Halfway through 1911, a handsomely decorated and barely dramatized Chinese epic of that year’s Qing Dynasty-ending revolution, the film’s star and “general director,” the no-longer ageless Jackie Chan, slides down a furnace pipe of a steamship (after coolly dousing it with water) and dispatches a small group of would-be saboteurs with a few undemanding martial-arts moves. This fleeting, nostalgic moment seems significant for its perhaps unconscious acknowledgment by the filmmakers that the audience can’t shake seeing Chan as an action-comedy icon, and must be thrown a bone—or at least a perfunctory couple of chops. But the fatal flaw of this history pageant runs deeper; not only is its showcased superstar straitjacketed by his role’s humorlessness (and quite literally with a military tunic once his rebel hero, Huang Xing, rises to command the new Republic’s army), but its stream of events and two-dimensional characters are sorely in need of style (any style), which—aside from committee-made, widescreen tedium—is spectacularly absent.
Adhering to what is apparently a formula for national superproductions, 1911 throws dates and names on the screen with unceasing speed and frequent irrelevance—gratuitously identifying a walk-on as “German diplomat.” Beginning with a rather pointlessly fractured chronology of Huang’s defeat leading the Guangzhou uprising (Chan grimly playing guerilla warrior and getting a couple of fingers blown off), and the labors of ideological godfather Sun Yat-Sen (stoic Winston Chao) to raise funds and awareness of the revolt abroad, Chan and/or nominal director Li Zhang set a numbing rhythm to the rotating modes: tastefully gory battle sequences, the “personal” travails of Huang and his soulmate compatriot (Bingbing Li), and war by other means waged in conference rooms and international forums, with Sun demonstrating to a dining gaggle of European envoys how their leaders are consuming China by carving up a roast lamb. (Sun also shares some simplistic English-language strategy sessions with a hunchbacked American advisor, who’s played by one of the most jaw-droppingly inept actors ever seen outside of student-made cinema.)
Steeped in the same anonymous, money-on-the-screen aesthetic as this year’s even less engaging Beginning of the Great Revival, 1911 employs aphorisms (“When the rabbit is killed, the hunting dog gets cooked”), slow-mo combat, and barely perceptible romance in what amounts to a louder, somewhat more animated wax museum of founding fathers and a single mother. Joan Chen is one of its few sources of camp fun as the imperial Empress Dowager, whose bouts of weeping in her throne room force courtiers to bow and avert their eyes, and Chun Sun glowers amusingly as the calculating general Yuan Shikai, whose characterization as a scheming opportunist is at least contrasts with Chow Yun-Fat’s tragic noble in Beginning of the Great Revival. While bearing a less monumental stamp of Communist Party soapboxing than the earlier film (Maoism only gets a laudatory postscript before the credits roll), this self-important white elephant lumbers even when its rapid editing and dollying cameras would like to suggest a stampede.