Little Big Soldier (US - BD RA)
Gabe has a decent time with Jackie Chan's comedy/war/drama hybrid...
Following a particularly bloody battle during the Warring States Period (from about 475 BCE to the unification of China under the Qin Dynasty in 221 BCE), an unnamed, older Liang foot-solider (Jackie Chan) scours the battlefield for valuable souvenirs. Among the trinkets and gore is an unconscious, but living Wei general. Assuming that by handing the general over to the Liang warlord he can collect a ransom, be honorably discharged from the army and return home to his peaceful life, the old soldier ties up the young general, and starts the long trek home. Unsurprisingly, the general has little interest in being treated as cargo.
Given the spiraling quality of his English language output ( Forbidden Kingdom notwithstanding) I haven’t made much of an effort to keep up with Jackie Chan’s more recent Chinese language films over the years. New Police Story, which I watched for review purposes, was plenty decent, but I’ve so far managed to skip over Rob-B-Hood, The Myth, Shunjuku Incident, and Chan’s other reasonably well received, made in China work, so my opinions on the current state of his career should probably be taken with the appropriate grain of salt. Little Big Soldier was probably a big release in China (the budget is listed as $25 million American Dollars, which is pretty big for the area, but small compared to something like Red Cliff or The Warlords), but received almost zero word of mouth or even notice here in the United States. In the short version of this review I lament this fact, as this is an enjoyable film, and a perfect vehicle for the aging action comedian, but also acknowledge that it retreads common material, and is Chinese-centric enough to possibly alienate some Western fans (though less cultural specific than say, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which was a huge hit, so what do I know?). Here’s the long version.
It’s probably important to emphasize the fact that this is a war/period film first, and a ‘classic’ Jackie Chan film second, so that Chan’s fans aren’t left expecting him to be the absolute center of attention (not to say his character isn’t obviously the lead, or that it doesn’t fit well into his wheel house), and so that parents aiming to have some Shanghai Noon style fun with their kids will stay away. Little Big Soldier does have more humour than most big war movies, but also hordes its share of frowny-face melodrama and brutal violence. Chan, who apparently had the idea for the film so long ago he was original scheduled to play the younger of the two main characters, and his director Ding Sheng incorporate the grit of some the more realistic modern Chinese war films, and mostly avoid the fantastic, decorative visual themes seen in Zhang Yimou’s epic efforts. Within this framework they mix thematic tones, fluttering between serious and spoof with occasional success. In fact, the title is a very good indication of the film’s overall tone. I’ll take a second and stare disapprovingly at anyone that doesn’t know exactly what I’m talking about, like a good hipster movie snob (my glasses will be part way down my nose), then explain that the title is in reference to Arthur Penn’s Little Big Man, which is a western-dramady, for lack of a better genre signifier. The various war periods in China’s history are perfectly comparable to the American Wild West on film (both are romanticized and re-envisioned in similar fashions), and both (all three?) filmmakers mix silly and sad while revisiting each historical marker. The major differences being that Penn’s film spans a century, and pertains rather strictly to a single character, while Sheng/Chan’s film spans a few days, and is a buddy flick.
Chan and Sheng miscalculate some of the more serious-minded stuff, and much of the slapstick falls flat, but for the most part the film stands apart thanks to Chan and Wang chemistry, and their unlikely bromance blossoms with real charm, laughs, and the only really successful heartstring plucks in the film. We’re not talking classic Chan/Sammo Hung levels of buddy comedy, but something much more charming than I was expecting, and unlike the Rush Hour and Shanghai movies, Chan isn’t the straight man in this relationship. Their onscreen bond is so well constructed that any sequence that doesn’t feature them interacting turns into a waiting game. Their fisticuffs also stand apart from the rest of the film, and are often the most successful slapstick in the film. The action is fine overall, but nothing outside of Chan and Wang’s acrobatic silliness stands out, and the occasionally bloody brutality doesn’t really fit even with the film’s more dramatic scenes. Sheng hints effectively at something more epic than he ever manages to deliver on, but he certainly has skill, and shows promise (this was only his second film in the director’s chair, assuming he did, in fact, direct the bulk of the film).
