Made Overseas: Skiptrace (2016)

Jackie Chan has been the driving force in Hong Kong cinema for years.  I mean… duh.  You’d have to have been in a sort of Rip Van Winkle sleep stupor to not know this.  “Where’s Bruce Lee?” you would say while stroking your scraggly gray beard.  “Who is this man with the slapstick kung fu comedy chops?”  It’s also pretty well known that Jackie Chan doesn’t know when to quit.  The guy was already somewhat past his prime when he teamed up with Owen Wilson to tame the Wild West in Shanghai Noon… and that was eighteen years ago!

I dare you not to say his name.

Fortunately, Chan’s movies succeed on two fronts: action and comedy.  Age has dulled the former, though it is possible to continue with the latter long after your knees have quit on you. In addition, Chan’s movies still do gangbusters in Hong Kong and China.

The selections, though, are pretty dire.

Last year’s Kung Fu Yoga was a respectable hit, becoming China’s second highest grossing comedy of 2017 (behind something called… The Ex-File 3: The Return of the Exes?!?) I was planning to review it for this entry.  There’s just a tiny problem: it’s  a snoozer.  Kung Fu Yoga is filled with uninspiring stunts, fakey CGI animals, and a head-scratching plot where it was hard to figure who to root for.  Like, there’s a dashing young dude who does a lot of the stunt work in Chan’s place, and you think he’s heroic… but he’s also a thief who (SPOILERS) betrays the team for some reason, but then flips back into hero mode just a few seconds later?  I have questions about your motivations, sir. I honestly ended up hating all of Jackie Chan’s younger cohorts, who were damn annoying.

Meanwhile, Chinese Zodiac (supposedly a remake of Chan’s classic Armor of God) was almost instantly forgettable.  I’ve seen it the most recently… and I can’t remember any of the plot to complain about it.  (It bears the distinction, though, of being the movie that put Chan in the Guinness Book of World Records.  The video package at the end, showing clips of Chan’s previous movies, is easily the best part.)  These two movie are so similar that I had trouble remember which set pieces belonged to which movie.  So when Jackie was running around in a garden maze, was that the one with the French lady or the one with the Indian lady?  It doesn’t help that both these movies have Chan and friends jetting around the world looking for ancient artifacts.

The only commentary I could think of making about either was how Chan is still using his standard plot template in the 2010’s, and without his ability to do big stunts the movies now feel kinda quaint and out-of-date.  One of my favorite of his movies is Police Story 3: Supercop.  Strip that of Michelle Yeoh’s high flying stunt bikes and Chan’s circus flips and you have a plot that makes zero sense and painfully one-dimensions characters.  Trying to sit through that scene again where Chan tries to avoid his annoying girlfriend in Malaysia is something of a Sisyphean challenge.

Which is why my surprise pick was Skiptrace, the only latter day Jackie Chan move I’ve seen multiple times.  This is once again pushing my definition of a movie “made overseas”.  The director is none other than Renny Harlin, a Finnish Director who once hit it big in Hollywood with Cliffhanger and Die Hard 2 but had recently been stuck doing instantly forgotten films like Devil’s Pass, 12 Rounds, and… uh… Skiptrace. Still, that Chan magic still works in China, where it did great in theaters.  The rest of the world seems to have resigned to the fact that Chan ain’t what he used to be.  The movie was a blip on American box despite the presence of an American co-star in the form of… Johnny Knoxville?!?!?

Want to know a dirty secret, though?  I kinda like Johnny Knoxville in this.  All throughout the movie, a terrible thought struck me: his career directory is probably not all that different from Chan’s. OK, he’s not the fifth highest paid actor in the world.  But he also built his career on doing incredibly dangerous stunts for comedy.  If only he were more graceful and he’d spent his early childhood training to jump over two stacked chairs or something, we’d be calling him the American Jackie Chan instead of the worst Duke brother.  Here, Knoxville is the annoying and chaotic American to Chan’s stern, humorless supercop.

