A consistently intelligent (or at least bright), coherently constructed comedy that is on occasion a rather pointed critique of the American education system in the…
You can tell a lot about a director by how they direct a train sequence. With scenes that required locomotive management just as much as filmmaking precision, directors ranging from Buster Keaton to Justin Lin (for “The General” and “Fast Five,” respectively) created classic spectacle out of playing with (and then destroying) trains. In the case of Chinese director Ding Sheng and his latest film, “Railroad Tigers,” which features many sequences on trains but not a single nominee for locomotive movie history, its non-cohesive set pieces only symbolize the wreck this venture quickly becomes. Though it boasts a large scope with its ensemble cast, huge sequences and the star power of the almighty Jackie Chan, “Railroad Tigers” lacks the vital focus to come together.
Within Jackie Chan’s oeuvre, this one is for Chan completists only, if due to his lack of action, despite being a leader of the title freedom fighters group. The year is 1941, and Chan’s Ma Yuan works with a ragtag group of young men to cause havoc on the Japanese army that occupies China. Their main method is by hijacking trains and stealing supplies, as shown in an opening sequence where they knock out some soldiers and inscribe their group logo (a tiger with wings) on the soldiers' bare stomachs.
The Railroad Tigers have a less vague purpose when they come across a wounded soldier, who speaks about plans to bomb a bridge that helps the Japanese army get their supplies. Inspired by the war effort and open to a suicide mission, Ma Yuan and friends decide to attack the bridge themselves. They’re pursued by the stone-cold Yamaguchi (Hiroyuki Ikeuchi), a captain of the Japanese military police.
If only this very simple story was more cohesive with tone. Starting with slapstick but eventually transitioning into dark moments of pain, “Railroad Tigers” doesn’t have the finesse to pull off a more innocent riff on “Inglorious Basterds.” Its cartoonish impulses sully the historical stakes, and vice versa (“That really hurt!” a soldier says, impaled by his own overturned vehicle). Even more disorienting, it’s all framed as a flashback, started by a young boy looking into a train engine marked with the Tigers' symbol. Along with the title cards that clue viewers in to each scene (“Rob the Train”), “Railroad Tigers” clearly wants to be understood by all, including kids, but runs like a careless comedy about the sacrifices of war.