Many fans forget that Jackie Chan’s reputation is built on not one but two solid cinematic foundations. Sure, there’s the undeniable martial artistry and death wish stunt work, his crackerjack ability to defy gravity, physics, and human endurance to deliver some of the most mesmerizing set pieces in the history of Hong Kong action. But there is also Jackie Chan the comedian, the sensational throwback to the days when slapstick and physical humor ruled the motion picture landscape. Yet many fail to embrace that side of his performance persona. Thanks to his treatment by Tinsel Town, a myopic view that sees him as a trademark first, an actor second, he hasn’t had much opportunity to let his genial side show. Now, thanks to a return to his home turf, 2006’s Robin B Hood gives us the best of both Chans.
Thongs and Octopus are two of the most accomplished thieves in all of Asia. They are also two of the most troubled. One is a compulsive gambler, the kind that spends his money even before he’s earned it. The other is a craven womanizer, married and miserable while dating several other available ladies. Under the tutelage of their leader, Landlord, the trio makes a fine living. Too bad the cash disappears before they can really enjoy it. When a job comes along to kidnap an infant, the threesome initially balks. The $3 million payday has them quickly shifting into abduction mode. But when Landlord lands in jail, Thongs and Octopus must watch the baby for a week - and with the insane tycoon who hired them desperate for the child, they’ll have to battle the standard toddler growing pains, as well as attacks from some thugs and raids by the police, in order to survive.
The main element that requires getting used to is the massive shifts in tone. One minute, Chan’s Thongs and his pal Octopus, played brilliantly by Louis Koo, will be trading witty repartee and repelling off the sides of skyscrapers ala Hudson Hawk. The next, Chan will be facing a disgraced family while his partner tells his devastated wife to take a bus to have an abortion. You can have real melodrama one moment, fights with infant feces the next. These frequent filmic slaps in the face are definitely unusual to audiences used to consistent tone and narrative equilibrium. But in the fast paced production designs of Hong Kong, it is complete crowd pleasing on the grandest of scales. If you require a confrontation between father and son, or a moment of misogyny between husband and spouse, so be it. As long as it puts butts in the seats, everything is celluloid copacetic.
And there’s no denying how effective it can be. Chan is amazing here, running the gamut of emotions from good natured cut up to torn apart guardian. His last act pleading for the life of the child is almost too painful to watch. Many make little of this actor’s abilities outside of stuntwork, but Chan is a natural, adept at both acrobatics and emoting. Koo is equally good, giving a shamed sense of purpose to his outsized appetites. Even when his expensive cars are eventually towed, and his high living persona is punctured, he comes across as calculated and cocksure. It’s only when he connects with his tiny co-star that his real humanity begins to bleed through.
Director Benny Chan, working from a script co-written by his same name superstar, keeps the pace brisk and the action lively. There’s a first act hospital chase that’s filled with surprises, and a second act city street free for all that moves at the speed of a sports car. Of course, once we reach the amusement park and the strange estate of our lead villain, it’s one over the top fight scene after another. Oddly enough, the most memorable bits are the small, hand to hand moments - Chan moving about a doorway to subdue an attacker, his air conditioner to air conditioner descent down the side of a building. Even when the story gets squirrely (the whole reason for the kidnapping is telegraphed early and rather illogical), the man behind the lens keeps us connected, both visually and psychologically.
As part of the DVD, we get to hear from the filmmaker as he talks to film scholar Bey Logan. On the enclosed commentary track, they discuss the frequent forays into tearjerker mode, and explain the problems facing any film where a baby is endangered. On the second disc, Chan himself defends the need for drama and agrees with that age old adage about working with kids. We also get the standard making-of material that shows how incredibly complicated the stunt choreography is. One slip - and they happen too often for comfort - and an actor is bleeding from the head, or on their way to the hospital. It’s one of the subconscious thrills of a martial arts/Asian action film. There’s a real sense of danger as human beings, not CGI replications of same, shimmy off rooftops and flip through the air.
As he’s aged it’s clear that Chan is no longer the light footed, foolhardy risk taker he once was. You’re not going to see him vault between trains, or fall through panes of breakaway glass. Instead, his recent output has concentrated on bringing a balance between the daring-do that brought him fame (and undeniable fortune), and the clear limits placed on his 50-plus year body. Projects like The Myth and The Twin Effects films have shown that said equilibrium remains elusive. But by going back to the Charlie Chaplin/Buster Keaton influence of his earliest persona, and exploring every possible entertainment option, he’s stumbled upon a winner. There will be those who lament the lack of nonstop hardcore histrionics, wondering what’s happened to the real Jackie Chan. Obviously, they don’t know this multifaceted talent at all. If they did, they’d see Robin B Hood for what it is - pure Chan magic.