It’s only the first week of January, but it will be hard to beat Hong Kong director Ding Sheng’s “Railroad Tigers” for the best opening credit sequence of the year. A kid wanders away from a tour of the trains in a museum to visit a World War II-vintage locomotive. He slips into the cabin, and sees a crude chalk inscription of a winged tiger on the boiler. The boiler hatch opens, an animated cinder starts to glow, and as Orson Welles said about the RKO back lot in Hollywood, we get a chance to enjoy “the biggest electric train set any boy ever had!”
And who better to be at the controls than Jackie Chan? But we’ll have to settle for Ding, who puts together some stunning action sequences and elaborate physical stunts that are reminiscent, but not quite the equal of Chan in his directorial prime.
Instead, the Hong Kong martial arts and comic shtick icon plays Ma Yuan, a small town, salt-of-the-earth railroad porter who happens to be caught up in the biggest adventure of his life — the Japanese invasion of China. He has banded together with some of his
shlumpy fellow workers to fight as partisans against the occupying forces.
But they don’t get any respect. Even after pulling off a physics-defying railroad robbery — unarmed except for the tools of their trades — they’re still full of low self-esteem, though it’s unlikely the Wild Bunch could have done much better. To prove themselves, they hope someday to pull off “something big.”
Ma serves as the elder voice of stability and reason. As such, Chan lets the younger actors do most of the heavy lifting — after all, the guy is 60 and has pretty much broken every bone in his body doing his own stunts during a career that started when he was 5. In terms of comedy, too, Chan is sometimes upstaged by the gleeful malice of his character’s nemesis, Captain Yamaguchi (Hiroyuki Ikeuchi), head of the Japanese military police.
Perhaps, in part, because of Chan’s limitations, Ding sets this ensemble loose amid an awe-inspiring series of action sequences that are lighter on physical acrobatics and with more emphasis on the mostly non-CGI effects. He also puts his film school savvy to work with frequent movie allusions — most notably, and fittingly, to the elaborate, climactic train chase sequence in Buster Keaton’s silent comedy masterpiece “The General” (1926), Chan’s self-declared favorite film.
Directed by Ding Sheng. Written by Ding and He Keke. Starring Jackie Chan, Huang Zitao, Wang Kai, Darren Wang, Hiroyuki Ikeuchi. At Boston Common. 124 minutes. Unrated (occasional, jarringly graphic violence). In Mandarin and Japanese, with subtitles.