Skiptrace is a movie starring old Jackie Chan, but in many ways, it feels like a Jackie Chan-starring movie of old. Specifically, a late ‘90s or early ‘00s Hollywood Jackie Chan movie - the ones where he teams up with an American guy and trots the globe to fight crime. That throwback quality is the film’s greatest strength, but its lack of improvement on the formula is as powerful a drawback.
Jackie Chan IS Benny Chan, a Hong Kong cop obsessed with tracking down organised-crime boss Victor Wong after the death of his partner. When his dead partner’s daughter (Fan Bingbing) gets into trouble with the mob, he’s forced to team up with the only man who can help him: professional gambler and bit-of-a-dickhead Connor Watts (Johnny Knoxville). Together, they go on a madcap adventure through a host of zany, action-packed situations, while forming an unlikely bond. You know the drill by now.
Fast-paced and dedicated to pleasing crowds (it’s Chan’s biggest opening in China ever), Skiptrace reminds its audience of the good-natured fun Jackie Chan brought to his post-Hong-Kong commercial heyday. Though it lacks real depth, and doesn’t really make sense, the relationship between cop Benny and gambler Connor has plenty of frothy, buddy-movie rivalry, Director Renny Harlin keeps the action moving at a rapid chop, dragging Chan and Knoxville through cities, rivers, and deserts. They drive a tuk-tuk, ride horses, and even float on an inflated-pigskin raft, in a sequence which caused DOP Chan Kwok-Hung to drown. Action movies can still be dangerous to make.
At 62, Chan himself may be a little slower, a little more careful - the obligatory end-credits bloopers sequence sees the icon reeling a little more than usual from his injuries - but he hasn’t lost his comic zing. Chan nails delivery of a comic script that, while nonsensical and uneven at times, still generally works - especially when punctuated by a swift punch to the face. The best action sequence comes in the first half of the film, with Chan fighting and evading goons in a mechanised Russian nesting doll factory while Knoxville is trapped on a conveyor belt, all tied up like a Looney Tunes character. Chan’s traditional Three Stooges comic choreography is at full tilt in this perfectly-paced sequence.
Other action sequences are less successful, relying too much on stunt doubles and lacking the whimsical, Keatonesque brilliance that made audiences fall in love with Chan in the first place. Surprisingly, one of the best sequences doesn’t involve action at all, instead having Chan lead a rousing chorus of Adele’s “Rolling In The Deep” with a Mongolian tribe. Coming out of nowhere, it’s a spirited bit of strangeness that temporarily lifts the film into the stratosphere.
For all the comforts nostalgia might bring to Skiptrace, the film’s also a pretty good reminder that the Rush Hour era brought with it its fair share of cringeworthy shit. Not all of it’s cringeworthy in a bad way - there’s a laugh-out-loud hilarious scene of computer-based detective work that would have looked dumb in a ‘90s crime show - but a lot of it is. Johnny Knoxville, for all his goofy charisma, is no actor, and he’s wooden as hell in Skiptrace. It’s telling that Chan, speaking English as his second language, still sounds more natural delivering his lines than Knoxville. The reasons for his involvement in the story are a total mystery, glossed over with rapid editing and action, and he spends most of the movie annoying Benny and the audience alike. He’s also in the movie way more than all the film’s female characters combined, who are, without exception, either love interests, damsels in distress, or over-the-top sexy badasses. So it was in the ‘90s; so it is now.
Perhaps the worst issue with Skiptrace - drawing attention to all the other issues - is that it tries to have Big Stakes towards the end. Things inevitably get dramatic, but they’re lost on an audience that hasn’t really come to care about the characters. The big final twist - because there has to be a big twist in these movies - drew huge laughs from the Fantasia crowd, and maybe it was designed as a winking joke. If it was, it’s a great joke. If it wasn’t, it’s still kinda funny.
Skiptrace left me with a strange worry in the pit of my stomach. On one hand, I never want Jackie Chan to stop making movies. On the other hand, he’s definitely getting on a bit. I’d love for Chan to keep going in a directorial or choreography capacity - his ability to stage action setpieces is still second to none. But it’s a little distracting when you’re picking out stunt doubles or fearing for an aging man’s safety.
I love you, Jackie Chan. Find a way to keep your magic - and yourself - alive.