I have been a fan of Chinese martial arts actor and comedian Jackie Chan for decades, and have watched most of his films at this point, from his earliest Chinese classics like Police Story through the more popular Hollywood fare like Rush Hour and Shanghai Noon. He’s perpetually charming and self-deprecating, even as he goes through his trademark fantastic stunts and choreographed fight scenes. Jackie, however, is getting old. He’s 68, and particularly for a very physical actor, it’s difficult to continue at the same energy level as the years flow through his proverbial hourglass.
His latest film, Longma Jingshen (Ride On) includes some highly entertaining stunts and fights as his fans will expect, but overall, it’s a long, depressing story about a forgotten stuntman who is estranged from his daughter and long-since divorced from his wife. Chan plays Lao Luo, who was famous for his kung fu stunts until he had a horrible tumble during a particularly challenging scene. He spent a year recovering in the hospital and continues to suffer from memory loss. His family had turned their backs on him by then, so post-hospital he turns his parental energy towards the adoption and training of a horse, Red Hare, with the intent of it becoming a stunt horse.
The industry has mostly forgotten him by this point, and with the advent of CGI, stuntmen aren’t needed to perform the harrowing and death-defying stunts that were a standard part of earlier Hong Kong and Chinese cinema. In fact, Luo is being hounded throughout the film by debt collector Dao and his gang of thugs (cue: fight scene). When his old student and now famous actor Yuan Wei (Wu Jing) invites Luo and Red Hare to perform a stunt in Wei’s current film, Luo accepts, with some misgivings. Is he too old to do it? Will Red Hare deliver the needed performance?
Meanwhile, the question of legal ownership of Luo’s beloved horse Red Hare arises due to some ambiguity in how he was given to Luo in the first place. To get help, the penniless Luo meets up with his estranged law school student daughter Bao (Liu Haocun). She hates him, however, unable to forgive his abandoning her and her mother many years earlier. They go back and forth, without Luo ever really apologizing, and she finally agrees that her fiancee Mickey (Kevin Guo), a newly minted attorney at a law firm, might be able to help out.
Martial arts films are generally known for their shallow and banal storylines, and Ride On fits the mold, attempting a poignant tale about a man driven by his professional goals to the point of abandoning his family, and who must face up to the fact that he’s no longer relevant in his chosen field. But the story doesn’t really make sense as it proceeds, particularly including the utterly daft courtroom scenes later in the story. If Luo is making money again, for example, why doesn’t he pay off the debt collector?
More importantly, Jackie Chan just looks old and exhausted in this film. Even in the sequences where he’s supposed to look invigorated it’s hard to see beyond the slump of his shoulders and exhaustion in his demeanor. Is it his role? If so, he’s an extraordinary actor, but it feels much more sad, much more like it’s really Jackie Chan’s last action movie for his storied career. Even the film’s tag line proves ironic: “The Last Action Hero’s Back!”
Even Bao keeps asking Luo “Aren’t you too old for stunts?” and stating “Your generation’s time has passed” as film producer Wei agrees that the “true spirit” of stuntmen involves real stunts, but that there’s no reason to take chances when computers can make safer stunts look real. And what about the chance of Red Hare getting injured?
Still, it’s Jackie Chan on screen, and when he is active, teaching Mickey about martial arts, working with Red Hare, or doing stunts, it’s a delight. There’s a lot of meta material too, including fascinating behind-the-scenes film set sequences where Luo is brought in for a crazy stunt or two and, finally, screenings of “his” earliest stunt work (which is, of course, Jackie Chan in his earliest films like Police Story). The line between fiction and reality definitely blurs at points.
This is paradoxically a film for fans of Jackie Chan, the very people who will probably find this the most depressing and disheartening. Chan’s old, there’s just no way to avoid this fact, either in real life or within the story itself. The horses used to portray Red Hare are excellent in the film, stars in their own right. I’ll also add a warning to people who are sensitive to animal injuries on screen: there’s at least one harrowing scene that might be upsetting.
In the final reckoning, I’m not sure I’m going to recommend this to anyone: If you’re not a fan of Jackie, there are better martial arts films out now, and if you are a fan, you might be better served to go and watch one of his great early films. Police Story is still a fantastic film, for example, even all these years later, and is just exploding with energy.