Well Go USA keeps up the good work with this Blu-ray release. At this point their early flops are far enough behind them that I no longer assume the worst when their discs arrive in the mail. This 1080p transfer sits well with the expectations, and is generally pretty fantastic, with a few minor issues consistently shadowing it from perfection. Like many of the studio’s releases Little Big Soldier is incredibly sharp, which is usually a good thing, but occasionally leads to some noticeably edge haloes (this was a huge problem for their Ip Man and 9th Company discs). This enhancement is mostly delegated to the widest canvases, which flair-out their highest contrast elements. There are odd shots that noticeably lose detail and sharpness, but this inconsistency is minimal. Part of the problem in this regard is the lack of colour, which puts extra weight on the contrast levels during the busier shots. And most shots are quite busy, between the character’s complex wardrobes, excessive hair, and highly textured landscapes. Little Big Soldier isn’t monochromatic, but the earth tones and green vegetation are desaturated considerably, and the costumes are almost exclusively different shades of gray. There are two vibrant dream sequences where Chan sits among bright yellow flowers to break the monotony. These hues are relatively pure, but there’s also some medium heavy compression noise over the wide shots.
Well Go USA has also left behind some previous issues with compressed, and non-5.1 native language tracks, leaving me to generally trust their DTS-HD Master Audio tracks as well as their 1080p transfers. This time I didn’t even bother with the English dub track, but rather enjoyed the clean and efficient Mandarin track. There isn’t a lot in the way of ambience (perhaps a bit of wind through the trees), most of the audible elements are specific to on-screen action or speech. This robs the track of texture, but the precision of the sound we get is great. The fight scenes feature swishing fists and clanking swords, and the directional effects of whizzing arrows, zipping whips and swooping spears are plentiful. The LFE gets a work out too thanks to galloping horses and growling bears. The musical soundtrack is melodically fine, but sounds very artificial, revealing that it was likely created using keyboards. Artificial or not, the score does have an aggressive stereo presence, especially percussive elements, which dance from left to right and back again with relative regularity.
This is another one Blu-ray, one DVD set from Well Go USA, but this time the DVD is just a SD copy of the film. The extras on both discs start with a short series behind the scenes featurettes (14:00, SD), which includes interviews with the major players, and oodles of raw set footage. The first thing to notice here is that Chan is the one working behind the camera, looking through the eyepiece, and telling actors what to do in almost every shot. The interview subjects (who unfortunately are not labeled, so I only recognized a few actors) largely discuss Chan’s input, only mentioning director Ding Sheng for one section, where his cameo in the film is the major focus. This may be because these are largely sales pieces, and selling up Chan’s part in the film is important, but I’m beginning to suspect this whole thing really is a Jackie Chan joint. The only other extras are a music video staring Chan, a trailer, and the international trailer.
Little Big Soldier is a good film, with a lot to recommend it, but it never quite comes together into something genuinely great. At the very least it sits well above most of Chan’s recent Hollywood work, especially, sigh, The Spy Next Door. Well Go USA does well by the film with a pretty 1080p picture and aggressive DTS-MA soundtrack, but includes few extras, and occasionally misses the mark in terms of image quality. Be sure to stay tuned through the credits for a great set of bloopers.
*Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray image quality.
Review by Gabriel Powers
Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13
Release Date: 23rd August 2011
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 Mandarin and English, Dolby Digital 2.0 Mandarin and English
Subtitles: English SDH
Extras: Behind the Scenes, Music Video, Trailers, DVD Copy
Easter Egg: No
Director: Ding Sheng
Cast: Jackie Chan, Wang Leehom, Steve Yoo, Lin Peng
Genre: Action, Comedy and War
Length: 92 minutes
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