Review for Little Big Soldier: Collector's Edition (With Digital Copy)
There used to be a time when Jackie Chan was synonymous with Hong Kong action comedy. Practically every second film from Hong Kong would feature him getting up to some comic hi-jinks and death defying stunts, and each new successive film was a comfortable touchstone in life. That is no longer the case, with most of Jackie's comedy output coming via Hollywood, and more often than not, nowhere near as satisfying, while in Hong Kong and Chinese cinema, he has understandably broadened his range to include straight drama, and more serious fare as well. Films like The Shinjuku Incident and New Police Story are un-missable entertainment of course, but that does mean that the straight up Jackie Chan action comedy is a rare beast. Robin-B-Hood was a blast that was released quite recently in the UK, but The Myth's half-baked attempt to fuse both the old Jackie action comedy, with the new Jackie drama fell flat. So when his latest release in the UK, Little Big Soldier looked to do the same thing, taking the perennial Jackie Chan underdog character and inserting him into ancient China's Warring States period, I approached the film with a slight twinge of wariness.
A battle between the armies of the Liang and the Wei turned into a slaughter, as both sides annihilated each other. From the carnage, one figure rises, a Liang soldier for whom discretion was the better part of valour. He played dead through the battle, and unlike his friend, lived to tell the tale. Scavenging through the battlefield, he finds another survivor, the Wei general, injured with an arrow to the leg. For the soldier, that's his ticket out of the wars, as with a prisoner of that stature, he's bound to be rewarded. And the soldier would want nothing more than a strip of land, and the freedom to farm it as he chooses. But getting this general back to Liang territory will be harder than he thinks. The general isn't all that cooperative, but there are those amongst the Wei who want nothing more than to make sure that their general is dead. The two adversaries will have to learn to work together if they are to survive.
Little Big Soldier gets a very nice 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer on the DVD. For more resolution, you should opt for the Blu-ray of course, released on the same day. But for us lesser SD mortals, the image is clear and sharp enough, free of any noticeable artefacts apart from some slight aliasing. Little Big Soldier gets a rather filtered and bleach processed look, reflecting the wartime setting and the dark humour of the story. The film is shot in some absolutely stunning locations, and the sets and costumes have some serious production value applied. This is a fine looking film. Audio too is very effective, with DD 5.1 and 2.0 Mandarin, as well as a DD 5.1 English dub. The dialogue is clear, the surround gets the appropriate workout during the action sequences, and the music suits the story well. I must admit that I haven't worked up the courage to sample the English dub as yet, but who knows! This might be the one time that it's actually good.
Cine Asia have added a little extra to make this two-disc edition more exciting. Disc 2 hosts a digital copy of the film, for those film fans with devices capable of playing back such media. You'll need an Internet connection to register the copy though, but I haven't tried that myself.
This release debuts a new Cine Asia logo, and both discs get animated menus.
Disc 1 offers 12 trailers for more Cine Asia releases, and you'll be able to get your first look at the forthcoming Ip Man 2 here.
I'm already settling into a comfort zone with Cine Asia releases now, almost expecting a Bey Logan commentary by rights. As usual, it's his full bore, information packed commentary track, always detailed, and always interesting. It's the sort of commentary that will leave you thinking nothing of watching the film over again, as soon as it finishes.
The rest of the extras on Disc 1 are pretty thin though, with a Trailer Gallery with four trailers in, a Music Video from Jackie Chan as he sings the film's theme song, and the Making Of Gallery and the On Set Report Gallery.
Unfortunately the Making of Galley consists of 7, 2-minute long sound-bite glimpses behind the scenes, with brief interviews, while the On Set Report Gallery is even more ephemeral, offering 20 30-second snippets of the same. My annoyance at the brief nature of these could have been resolved with a Play All option.
The meat of the extras is on disc 2, alongside the aforementioned Digital Copy of the film.
