Little Big Soldier (Hong Kong, 2010)

A script twenty years in the making, Little Big Soldier, Jackie Chan’s 99th film, sees the action-legend takes the role of the titular Big, with young actor Wang Lee-Hom playing Little, a role Jackie originally envisioned for himself back in his prime. After a recent run of smaller, more mature roles in films such as the dark drama Shinjuku Incident (2009) and martial arts epic Shaolin (2011), how does Chan’s historical buddy-picture pet project sit amongst his recent output ?

With a fresh-faced director on board (Ding Sheng) and boasting some familiar faces to Hong Kong cinema fans (Jackie’s at-one-point bodyguard Ken Lo and Iron Monkey himself, Yu Rong-Guang, show up in small roles), Little Big Soldier at first, seems like any other typical, modern day Hong Kong/China co-production. An epic historical backstory, battlefields littered with debris of war, fallen soldiers, lavish period costumes and grandiose landscapes all show up within the opening moments of the film and serve to introduce us not to an ongoing war, but surprisingly, only two men. To my and most audiences’ shock, what narratively unravels over the course of 90 minutes is not a high stakes battle, but a quiet road movie. Instead of warring sides and the plight or victory of a certain tribe, we have human conflict.  What really matters here is the relationship between two soldiers on opposing sides of a war and the growth, learning and eventual understanding they both go through.

Big, a Liang soldier, is billed at first as a coward, a man who runs away from battle by faking death by all types of comedic means (which, whilst fun, are very downplayed and fitting to the overall tone of the film), but who is also faced with the task of transporting the tough, hard-nosed Wei General (Wang Lee-Hom).  Big has captured the injured General and both are on a long journey back so Big can turn him in and collect a reward. Chan’s performance here is arguably one of the best of his career. His almost fatherly relationship with Wang’s character is mature, sweet and suited to a man of his age, a common trait in a handful of Chan’s performances of the last few years. Whilst other characters appear here and there, either to engage our characters in battle or to further move the plot, nothing really makes a dramatic mark as much as the relationship between the two leads.

In regards to a normally integral element of a Jackie Chan vehicle, the action in the film is well suited to nearly 60-year old performer: small, tiny stunts and fight scenes punctuate the drama, with a little prop work and tasteful, comedic moments speckled throughout. None of this action ever gets in the way of plot nor feels showy or distanced from narrative events taking place. My only one true complaint regarding the film is that, for how beautiful and cinematic the landscapes are, the cinematography remains drenched in a murky, uninspired green hue throughout the film. This choice of color palette felt unnecessary and, at times, made for bland visuals though I can understand this choice as the director’s attempt to downplay everything, but the core of the story and the grim situations our protagonists face.

To sum up, Little Big Soldier is an engaging, low-key buddy-drama with a handful of heartfelt moments and packing great chemistry between the two leads.  Aside from some possible bewilderment from audiences expecting a historical war-epic, the film is a success on nearly every level it attempts to explore. Dropping the overt hysterics of previous dramatic performances and adapting a more graceful and emotionally subtle acting style, Jackie Chan continues to make further headway in the tricky leap from court jester to elder statesmen. Balancing commercial, Hollywood vehicles with smaller roles in more restrained, dramatic affairs is never an easy one, but it seems, judging by the output of the past couple of years, the veteran performer is slowly packing his later year’s filmography with blooms amid the weeds.

Tom Kent-Williams is a writer, reviewer and co-host at the Podcast On Fire Network currently residing in Birmingham, England. He has been in love with Asian cinema since seeing Akira for the first time and has a slight man-crush on Chow Yun-fat. Hong Kong cinema floats his boat big time, along with synthpop, classic gaming and cups of tea in large mugs.