I’ve joked that Jackie Chan movies feel like an excuse for him to book a vacation destination, and that’s what you get here.  Chan’s adventure takes him from Russia to Mongolia to China. Fortunately this takes the form of linear road trip, so the locales have a far more rational raison d’etre. Knoxville papaya a conman who, after taking a wrong turn in a Hong Kong casino, has witnessed a woman’s murder.  At the same time, he’s also in trouble with the Russian mob, who want to force Knoxville in a wedding for getting the mob boss’ daughter pregnant.

It’s basically a joke movie pitch Elliott Kalan sometimes makes up on the fly for the Flophouse.

Chan has to bring Knoxville back to Hong Kong, which means going through former WWE wrestler Eve Torres.  Again, this is past-his-prime Jackie Chan, so he’s not going to have a spectacular one-on-one fight with Torres.  Their styles don’t even mesh.  (In addition to wrestling, Torres has trained in Brazilian jiu-jitsu.) So get ready for bits more reliant on comedy, like Torres punching smaller and smaller matryoshka dolls or Chan dumping bags filled with recyclable jugs on her.  Torres doesn’t have much in the way of lines, but man does she have a presence.  She lights up the screen every time she appears.

Chan eventually catches up with Knoxville, who doesn’t want to go back… what with being in the Hong Kong mob’s crosshairs.  So when given the opportunity, he burns Chan’s passport. Without it, Chan can’t board a plane with Knoxville in tow.  You know what that means… The Simpsons Chan and Knoxville are going to Mongolia!

Again, we’re just paying to watch Jackie Chan go on vacation… but what a location, though!  When was the last time you saw any movie filmed on the endless grassy fields of the Mongolian steppes?  There’s a lot of fun here, with colorful tents, local wrestlers, ranchers on horseback, and sputtering old jalopies.  I want to book a trip there.  Right now.  Plus it features what, for my money, is the most joyous moment in the film (and perhaps in all of latter day Chan filmography): Jackie Chan and a Mongolian woman singing Adele’s “Rolling In The Deep” while locals in bright silks dance around a campfire.

I guess this is why I like Skiptrace so much. The other movies are Chan doing the same of things over and over again, but to diminishing returns.  You can expect Chan to throw a punch, wait a beat, then shake off the pain in his hand while he pulls a wacky face.  It was revolutionary in the 80’s… but now the bit has gotten pretty stale.

Skiptrace trods similar ground, but includes strange and almost dreamlike twists on things to make things memorable. It’s not just enough that Chan and Knoxville end up in a Chinese town. It’s one holding a mud festival where to pass through a wall of giggling girls you must sing a song. Or it’s not enough to do a white-water rafting gag. It’s atop a raft made of inflated pig skins.  And now that I type that out… it’s kinda disturbing.  It’s the kind of weird imagery that perhaps is more at home in a Pee Wee Herman movie.

It’s a little more idiosyncratic than your typical Jackie Chan fare, which lately has been on the extremely child-friendly side of things.  It’s quite possibly due to Harlin’s edgier action blockbuster sensibilities.  Eventually a pretty forgettable mystery unfolds that conveniently tied several of the characters together.  It’s easily the weakest part of the movie, when it becomes a straight up Renny Harlin action piece and less about muddy singing hitmen.  The main baddie a favorite of action movies: a kingpin so omnipotent that he knows everything that happens to everyone.

Wait, check that.  Fan Bingbing is the weakest part of the movie.  I totally forgot she was even in it.  I spent an entire paragraph talking about Eve Torres, and technically Bingbing had more screen time.  I think she’s technically Chan’s love interest… but she’s also 27 years younger than him so it never ever felt not weird.

The combined “good guy” force at the end made me smile, though, as did the resolution.  And a crowd-pleasing ending that makes you smile is basically all you want to walk away from when watching a Jackie Chan movie.  That and the montage that reminds you that crazy old Jackie is still doing his own stunts.

(Incidentally, Kung Fu Yoga did not have outtakes over the end credits.  Screw you, Kung Fu Yoga.)

Skiptrace is available for streaming on Netflix.

NEXT: Instead of falling in love with a woman, a weird fish monster created by the government menaces Korea in The Host.