Category Archives: 2016

Fences (2016)

Fences is the final Oscar 2017 Best Picture nominee I had yet to watch, so I wanted to go into it completely fresh and without any expectations. All I knew was that it’s a drama directed by and starring Denzel Freaking Washington.

It didn’t take long for me to realise that Fences must be an adaptation of a stage play, because the majority of the film takes place in a limited location and it’s pretty much just all talking. As a Google search confirmed later, Fences is based on the Pulitzer-winning play of the same name by American playwright August Wilson.

The premise is very simple: Denzel plays Troy Maxson, a sanitation worker who lives in Pittsburg during the 1950s with his wife, Rose (played by Viola Davis), and teenage son Cory (Jovan Adepo). His best friend, Jim, is played by Stephen Henderson, and he also has a younger brother played by Mykelti Williamson and a grown-up son from a previous relationship played by Lyons Hornsby.

I don’t want to give away much more than that, because the joy of Fences comes from gradually finding out who these people are and who they once were. Troy Maxson starts off as just an affable, garrulous, baseball-loving regular guy, but our perceptions of him change as the film progresses and we find out more about his past and his deep flaws. He’s essentially both the protagonist and the antagonist of the film.

The film is more or less a performance vehicle for Denzel and Viola Davis, both of whom put in remarkable performances. Denzel is deservingly the biggest threat to Casey Affleck for Best Actor. Just the sheer number of lines he reels off with apparent ease and the way he articulates those lines — in typical suave Denzel fashion — is awesome. In the beginning, I still saw Denzel rather than the character he was playing, but less than 30 minutes in, I forgot about the actor and only saw Troy Maxson.

As good as Denzel is, however, he is somewhat overshadowed by Viola Davis, whose heartbreaking portrayal of Rose could very well be the best performance of anyone in 2016 — male or female. It’s a shame she was shoved into the Best Supporting Actor category because she is no doubt the lead actress of the film, and while she is a lock to win the award I would have liked to have seen her take on Emma Stone for Best Actress, a fight I think she could have won.

Ultimately, Fences is an intimate, powerful family drama and a character piece that focuses on relationships, hopes and dreams, and the hardships of the black community from that period in time. In all honesty, it’s the type of film I doubt I would have been able to appreciate in my 20s — it’s almost all dialogue and “drama” — but as a man in my 30s I think it’s great. That said, despite being emotionally invested in the story and characters and feeling that gut punch on multiple occasions, it is still probably the weakest of the nine Best Picture nominees this year.

4 stars out of 5

Silence (2016)

I’m a sucker for movies about the supernatural, the occult, a higher power, God (or gods) and faith. And so when I heard one of the greatest directors of all-time, Martin Scorsese, was making Silence, a film about 1600 Jesuit priests in Japan starring Spider-Man, Kylo Ren and Qui-Gon Jinn, I was like “Sign me up!”

I intentionally avoided reading too much info about the movie, and thankfully the fantastic trailer did not reveal anything major. Accordingly, I did not know what to expect going in, and boy, nothing could prepare me for what I was about to see.

Twenty-five years in the making and based on the acclaimed 1966 novel of the same name by Shusaku Endo, Silence is unlike any film I have ever seen. Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver play two Portuguese priests from the 1600s who venture to Japan — where Christianity is outlawed — in search of their mentor, Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), who has gone missing after sending back a letter describing the horrors he witnessed — horrors that allegedly made him renounce his faith. This thus kicks off a harrowing journey of incredible danger as the two young priests are thrust into beautiful Japanese seaside villages where pockets of Christians remain hiding in fear and despair due to the brutal Christianity suppression campaign of a man known as the  “Inquisitor”.

Silence is without a doubt a difficult movie to sit through and is definitely not for everyone. The priests are subject to test after test of faith, many of which are impossible to bear from both a physical and emotional standpoint. I guess it could be called slow and torturous “religious persecution porn”, and despite how that sounds, I found the film so engrossing that I could not turn away at the horrors happening on the screen. Scorsese’s control of storytelling and the characters’ inner turmoil is downright masterful, and his use of sound and silence is incredibly powerful. From a visual perspective, the film — entirely shot in Taiwan — is stunning and accords with Japanese beliefs about nature while offering an uncomfortable juxtaposition with the ugly human conduct depicted in the film. The simple sets and foggy landscapes appear authentic and with no sense of CGI whatsoever, and now having seen all the Best Cinematography Oscar nominees this year, I would say that the Silence‘s DP, Rodrigo Prieto, should be the favorite.

