other on the way. What makes the old soldier’s job more difficult is the fact that this Prince’s own younger brother is on the hunt for his head (played by Korean actor Steve Yoo) to usurp the Wei throne. Now, this old soldier is caught in the middle, as he tries to keep his captive alive to present to the Liang lords. What is a tired old soldier to do?
“Little Big Soldier” may have its ambitions pretty small but it does have a lot of heart. True, the film is pretty much a formula film; having themes of greed, betrayal and loyalty, family and need going for it but what is good is the drama that director Ding Sheng incorporates in the film. It is pretty predictable if you really consider its script but what is clever is the fact that it makes its predictable elements surprising. I guess what the direction does well for the film is the fact that it focuses on its characters rather than its plot and therefore, it finds its heart and establishes a soul as a result. Ding Sheng manages to inject a sincere humanity even to his most minor supporting character; the bad guys and most notably the two main leads; that exudes an unexpected uniqueness to its characters that then becomes rather infects the story itself.
I guess what kept the story moving is Chan’s subtle comedic antics. There are some parodies about Confucius, and the humor is perfectly timed throughout the film’s entirety; the script is quite conventional and commercial in appeal. This movie is all about Jackie Chan, you see his character grow as he learns and teaches life’s many rules to this Wei prince. One may say that the film is close to a “coming of age” drama and they wouldn’t be far from the truth. The film’s nicely utilizes the age of this “old soldier” and uses this to its advantage. He is a lot more experienced and despite the fact that he wants to be selfish, he often finds himself making the unselfish choice. It was quite nice to see one question his morals and then tries to go back to being ‘practical’; yet one’s sense of decency may have been etched in this old dog’s personality that he will often find himself making a sacrifice.
The film has some scenes of action and some of them were simple and yet impressive enough to carry the film’s pace. They weren’t anything jaw-dropping but they were the usual swordplay that Asian martial arts adventures have often portrayed; they weren‘t any grand spectacles. Yet it was still refreshing to see Chan moves as well as he does despite his age. The man can still move and while most of the action was done by Leehom Wang and the supporting cast, Chan relies on his character’s cunning brain to get himself out of a scrap. Chan isn’t a fighter in the film so much of it is just to outwit and bluff his way out of jam. This does suit Chan’s character and gets quite creative and funny in his own way. Those who are expecting an action-packed epic may be a little disappointed, since this is a movie never meant to display extravagant action scenes.
“Little Big Soldier” doesn’t pretend to be a grand epic but rather a drama with some humor that portrays some days in the life of a soldier. The direction does handle its aces quite well as we see the characters grow and form an attachment between themselves and to its viewers. The film may have some tonal shifts at times, but it didn’t bother me at all. I loved the fact that the movie was sincere in its humanity, that sometimes we think that one thing is best for us and we try to act sensible to fit our advantage but in the end, it is not what we really want. Our personalities make our decisions whether we like it or not, and once taught by experience about honor and commitment, one cannot change. Remember the old adage: “you cannot teach an old dog new tricks”? Well, in this old soldier’s case, you can’t, but he can still choose according to his character and free will.