When it all clicks, Railroad Tigers is an amusing, entertaining action movie that embraces both war and western film genre tropes. Set during the early 1940s when Japan still occupied China, director Ding Sheng gives us a highly stylized look into this troubling time period that doesn’t concern itself with discussing the horrors of war. Normally, this would be an odd choice, however, thanks to a wonderful cast, set pieces, and witty writing, Railroad Tigers is a train that’s worth catching… mostly.
The story follows railroad foreman Ma Yaun (Jackie Chan) and his band of misfits who spend most of their days either working or harassing/robbing the Japanese via the trains that pass through. Eventually, through a series of events Yaun and his group are tasked with destroying a large bridge that is being occupied to cut off supplies for troops. However, it’s around this point where Railroad Tigers takes a hard left turn and decides to take a lighter approach to the affair as Yaun and his men are not exactly professionals when it comes to this kind of stuff. Sure, they’re smart and can hold their own in scuffles but these aren’t actually military soldiers and Sheng makes a point of reinforcing that idea.
This film is just as much about them trying to figure out a plan to take down this infrastructure, which lends Railroad Tigers a unique perspective we don’t often see in war movies. By doing this, Sheng allows his characters to feel more human and standout from cookie-cutter war archetypes. While Yaun’s crew is very large, each one is at least given a name and a stylized intro that showcases their name, occupation, and even their own unique catchphrase. However, the crux of this story’s relationships are between Yaun, a young worker named Da Hai (Zitao Haung), and a former soldier turned noodle shop owner Fan Chuan (Kai Wang).
All three of these characters have rather interesting backstories, with Chuan’s acceptance of the Japanese occupation being by far the most intriguing. While his character arc is rather predictable, Kai Wang delivers an endearing and entertaining performance that focuses around his relationship with the main villain of the film a Japanese Military Police officer. However, it’s at this part that Railroad Tigers begins to stumble, as the bad guys really don’t go beyond bumbling and stupid. Yes, they have small flashes of brilliance, but in the large scope of things the Japanese soldiers are incredibly inept and once this becomes apparent it accidently lowers the stakes of each engagement. Audiences will quickly pick up that the villains are pretty much idiots, which does sap some of the tension from the various action scenes.
Of which there are many, as Railroad Tigers moves from one elaborate set piece to the next at a rather brisk pace. This keeps the film from dragging, as much of the big character revelations and important moments happen in the action themselves. Yet, if you’re going into this movie for the sake of just seeing some action then you’ll be in for quite a treat. Sheng masterfully choreographs some rather entertaining and often hilarious scenes that poke fun at both the military and western genres. In fact, he dedicates literally the entire third act to an action set piece, which is full of cheer-worthy moments. However, it’s the actual ending to this big moment that is one of Railroad Tigers biggest problems
However, it’s the actual ending to this big moment that is one of Railroad Tigers biggest problems, as the movie suddenly shifts tones to a far more serious one. Not only is this exceptionally jarring in contrast to the rest of the movie, but ends what was a rather funny film on a sour note. While we won’t spoil the actual ending of the movie, it felt like Sheng attempted to try and discuss the horrors of war but forgot what kind of movie he made. There’s always a place for this to be discussed, but it doesn’t organically flow with either the characters or rest of the movie making it a frustrating endeavor.
The other major problem is actually on the post production side as the editing is just weird and awkward during some scenes. Transitions between day and night pull the viewer out of the movie and when combined with the hit or miss camera work it can make for some awkward moments. Along with this is some questionable CGI and effects, but these can easily be looked past as it’s used far more infrequently than one might expect.
Overall, Railroad Tigers is a movie that offers some fantastic action, humor, and characters that keeps the story from feeling stale or predictable. While the film is bogged down by a terrible ending and villains, it’s not enough to stop the chaotic momentum of this story or make the characters any less lovable. Director Ding Sheng has done a wonderful job of breathing new life into a rather stale and overused setting, which makes Railroad Tigers one of the first must-see movies of 2017.