The performances are of course great and should have garnered Oscar consideration. I don’t have a problem with Garfield getting his nomination for Hacksaw Ridge instead of this movie, though I think Liam Neeson should have gotten a nod for his difficult and heartbreaking portrayal. I’ve always known that Neeson has a very particular set of skills, but I never thought it would be playing a broken 1600s Jesuit priest who has had his faith shattered.

Silence is not so much a Christian film as it is a film about faith. It’s a movie that people of all faiths, regardless of religion, can appreciate and empathise with. I’d go further and say that even atheists and agnostics can gain valuable insights from this film, especially the extent to which one can have faith in a higher power that never speaks back no matter how much you pray and does nothing to put an end to unjust suffering. I was fascinated by the film’s portrayal of different types of people of faith, from those who succumb to persecution and betray their faith easily, only to ask for forgiveness again and again, to those who long for death — and thus entry into their promised paradise — as sweet relief from their wretched lives.

It’s a shame Silence was almost entirely overlooked by the Academy because it’s easily one of the best films of the year in my book. I found it significantly better and deeper than The Passion of the Christ, which can also be classified as suffering porn, though Silence is more about the mental than the physical, and goes much further by questioning the very nature of faith itself.

5 stars out of 5

Underworld: Blood Wars (2016)

For me, the Underworld franchise is kind of like the Resident Evil film franchise — seemed like a cool idea initially, but with every passing entry I’ve cared less, albeit still enough to check it out just because they’ve gone to the effort of making another one. And it was with this indifference that I stumbled across Underworld: Blood Wars, the latest installment in the adventures of Selene (Kate Beckinsale).

In all honesty, I don’t really know what’s going on in the Underworld movies any more, and I doubt the makers of this movie had any idea either. Does it matter? Not particularly. All that matters is that Kate Beckinsale again dons her tight leather outfit and kicks a lot of ass amid some everlasting feud between vampires and werewolves — sorry, I mean lycans.

Underworld: Blood Wars seems to take a page out of the Game of Thrones handbook. The look of the sets and the new characters have a distinct Thrones feel, as does the convoluted plot full of backstabbing and double-crossing. You do need some knowledge of the previous installments to fully follow what’s going on. That said, even though I have seen the previous films I could not remember anything pertinent. Not that it made much of a difference to the experience.

The nicest things I can say about Underworld: Blood Wars is that it did not suck as bad as I thought it would, and that it’s a much better-made movie than Resident Evil: The Final Chapter.  The action is at least coherent and with a little more creativity, there seems to be some inherent logic in the storyline, and the performances from the cast — Beckinsale, Theo James (from the Divergent series), Tobias Menzies, Lara Pulver, and the great Charles Dance himself — are not embarrassing despite the shoddy lines they have to recite.

On the other hand, it really does feel like more of the same old stuff, without any genuine thrills or excitement. There are only so many ways vampires can fight werewolves. The plot is also full of annoying exposition and convenient inventions — when it needs X to happen for the sake of the plot, it concocts some character or item or special ability to make it happen. It gets tedious after a while.

So there you have it, yet another unnecessary sequel that will unlikely please anyone except the diehard, hardcore fans of the franchise. Underworld: Blood Wars is not pure trash, but there’s just nothing interesting or fresh about it to warrant your precious time.

2.25 stars out of 5

Arrival (2016)

At last! I finally got to see Arrival, the sci-fi movie directed by Prisoners and Sicario (and soon Blade Runner 2049) filmmaker Denis Villeneuve. Of all the Best Picture nominees at the Oscars this year, Arrival was hands down the one I wanted to see above all others. Villeneuve is a master at creating atmosphere, tension, and stunning visuals, and I couldn’t wait to see what he could do with a film based on an award-winning science fiction story.

With expectations that high, I almost anticipated disappointment as I walked into the darkened cinema today. I intentionally avoided most of the trailers and all reviews so nothing will be spoiled, though I did hear a throwaway line in a podcast that revealed a little too much for my liking. Still, I felt like I knew little enough to make the experience fresh and unencumbered.

When I walked out of Arrival, I was speechless. I didn’t say anything more than a couple of words for quite a long time. My mind just couldn’t stop spinning and thinking about what I had watched and what it all meant. It’s 116 minutes long but I felt like I could watch another 116 minutes of it. I have no doubt I will be thinking about the film for days and I can’t wait to watch it again. It’s a thinking-person’s sci-fi movie—my favourite kind.