The Interview Gallery gathers 10 of the film's stars, including Jackie Chan of course, to offer their opinions of their characters, and their view of the film and the shooting process. The interviews are a bit cut and paste, with a lot of jump cuts, but I guess that's best to edit out the ums and the ahs. The 11th Interview on the disc is with the Director Ding Sheng, and is more substantial in length and in content. In total, all 11 interviews run to 81 minutes.
Then there is the Behind The Scenes featurette, which offers 69 minutes of b-roll footage. It's conveniently divided into chapters, offering a fly on the wall perspective of each location one by one, and there is a lot to be had from seeing the film shoot without the context setting voiceover man getting in the way.
It's a road movie. Okay, a road movie set in 250BC, but a road movie nonetheless, with two unlikely characters thrown together by circumstance against adversity. They are complete opposites, the wily soldier for whom self-preservation is a priority, and the proud general for whom honour is paramount. As they make their way on their journey, they initially despise each other, not least for being on opposite sides of the war, but they gradually develop a mutual respect, and eventually a friendship. Also, with one the prisoner of the other, and the film's often quite dark humour, it's occasionally reminiscent of an Ancient Chinese Midnight Run. That's no bad thing either, even if Jackie Chan is the unlikeliest Robert DeNiro that you can come up with.
This is also the first film where the blending of the old Jackie Chan's brand of kung fu comedy with the new Jackie Chan's more serious and thoughtful brand of filmmaking actually works. It didn't work in The Myth, which felt to me like two separate movies bolted together quite randomly, with Jackie playing two roles that always felt at odds in the same film. In Little Big Soldier, he plays just the one role, a grizzled and world-wise version of his eternal underdog character. The soldier isn't the most skilled at kung fu, and he isn't apt to unleash all kinds of death defying stunts at the drop of a hat. But he is wise, street smart, and quick thinking. He's resourceful and swift on his feet, and a dab hand at throwing rocks. Like all the peasants in the various nations, war isn't a vocation for him. He got drafted along with his brothers, but as the sole survivor in his family, he feels a responsibility to keep the family name alive, which is why he tends to avoid conflict, rather than engage in it, and why he survives the massacre that starts this film off.
The general on the other hand has the burden of a nation on his shoulders, and he fights for honour and for national pride. He's resourceful, well trained and ruthless, which along with a whole heap of luck is how he survives the battle. He isn't unscathed though, taking an arrow in the leg, which is how he gets to be captured by the soldier. For the soldier, the prisoner is his ticket out of the war. With such a high-ranking prize, he can expect to be rewarded, and freed from the necessity of fighting, free to build his dreams and become a farmer. It's this dream that motivates him through the movie, and the reason why he is so determined to bring the general back with him. The general sees his first duty as to avoid capture, even if it means killing himself, which makes for the rockiest start to their relationship.
It's the dynamic between the world-wise soldier and the naïve and blinkered, if honourable and proud general that drives the movie, and Jackie Chan is ideally cast as the soldier. He plays off well with Wang Leehom as the general, who has the right degree of arrogance, balanced with a slight vulnerable likeability. A game of one-upmanship between the two ensues, that drives the comedic pace of the film. But more serious matters are also in progress; with a certain faction of the general's own side wishing to see him dead, to change the balance of power. The further on the journey the duo travel, the more challenges they face. But in the best traditions of such stories, both wind up learning from each other. The soldier learns that there does come a time when it's worth standing up for what you believe in, and that even lost causes may be worthy ones. The general begins to understand just what he is fighting for, and learns that there comes a time when it is right to quit fighting. Neither can learn these lessons without the other.
Little Big Soldier is great entertainment, and that's despite it being perhaps the darkest and most reflective of the Jackie Chan comedies I have seen. This isn't about the happy-go-lucky hero chancing his way out of a series of dicey situations, it's a far more melancholic piece, and indeed set against the carnage of total war in ancient China, it's hard to see how it can be anything other. Yet somehow, the comedy seems to shine even more brightly against the darkness, with Jackie Chan delivering a measured and thoughtful performance that sets the tone of the film. Little Big Soldier may just be his best film to date, and these discs would be at home on any shelf.