Watching Jackie Chan in Railroad Tigers recalls Pauline Kael’s observation about Cary Grant, how he “quietly became less physical” the older he got. Though Chan returns to his martial-arts roots with this WWII slapstick about the sabotage of a railway bridge crucial to the Japanese war effort, his movements are more considered than the manic, intricate choreography he displayed in his earlier films. Chan focuses on making every action count, stressing the grace of his practiced discipline over action pyrotechnics.
Chan’s Ma Yuan is a Chinese rail worker who leads a small gang of raiders. The Railroad Tigers largely stick to small scores, such as heisting trains for food. But despite the minimal rewards, Ma and his crew plan their raids carefully to avoid detection and casualties, and the film’s first sequence is an elegantly sedate demonstration of caution over carnage. Distractions planted by the Railroad Tigers inside the cars keep Japanese soldiers perplexed as other raiders swing to the top of the train from nearby trees. By the time anyone notices a problem, the Railroad Tigers have already made their escape.
This gently intricate scene is so fleet-footed that the film’s subsequently abrupt and permanent slowdown of momentum is jarring. The fundamental conflict between the insurgent Chinese and the occupying Japanese doesn’t need much elaboration, and none is given, yet soon the story gets bogged down into a redundant establishment of the Railroad Tigers being goaded into the dangerous mission of hijacking a train carrying explosives and taking out the aforementioned bridge. But only Ma’s story is fleshed out, and even then we only learn that the Japanese killed his father and first wife. The supporting characters, meanwhile, are all but anonymous, referred to individually as “brother” and lacking all but the simplest distinguishing characteristics.
Only a few moments of action liven up this extended passage, and while brief, they continue to show how both Chan and his stunt team adapt to his age. While in a warehouse adjacent to a rail station, for example, Ma and one of his gang find themselves attached to opposite ends of a rope that’s also weighted by explosives, which the men use for leverage to bounce around a guard who stumbles upon them. But the film only regains its footing once the Railroad Tigers sneak aboard the train and set about making their way to the bridge, constantly running afoul of a Japanese commander (Hiroyuki Ikeuchi) who guesses their plans and does anything he can to stop it.
The film’s final act verges on vintage Chan, both in the scale of its action and in its unabashed streak of humor both broad (good and bad guys get wounded in the rear or react to any pain with exaggerated whining) and grim (a seppuku played for total farce). Two tanks being carried on the train end up in a kind of swordfight with their respective cannons, while nearly all of the Railroad Tigers come into brutal contact with the Japanese commander’s right-hand woman (Lanxin Zhang), whose merciless strikes largely dispense with the scenario’s overriding comic tone in favor of vicious martial arts.
Still, despite its energetic, intricately climax, Railroad Tigers is at its most entertaining when merely observing Chan’s smaller movements, like the way Ma casually stops one soldier from raising his rifle and uses the man’s own hand to pull the bolt action until all cartridges have been harmlessly ejected. Always a gifted pantomime, Chan can still sell comically broad reactions of panic and quick-thinking, but there’s also a thread of dejection worked into his expressions that conveys how little Ma has to lose. However disjointed Railroad Tigers can be in its imbalance between slapstick, action, and somber, respectful tribute, Chan squares these disparate moods with ease, offering a much-needed reminder of his prodigious gifts.