The plot is very simple. Amy Adams plays Louise Banks, a top linguist who is contacted by the US government when mysterious alien crafts suddenly appear around the world with no apparent agenda. Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) plays physicist Ian Connelly, while Forest Whitaker plays an US Army colonel. The film takes quite a realistic approach to what would happen in the event of an alien arrival event, providing its own subtle takes on government relations, societal reactions, religious beliefs and individual emotions.

The film is absolutely stunning to look at. I was very excited about the visuals of this movie after seeing Sicario, and though Arrival has a different cinematographer (Bradford Young, who was the DP for Selma; Roger Deakins was the DP for Sicario), the look is nonetheless beautiful. I’m not talking about just the special effects, which are seamless, but the landscapes and Villeneuve’s use of camera angles and focus. I’m very surprised the film was not nominated for Best Cinematography.

Don’t be fooled into thinking that Arrival is some kind of alien invasion blockbuster. It’s a much more contemplative film where the pace is very measured. There was a section of the movie after the initial contact that felt a little slow and had me worried about where the narrative was heading, but fortunately, it soon got out of that rut and dragged me into its world. Before long, Arrival developed one of the most immersive film experiences I’ve had in years. I became completely lost in its story, characters and intrigue. There are so many fascinating little revelations and twists and turns — not all of them are shocking or unpredictable, but even the ones I could see coming nonetheless sent chills through my body.

The performances are, as expected, wonderful. Amy Adams should have been nominated for her portrayal, which carried the film from start to finish and was full of raw, nuanced emotion. Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, and Michael Stuhlbarg are all solid in supporting roles. I imagine much of the acting from Adams and Renner came in front of green screens, which only makes their performances more remarkable.

The closest film I can compare Arrival to is the 1997 classic Contact, directed by Robert Zemeckis and starring Jodie Foster. Both are very personal sci-fi films that are fantastic at creating intrigue — they show enough to whet the appetite and satisfy your curiosity, but not too much so that the sense of mystery remains in tact. Both films are also very philosophical and emotional. I like how they don’t explain everything and leave the audience with unanswered questions and room for open-ended interpretations.

In the end, Arrival turned out to be every bit as good as I hoped it would be, albeit via an experience that was very different to what I had expected. It’s fascinating, thought-provoking, and ultimately very moving and heartbreaking. It is definitely one of movies on my list of favourite films of 2016 — the only question is whether it’s at the very top.

5 stars out of 5!

PS: The film isn’t perfect though. Apart from that slow patch I mentioned earlier, I wasn’t a fan of the Chinese general character played by veteran Asian actor Tzi Ma. The big blunder the film makes is that the head of the People’s Liberation Army should actually also be the President of China (and also the General Secretary of the Communist Party). Also, as hard as Amy Adams tried, her Mandarin pronunciation was poor,

Swiss Army Man (2016)

Swiss Army Man is undoubtedly the wackiest movie I’ve seen in years. I have no doubt it will end up on some people’s “Best Of” lists and others’ “Worst Of” lists. You either get it or you don’t.

The film is about a depressed, suicidal man named Hank (Paul Dano) who befriends a very farty corpse (Daniel Radcliffe) on a desert island. The corpse turns out to be extremely useful in a variety of situations throughout Hank’s efforts to return to civilization (hence the title, a nod to the utility of the Swiss army knife). Yes, the movie is as weird as it sounds.

It’s very obvious from the first fart that Swiss Army Man is not your typical movie. There are plenty of outrageous and farcical situations all throughout that will invoke as much laughter as feelings or being weirded out. It’s not afraid of being rude and crude and disgusting, and kudos to both Dano and especially Harry Potter for fully embracing the absurdity. It’s totally out there, and you can either go along for the ride or scoff at the stupidity of it all.

And yet, the film is laced with a strange sense of melancholy and poignancy. If you dig deeper than the artificial layers on top, you’ll find that the film actually says a lot about loneliness and depression, and sends a strong message about living life to the fullest and not being afraid to put yourself out there–before it’s too late.

As for me, I liked Swiss Army Man, to an extent. I enjoyed how original and wacky it was, and I definitely laughed out loud way more than I thought I would at the relentless jokes, many of which were actually on the low-brow end. I also developed an entirely new appreciation for the talents of Daniel Radcliffe, who played the best corpse since Weekend at Bernie’s (though another film I recently watched, The Autopsy of Jane Doe, sure has a performance that gives him a run for his money). On the other hand, I don’t think the film, even at just 97 minutes, had enough material to sustain the running time. There were moments where I felt the gimmick was wearing thin and lost a bit of interest, though I have to say the ending was brilliant and redeemed some of my misgivings. Definitely worth checking out, but be prepared for what you are getting yourself into.

