Epic-Scaled 'Little Big Soldier' a Pint-Sized Success

Directed by: Ding Sheng, Runtime: 96 minutes
Grade: B

Jackie Chan knows the buddy comedy/drama subgenre like the back of his hand; comfortably enough, in fact, for him to take the framework back in time (even further than Shanghai Noon) and offer a fresh, relevant outlook on its conventions, powered by his proclivity for action. Doubling as writer and actor, he brings us the history-rooted Little Big Soldier. Set during China's Warring States Period, his script flings together two opposing soldiers with starkly different outlooks in a situation not unlike Martin Brest's Midnight Run, where one drags another cross-country for monetary benefit and, begrudgingly, the two build a love-hate bond. But with an anti-war message and modestly-gripping martial arts ramping up the energy, Chan and director Ding Sheng construct a surprisingly capable and exciting epic-scaled spin on the formula, sporting an affective side that'll sneak up on you.

You've seen what Little Big Soldier has to offer in terms of story, just dressed more modernly -- and, well, without as much bloodshed. Following a battle that killed the entirety of their two platoons, a lowly farmer-turned-soldier (Chan) and a high-and-mighty general (Lust, Caution's Wang Leehom) meet amid a sea of their fallen brethren. A course of events leads the all-important general to fall captive to the foot soldier, who aims to exchange his prisoner for a plot of farming land and a modest sum of money upon arriving home. He's got to get the general there, though, which means he must keep the skilled warrior within eye- and ear-shot as they trek across the land. Along the way, the two bitterly swap stories about their past; the amiable Liang soldier offers tales of his family, while the general tries his hardest to keep his actual place among his people -- as the crown prince to the Wei throne -- a secret.

Chan's writing fills out the clear-cut familiarity with character dimension and historical breadth, making Little Big Soldier spry, amusing, and more substantial than expected. The loggerheaded bickering between the two nameless characters lets their personalities slip out and mesh, paired with Chan's appropriate jollity and Wang Leehom's subtle thaw, which makes their intro reasonably fun to watch and adept at fleshing out their individual personalities. Conversely, it's also lop-sided against the second half; following the brutal body-riddled preface, the comedy trips into impracticality more often than the solemn framing allows, reaching particularly outrageous points involving singing maidens and stray bears in the wilderness. While off-kilter against the sensible historical drama, it's also clear that Chan has taken notes from his comedic misfires -- remember The Tuxedo and, ugh, The Medallion? -- while hammering away at the humor, as it's still grin-inducing even if it feels blatant.

On the other hand, the action in Little Big Soldier doesn't feel the least bit out-of-place, slipstreaming along the story's grandness and bickering in measured, punchy doses. Against the early-China production design, complete with convincing suits of ragtag armor and cramped rustic interiors, Chan and director Ding Sheng incorporate clanking warfare and quaint hand-to-hand battles that only arrive when it feels sinuous with the storytelling. Sure, Chan's finally succumbing to the fact that he can't exert the same wide berth of maneuvers and chaos as when he was younger (or even a few years back in The Medallion), but he still flaunts his engaging fight style with the abandon that only he can exact. You'll even get to see a well-executed, albeit unassuming battle that recalls his wavering, physical-comedy-laced Drunken Master, in which he "cripples" himself to use only one leg and a wooden sword. I do take issue with the stylized editing, though, which all too often chops the scenes up into overly-brief flashes.

When the significant shift in tone occurs in the second half, Little Big Soldier meshes the build-up of the characters and involving action into a journey towards the anti-war message that Chan has written, residing in self-aware, multihued patriotism within a portrait of pre-unified China. It's ultimately about the people at-play within the sides they represent, ranging from a farmer lugging around his small country's flag to a member of warmongering royalty gaining perspective on the lands his people invaded, and their head-butting boils to a surprisingly affective -- albeit mildly operatic -- climax that requires some tonal risk-taking to achieve from its buddy-comedy tones. Pint-sized depth stirs in Little Big Soldier as a result, which conveys its standpoint convincingly while it entertains with clanking blades, cavalier humor and a grand pair of performances from its leads -- especially from Chan, ever the multi-hat-wearer.

For the full Blu-ray review, head over to DVDTalk.com: [Click Here]


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