Thursday, 9 June 2016

Film Review - 'Little Big Soldier'

Two people, who have every reason to hate each, other find themselves forced to work together toward a common goal - and, over the course of their adventures, they develop a grudging sort of respect for each other. There are certain to be a truly absurd number of stories, in whatever medium, which could be adequately summed up by that single sentence - so, it's not exactly the most original basis for a film.

That doesn't mean that it can't still serve as the basis for an entertaining film, though. After all, all you really need is an interesting context within which this fairly conventional premise can be placed. Here, for example, the two in question are a reluctant and cowardly soldier (Jackie Chan) and a stoic general (Leehom Wang) who, despite being on opposing sides, find themselves thrown together in a desperate struggle to survive.

The setting is ancient China, in a time when the country was broken up into many warring factions, each vying for power (a period referred to, by historians, as the 'Warring States' period). Two of these faction had, in fact, only recently engaged in a particularly bloody battles, as the film opens - leaving the Soldier and the General (neither of whom are ever named, in the film) as its only survivors. The Soldier, who survived thanks to a modified breastplate containing a collapsible arrow which allowed him to fake his own death, quickly realises that there is likely to be a sizable reward for the capture of an enemy general - and so, he quickly takes the wounded general as his prisoner, and sets out to make the journey back to his own faction's camp.

The General, meanwhile, is shocked when more soldiers from his own side, who should have been eager to rescue him, instead try to kill him - forcing him to kill his own men in order to survive. Clearly, he has inadvertently found himself caught in the middle of a deadly power-play taking place within his own faction - and now, it seems, the only person who is certain he can trust is the cowardly Soldier who hopes to claim a reward by turning him over alive.

Later, too, a large group of bandits taken an interest in the two men - and, despite the fact that he is only really interested in the reward, the cowardly Soldier finds that he has no choice but to depend on the superior combat skills of his prisoner.

Despite their mutual antagonism, it soon become very obvious, to both men, that they are going to have to work together. And, as they move from one misadventure to the next, the basic structure of the film comes to resemble a fairly standard sort of 'road movie' - though, one that just so happens to be set in ancient China.

Little Big Soldier is clearly a film that Jackie Chan really wanted to make. Not only does he take on one of the film's lead roles, but he also wrote and produced the film, himself. With that in mind, it seems especially interesting that this film should should seem to go out of its way to avoid anything typically associated with a 'Jackie Chan' performance. While Jackie Chan's presence, in any film, might justifiable lead the audience to expect a certain level of frenetic energy, that simply isn't what we get with Little Big Soldier. Instead, with Jackie Chan cast in the role of a coward, we have Leehom Wang stepping into the more traditional 'action hero' role - and, perhaps due to the fact that Leehom Wang lacks much of his co-star's training and experience, his own scenes tend to much of the visual flair that the audience might have expected.

This lack of focus on action was, clearly, entirely intentional, though - and, it also isn't any sort of weakness, for the film. It's really the odd relationship that gradually develops between the Soldier and the General that was intended to carry Little Big Soldier - and, in that regard, the film is fairly successful. As played by Leehom Wang, the General quickly establishes himself as something of an entertaining blend between stoic action hero and 'straight man' to the more comical Soldier - and, he does a very of managing the complexity necessary to earn him some degree of sympathy from the audience. His position as the leader of an invading army is off-set by his obvious weariness with war, and a strong desire for peace.

The Soldier, meanwhile, makes for a genuinely likable sort of coward - a reluctant soldier, forced into a war that he wanted no part of. It's a role that blends Jackie Chan's already well-established talent for physical comedy with moments of pure character-driven drama.

I could argue that the basic 'road movie' structure gives the film a somewhat unfocused quality, as we move from one set-piece to another - but, that doesn't feel like enough of a detriment to be worth dwelling on. I could, also, point out that film's action sequences might feel disappointingly subdued - but, that's only by comparison to Jackie Chan's other work.

In the end, Little Big Soldier makes for a very entertaining film. It is genuinely amusing, when it wants to be. It contains more than enough moments of genuine drama to keep things interesting. And, it features very impressive performances from its two leads. Little Big Soldier is a film that is definitely worth the time of any fan of either Jackie Chan, or of Chinese films in general.

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