3.5 stars out of 5

PS: It’s a real shame hardly anyone saw the film, which made less than US$5m on a US$3m budget.

Moonlight (2016)

The Academy sure likes movies that break your heart. After watching Manchester by the SeaI was pretty sure I wouldn’t see a movie this year capable of punching me in the gut as violently as that one. As usual, I was wrong. Moonlight made me just as sad and depressed.

Written and directed by the marvellous Barry Jenkins, Moonlight is a portrait of an African American growing up in the projects in Florida. The story has a three-act structure that offers three separate snapshots of the protagonist, Chiron, at different stages of his life — as a quiet, innocent child (Alex Hibbert), as an awkward teen discovering who he is (Ashton Sanders), and as a hardened adult (Trevante Rhodes).

Each segment is harrowing, heartbreaking and devastating in its own way, and yet so beautifully shot by Jenkins, who admits paying homage to the exquisite visuals of legendary Hong Kong director Wong Kar-wai (In the Mood for Love, Chungking Express). There are side-by-side videos available on YouTube now that show how the scenes mirror each other.

Unlike Manchester by the Sea, Moonlight doesn’t really have any moments of levity or hints of hope and inspiration. There’s no humour in Chiron’s world, just darkness, despair and loneliness. Like Hidden Figures, it’s an important film that will open eyes, and like Hell or High Water, it’s a film that reflects contemporary American society and gives a voice to those who have been forgotten or stigmatized.

What really stood out about Moonlight for me, apart from the muted style of Jenkin’s direction, is how genuine it felt watching Chiron’s story. The dialogue, the facial expressions, the body language — everything came across as authentic.It’s done so much better than a film like Precious, which also portrays a sad existence but shoves it in your face way too hard. On the other hand, though Chiron’s world could not be further from mine, I was able to sympathise and empathise because the film touches on so many universal values, from love and hate to friendship, bullying, discrimination, loneliness, identity, isolation, hypocrisy, and forgiveness.

Personally, I liked the first  two segments more than the final one, which was slower and more contemplative, but also more cliched. I think it’s good to know the film’s three-act structure because I didn’t know about it going in and I was almost disappointed every time the story jumped in time to the next act. I wanted to know more about kid Chiron and I wanted to know more about teenage Chiron. I even wanted to know about what happened between gaps. That’s the sign of great storytelling and character building.

Of course, the film wouldn’t be as effective without some wonderful performances. It’s hard to pick a standout from the three versions of Chiron, each played to near-perfection by the three actors. They looked very different and developed different personality traits, and yet you could sense the same person underneath. Special mention also goes to Best Supporting Actor favourite Mahershala Ali, who shines in the first act as a drug dealer who befriends Chiron. Naomie Harris is also great as Chiron’s abusive mother.

In the end, Moonlight is a film I wish was longer because I wanted to know more about what happened to Chiron, and yet it’s also a film I don’t want to watch again because it’s so heavy — almost too heavy — and because of how sad it made me. As a piece of art, however, the quality of the movie is undeniable, delivering not just a great portrayal of a character and his life with tremendous realism but also well-crafted storytelling, poignant drama, and stylish aesthetics. It’s a film that will strike a chord no matter who you are.

4.25 stars out of 5

Keeping Up with the Joneses (2016)

Think of True Lies, the greatest spy action-comedy every made. Then think of the complete opposite of that. That’s essentially Keeping Up with the Joneses, a film so bland and unfunny that it’s actually baffling.

Zach Galifianakis and Isla Fisher play the Gaffneys, a couple whose children are away at a camp when an attractive couple (the Joneses) played by Jon Hamm and Gal Gadot move into their close knit neighbourhood. It doesn’t take a genius to work out that the Joneses are not who they claim to be, and soon the Gaffneys find themselves thrown into the world of espionage.

Not the most interesting premise, but definitely potential for laughs. And yet, Keeping Up with the Joneses is so low on the humour that I honestly cannot think of another movie I’ve seen this year — not just comedies but any genre — that generated less laughter. I’d probably have to think back to a movie about the holocaust to find anything as unfunny.

It wasn’t for a lack of trying either. I actually like all four of the actors in the film, but none of them could squeeze a drop of decent humour of the movie. The jokes are so lame and uninspiring that I don’t think they even worked on paper. With the exception of one gag about teeth near the end of the second act, I honestly did not chuckle even once. No laughs, no smiles.

