Original title: Jue di tao wang
D: Renny Harlin / 107m
Cast: Jackie Chan, Johnny Knoxville, Bingbing Fan, Eric Tsang, Eve Torres, Winston Chao, Youn Junghoon, Shi Shi, Michael Wong, Kuo Pin Chao
Here’s a question for you: when did you last enjoy – really enjoy – a Jackie Chan movie? Was it Dragon Blade (2015)? Or Chinese Zodiac (2012) perhaps. Or was it even further back? The Karate Kid (2010) maybe. If it’s been even further back, don’t worry, it’s likely you’re not on your own.
Back in 2012, Chan told reporters at the Cannes Film Festival that Chinese Zodiac was going to be his last action movie. He was getting too old, and he felt the world was “too violent”. And for a whole year it seemed that Chan was sticking to his word… and then he went and made Police Story: Lockdown (2013). So much for that, then. And now he’s back again with another action movie, Skiptrace, and this time, it’s… practically dead on arrival.
Let’s try another question: when did you last enjoy – really enjoy – a Renny Harlin movie? Was it The Legend of Hercules (2014) Or Devil’s Pass (2013)? Or something from the time when his name on a picture was reason enough to see it, say back in the Nineties. Unlike Chan, Harlin has never announced his “retirement” from action movies, and now he’s back with Skiptrace, and this time… well, you get the picture.
There are many, many, many movies that are made because somebody somewhere thought they would be a good idea. Movies like Skiptrace, which are made both for a domestic market (in this case, China and Hong Kong) and a wider, international market, show up each and every year. Some succeed in gaining that wider, international success the makers hope for – the Internal Affairs trilogy, for example – while the majority barely make an impact. In between are movies such as Skiptrace, with its bankable, internationally famous star; less bankable but still well-known co-star; even less bankable but still fairly well-known director-for-hire; country-hopping locations; uninspired action set-pieces; and a patience-testing script that has no intention of making any kind of sense at any point in the movie.
The plot, such as it is, has Chan’s dogged cop, Bennie Chan, still trying to avenge the death of his partner (Tsang) at the hands of criminal mastermind the Matador. Nine years have passed since that terrible event, and Bennie has spent the years since in trying to prove that high-profile businessman and philanthropist Victor Wong (Chao) is the Matador. Of course he’s been unsuccessful, and his latest attempt leads to the kind of property destruction that warrants his being told to take a month’s leave of absence. In the meantime, his deceased partner’s daughter, Samantha (Fan), has infiltrated Wong’s organisation in an attempt to find some evidence against him… but she’s drawn a blank too. It’s not until con man and gambler Connor Watts (Knoxville) turns up at a casino run by Wong and witnesses a murder that Bennie has a solid chance of bringing Wong to justice.
So far, so straightforward. But the script, already over-complicating things by having Bennie as Samantha’s guardian, introduces us to Connor by putting him in jeopardy in Russia thanks to an ill-advised relationship with a mobster’s daughter. A series of non-linear flashbacks to the previous twenty-four hours reveals Connor’s actions at the casino (including winning a large amount of money), his meeting Samantha, trying to avoid the Russian mobster’s goons (out to bring him back to Russia so he can be put in jeopardy), witnessing a murder in the process, and coming into possession of a mobile phone that will reveal the identity of the Matador. Too much already? Don’t worry, there’s more – much more.
What follows is a tortuous road movie that sees Bennie and Connor eventually learn to respect and admire each other, and which takes in such locations/developments as the Russian bowling alley where Connor finds himself in peril, a train that both men jump from as soon as they hear the ticket inspector approaching, buying the slowest vehicle in Mongolia without ensuring it has enough petrol to get them anywhere, an encounter with a group of Mongolian tribespeople (more of which later), a game of bluff and double bluff at the Chinese border that sees them arrested, their opportune “rescue” by the Russian mobster’s goons, a whitewater raft ride, and eventually, a zipline escape from Wong’s men.
There’s more still, but it’s all too tiring, a series of desperate attempts by the screenplay – step forward writers Jay Longino and BenDavid Grabinski, whose first collaboration this is – to keep viewers from nodding off or asking themselves why they’re still watching after the first half an hour. If the events listed in the previous paragraph sound exciting, don’t be fooled: even handled by Harlin, not exactly a slouch when it comes to action movies, those sequences lack energy and are shot through with the kind of slapstick humour that Chan’s movies are famous for. And it needs to be said: Chan is getting on. His decision to “retire” back in 2012 should have been followed through, because in Skiptrace you can see just how slow he’s become. The speed and intricacy of his past fight scenes are absent here, with blows and parries signposted well in advance and Chan being given more than enough time to get into position for each.
And then there’s the encounter with the Mongolian tribespeople. It’s a standard sequence to begin with, a misunderstanding leading to Connor and then Bennie squaring up against the tribe’s best fighters. The misunderstanding is resolved and the tribespeople take to the pair as if they were long-lost relatives. A feast ensues, and after a few too many drinks, Bennie begins to sing a song. A young woman joins him, and soon everyone is singing along as well, word perfect and in perfect harmony. The song is Adele’s Rolling in the Deep, and it’s possibly the most bizarre moment you’ll ever see, and hear, in a Jackie Chan movie. It’s also the best example of how haphazardly the script has been assembled, with sequences obviously arrived at and decided on before a plot was actually dreamt up.
Like so many of these productions, the editing is the worst aspect of all, leaving the movie looking like a cinematic patchwork, with shots truncated and poorly framed, and the performances (such as they are) suffering as a consequence. Chan is his usual amiable self, unstretched by the material, while Knoxville’s comic relief portrayal of Connor serves as a reminder that when a script is this bad the actor doesn’t have a way of countering it. Elsewhere, the supporting cast do what they can with their underwritten roles, with only ex-WWE wrestler Torres standing out thanks to her impressive physicality. Harlin is a bland presence in the director’s chair, his regular visual flair absent from the mix. It’s hard to believe that this is the same man who directed Die Hard 2 (1990) and The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996). But then, it’s hard to think of anyone who could have made something even halfway decent from the material on offer.
Rating: 3/10 – not the finest moment in Chan’s career, Skiptrace is hard to sit through and barely acceptable as entertainment; with all the vitality of a contractual obligation, the movie crams in a surfeit of incidents that, ordinarily, would keep at least another two movies happy – but ultimately, it doesn’t have any idea of what to do with them.