In the late 1990s and early aughts, Jackie Chan, already a star in his native Hong Kong, found crossover success in the U.S. with a string of comedies pairing him with a fast-talking American, a formula that was neatly distilled into the tagline for his initial breakthrough, Rush Hour: “The fastest hands in the East meet the biggest mouth in the West.” Renny Harlin’s Skiptrace dusts off the old recipe, pitting Chan, here playing a straight-laced Hong Kong detective named Bennie Chan, against Johnny Knoxville as caddish American gambler Connor Watts. Bennie is trying to take down the drug lord who murdered his partner, when he discovers that Connor may have the evidence he needs to put his target away for good. Bennie tracks down Connor in Siberia, after which the plot switches into Midnight Run mode, with Bennie reluctantly escorting Connor back to Hong Kong as an uneasy alliance forms.
In its better moments, Skiptrace recalls a Hope-Crosby Road picture, with Chan and Knoxville wending their way through a cartoon version of Asia via increasingly preposterous modes of transportation (train, three-wheeler truck, horse, inflated sheepskin raft, zipline), with stop-offs at a Mongolian wrestling match and Chinese mud festivals. This comic-book travelogue of Asia is filled with picturesque locations, ranging from the stilt houses of Tai O to vast rice terraces, but the overall tone is one of labored wackiness. Where the Hope-Crosby pictures were premised on the easy rapport between their two stars, the bloated action-comedy machinery of Skiptrace prevents any real chemistry from forming between Chan and Knoxville.
At 62, Chan is still doing his own stunts, and if these are necessarily scaled down from his heyday of crawling on hot coals and dangling from helicopters, he still manages to maintain his winking charisma and comic energy. He’s such an engaging performer that he even manages to enliven Knoxville’s usual reprobate shtick merely through his presence. But there’s little space between the constant gags, overblown set pieces, and manic score (which parodies everything from spaghetti westerns to Russian folk dances) for either Chan or Knoxville to establish a unique comedic identity for the film. And so Skiptrace ultimately feels simply perfunctory, the outlines of a reasonably entertaining action comedy waiting to be filled in.
There are funny moments, including an inspired gag in which Chan defends himself against WWE star Eve Torres with a large Russian nesting doll; as Torres punches through each layer, Chan’s defense becomes smaller and smaller, until finally he finds himself holding the last tiny doll, which he promptly throws at Torres and scurries away. It’s the kind of silly yet expertly choreographed feat that reminds us of Chan’s unmatched comic invention, something which is sadly missing from the rest of the film.