An “Odd Couple”-cum-martial-arts-road movie set some 2,000 years ago during the end of China’s chaotic Warring States era, “Little Big Soldier” is a Jackie Chan vehicle without any surprises. Wisely bowing to the demands of age, the 55-year-old star soft-pedals stunts in favor of characterization, here as a vet soldier who captures an enemy general for prize money. An easy sit, with regular action, a light tone but an unattractive, bleached look, “Soldier” is forgettable even before it’s finished, with the feel almost of a kidpic. The film just bowed in Asia and looks unlikely to conquer any markets for long.The most surprising thing is that the writer-helmer is Ding Sheng, who made one of 2008′s most original genre-benders, “The Underdog Knight.” Not for the first time, any trace of a director’s personal style has been eliminated in a Chan production, which has the fingerprints of the Hong Kong star (who’s mulled the pic’s idea for two decades) all over it: as lead actor, producer, exec producer, action director, story source and even “ox dubbing.” Huh? Like the vastly superior Warring States drama “The Warlords,” the pic opens on a bloody battlefield in 227 B.C. where a soldier from Liang state (Chan), takes captive and patches up a defeated general (American-Chinese singer-songwriter Wang Leehom) from the rival state of Wei. Proud and snooty, and certain he’s been betrayed by his own side, the general attempts suicide but ends up being carted by the soldier back on the long road to Liang. The soldier aims to claim a reward and buy a plot of land to farm. The rest of the film basically consists of their perilous journey, as they’re pursued by louche, corrupt Prince Wen of Wei (South Korea rap star Steve Yoo) and his heavies and briefly sidetracked by a mysterious songstress (Lin Peng, debuting in a peripheral role), meanwhile fighting their way out of every corner. Oh, and along the way, they really come to respect each other in between spats, brawls and double-crosses. This being a Chan picture, political correctness is prominent; the soldier refuses to kill a pregnant bunny even when he’s starving, cosseting a baby sparrow and singing the virtues of being “a normal person” (unlike all the power-mad, vicious types en route). The aw-shucks quotient — presumably aimed at Chan’s younger viewers — is high, despite all the fighting for survival. Largely staged in dusty locations, the action is nimble but unmemorable, apart from one sequence featuring the aforementioned ox, and chemistry between the two leads OK without being at all involving. In fact, the whole film is permeated by a seen-it/done-it feel, down to Chan’s cheeky nimbleness and the usual end-crawl outtakes, which pushes its luck trying to charm. Realistic design, down to military duds and the overall grungy look, is already a cliche in mainland-shot costumers, though handled well enough. Chinese title literally means “Big Soldier, Little General.”
A Polybona/Huaxia Film Distribution Co. release (in China) of a Jackie & JJ Prods., Media-Television (Hong Kong)/Beijing Dragon Garden Culture & Art Co., Beijing Universe Starlight Culture Media, Talent Intl. Film Co., Universal Culture Co. (China). (International sales: Jackie & JJ, Hong Kong.) Produced by Jackie Chan, Solon So, Zhang Zhe. Executive producer, Chan. Co-exec producers, Sun Yuannong, Wu Hongliang, Kay Zhao, Peter Cheung, Li Guiping. Co-producers, Sun, Esmond Ren, Zhang Xiang. Directed, written by Ding Sheng, from a story by Jackie Chan.
Camera (color, widescreen), Zhao Xiaoding; editor, Ding; music, Xiao Ke; production designer, Sun Li; costume designer, Wang Yi; sound (Dolby Digital), Wu Ling, Chen Chen; action director, Chan; visual effects, Daysview Digital Image (Beijing); visual effects supervisor, Sam Wang; associate producer, Wendy Wong. Reviewed at Berlin Film Festival (Berlinale Special), Feb. 16, 2010. Running time: 95 MIN.
Jackie Chan, Wang Leehom, Steve Yoo, Lin Peng, Du Yuming, Jin Song, Xu Dongmei, Low Houi-kang, Yu Rongguang, Wu Yue, Wang Baoqiang, Niu Ben. (Mandarin dialogue)