A peak in Jackie Chan’s U.S. movie stardom was “Shanghai Noon,” an amiable buddy action comedy that hung on the odd-couple chemistry between his straight-arrow Chinese emigre hero and Owen Wilson’s laconic, genially slippery Wild West outlaw. It was a pairing successful enough to prompt a sequel (“Shanghai Knights” in 2003), and now a sort of loose revamp in “Skiptrace.” But 16 years after “Noon,” the 62-year-old star’s boyish freneticism has finally succumbed to an understandable air of fatigue; it falls to new co-star Johnny Knoxville to take the majority of pratfalls, and supply the principal comic energy.
But then there’s energy to spare, if not much gray matter, in this amiable buddy action comedy wherein Chan’s straight-arrow Hong Kong cop is captor, then comrade to Knoxville’s genially slippery Yank con man. As directed by Renny Harlin, this HK-U.S.-China co-production is a perpetual-motion-machine of formulaic ideas that has a James Bond-ian reliance on showing off one exotic international location after another, albeit in the service of an adventure that serves up a lot more slapstick than martinis. Glossy, colorful, and forgettable, “Skiptrace” is the kind of movie that gives you your money’s worth in sheer eager-to-please entertainment even as you roll eyes at the nth kick-to-the-crotch gag. The whopping $62 million it reportedly pulled in last weekend’s China opening is unlikely to be equaled elsewhere, but nonetheless the film should score around the globe as Chan’s biggest live-action vehicle in some time. It opens in the U.S. on Sept. 2 (several weeks after its July 28 DirecTV launch), with other territories following through early 2017.
Things start unpromisingly on a rote “must avenge my partner” note with Bennie Chan (Chan) failing to rescue police colleague Yung (Eric Tsang) from an apparent trap by elusive crime kingpin the Matador. As Yung nobly plunges to a presumed watery grave, he makes Bennie promise to look after his motherless daughter. Nine years later, Bennie is still obsessively trying to expose the Matador’s real identity, which he believes to be business tycoon Victor Wong (Winston Chao). But this leads him and his younger colleagues (Shi Shi, Kuo Pin Chao) into a bungled quayside drug-deal raid that causes maximum property damage while uncovering no hard evidence whatsoever.
Meanwhile, Yung’s now-grown daughter, Samantha (Bingbing Fan), is working semi-undercover at a lavish Macau gambling palace, likewise hoping to find some connection between its owner, Wong, and her father’s death. She ends up being pulled into the fracas that ensues when rhinestone cowboy-styled Yank Connor Watts (Knoxville) witnesses a murder on-site, while fleeing Russian mobsters after cleaning out the casino’s coffers. This results in Connor being hauled off to Siberia, Samantha being kidnapped, and Bennie being forced to pursue Connor in order to save Samantha, as well as resolve the Matador mystery once and for all.
Most of “Skiptrace” is a road comedy in which Chan drags the frequently handcuffed yet endlessly tricky Knoxville back southward toward Hong Kong. En route, they traverse eastern Russia, the Mongolian steppes, the Gobi Desert and more, by train, car, horse, foot, and inflated-pigskin raft—finding some sort of cultural festival or other spectacle everywhere they go. As gratuitous as it is undeniably enjoyable, this travelogue eye-candy is matched by the busy randomness of the incidents suffered along the way, which range from myriad stunt-driven action set-pieces to a nomadic yurt-village populace spontaneously bursting into Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep.” Jay Longino and BenDavid Grabinski’s script tosses in references to everything from prior Chan vehicles to “Titanic” and (inevitably) “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.”
Chan’s dedication to the tastes proven of mass audiences has resulted in more than a few generic, by-committee-type exercises, particularly among those aimed largely at Western viewers. Long-in-the-works “Skiptrace,” which at earlier points was to be directed by Sam Fell (“ParaNorman”), with Seann William Scott in the role Knoxville inherited, initially has that uninspired feel of trying to check off too many boxes with too many well-worn genre tropes.
But what at first seems strained grows reasonably breezy and likable after a while, as the two stars find their comedy chemistry (not unlike that of Chan and Chris Tucker in his other big Hollywood hit, the “Rush Hour” movies). Some good throwaway gags surface, and the noisy, large set-pieces acquire a goofy charm in their sheer bulk, a la “Fantasia’s” hippopotamus in a tutu. There are some amusingly outré subsidiary villains, like WWE “diva” Eve Torres as an Amazonian Russian bruiser. And if Chan’s own antic esprit is a little dimmer these days — it’s a miracle he’s not living in a permanent full-body cast after 50-plus years of martial mayhem onscreen— Knoxville picks up the slack with impressive zeal. His “Jackass” roots are amply apparent in a game turn that includes the routine indignities of being stowed in a runaway rolling trashcan, and having to open a factory door with his mouth.
Some high-profile flops have turned Harlin into a glib “world’s worst director” punchline, alongside Uwe Boll and Michael Bay. Yet while he’s made no shortage of disposable films, he’s arguably never made a dull one. “Skiptrace” remains lively, diverting, and essentially good-natured even when it’s cheerfully dumb, exploiting its diverse locations for every last drop of local color. Stunt and FX work aren’t always completely convincing, but any action bit that falls a bit flat as a result (like the early domino-collapse of dockside houses, or a too-obviously green-screened voyage across a gorge via suspension rope) is quickly forgotten in the film’s hurtling-forward momentum.
The general silliness is underlined by some broadly jokey soundtrack choices, typical of an overall package that is resourcefully and professionally splashy if not always classy. Along with the usual blooper clips, the end credits sport a dedication to Chan Kwok-hung, a cinematographer and longtime Chan collaborator who died in a drowning accident during the film’s production.