For 75 years, the U.S. has dominated the production of World War II action comedies. Now, as Hong Kong cinema expands into a formidable world power, it's promoting its own big-budget WWII historical heroes. With heart, humor and some breathtaking special effects, Ding Sheng's Railroad Tigers, charms and thrills, pitting a merry band of Robin Hood–style peasants led by Jackie Chan in rural China against the Japanese military. The stakes will be clear to U.S. audiences, but one thing that doesn't translate is the relentless breakneck pacing that prevents any emotional resonance from sinking in. For the heroes to really shine, they require a moment or two of quiet spotlight.
The Flying Tigers swing onto a moving train by balancing on long bamboo poles hidden just out of sight of the conductor. The ringleader Ma Yuen (Chan) and his buddies use their wits to improvise their way past the Japanese. The slapstick suggests the Three Stooges or even Star Wars, with the band of rebels cracking wise as they easily eliminate the ultra-frail Stormtroopers.
The film's second hour is one long, nail-biting action sequence on a speeding train that has to make it to the bridge against all odds. Sheng deftly maneuvers about 15 key characters in the ensemble cast into their own mini-battles on the train. I was surprised at how Tarantino-dark this Chan comedy grows, especially when it's at the expense of the bad guys: A Japanese soldier's attempt to commit seppuku fails when he cuts his hand on the sword and whimpers, "It hurts!"