Sadly, there are no other redeeming qualities about the film. The action is very tame and uninspiring, and the plot is ridiculously predictable. The only positive things about the movie I can say is that it appears the actors at least tried (well, except for Jon Hamm — he totally mailed it in), and that there’s nothing offensively terrible about it.

So no laughs, crap action and lame plot. No matter how appealing the actors may be, Keeping Up with the Joneses might very well be the worst comedy of the year.

1 star out of 5

The Girl with All the Gifts (2016)

With the film adaptation of The Last of Us — in my opinion the greatest video game of all time — looking less and less likely by the day, I decided to check out the movie people are calling the next best thing: The Girl with All the Gifts (well, at least until Logan comes out later this year).

Yes, it’s a low budget British film, but I was still surprised how little buzz the film received, especially considering that it stars two very recognisable names in Gemma Arterton and Glenn Close. And it’s a post-apocalyptic zombie movie too, and the genre is super popular these days.

Whatever the reason, the world is missing out on a great zombie movie, one that would have easily been the best of the year but for the awesome Train to BusanThe Girl with All the Gifts is intriguing, thought-provoking, tense, dramatic, and above all, pretty darn horrific. It’s an excellent standalone film that ticks all the boxes, including being based on a celebrated genre book (by MR Carey).

I don’t want to give away too much, as part of the pleasure of this movie is gradually discovering the world in which it is set. But basically, the film starts off in a future in which a bunch of kids are kept in cells as prisoners and rolled out in wheelchairs every day to undergo lessons given by a teacher named Helen (Gemma Arterton). There is one young girl, played by the phenomenal newcomer Sennia Nanua, who appears to be particularly intelligent and makes a connection with Helen, much to the displeasure of a military sergeant (Paddy Considine). Meanwhile, Glenn Close is hanging around as a mysterious authority figure.

The trailers and other synopses give away a lot more than that, but I would advise trying to stay away from such spoilers and finding them out for yourself throughout the movie. I love that sense of not knowing what’s going on and having to figure it out from the hints that the film drops. Having said that, I have noted that the film has been hailed as “similar” to The Last of Us, so you can probably connect the dots, though I will also say that there are sufficient differences in both premise, plot and characters to give audiences a fresh experience.

The biggest strength of The Girl with All the Gifts is the girl, Sennia Nanua, who just steals every scene she is in with this blend of innocence, curiosity and fear. It’s a remarkably self-assured performance that carries the film from start to finish, and really helps audiences empathise with her character and care about her fate. As with most zombie movies, it’s the characters that make all the difference. You know the kind of quality you’re getting with veteran actors like Arterton and Close, so I was pleasantly surprised by how Nanua dominated the film with her presence.

The zombies in the film are fantastic and look, as far as I can tell, like they are played by real people in most of the scenes as opposed to CGI. They’re genuinely freaky, and director Colm McCarthy does a great job of utilising their characteristics to build suspense and deliver thrills. The set designs and visuals of the landscapes do remind me a lot of The Last of Us, so I do wonder if McCarthy has played the game and/or is a fan of it.

The main negatives about the film are some of the rules regarding how the zombies operate, which don’t appear to be consistent or logical all the time. There are also parts of the movie, particular in the beginning, that have that ugly greyish tone a lot of British movies have (and signifies boring), which is the main reason why it took me a little while to fully get into it.

In all, The Girl with All the Gifts still gets a big two thumbs up from me. Intelligent, scary, provocative and heartfelt, it’s everything I want from a Last of Us adaptation if they ever get around to it.

4 stars out of 5

Lion (2016)

I hopped on the Lion bandwagon long before I even saw the movie. I remember stumbling across a “Dev Patel movie” trailer on YouTube months ago and was immediately taken aback by how well he nailed the Aussie accent (yes, way better than Meryl Streep!). The true story premise was so intriguing that I just couldn’t wait to watch it, and the anticipation then went through the room when I found out it was one of the 9 films nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars this year.

And so I finally managed to watch Lion the other day, and it was just as beautiful and emotional as I imagined it would be. Perhaps not quite as good as I hoped it would be, especially considering its reputation as one of the best 9 films of the year, though I would still definitely recommend anyone with a heart to check it out.

Directed by Garth Davis in his feature debut, Lion tells the remarkable true story of an impoverished five-year-old boy named Saroo (played by Sunny Pawar)  from a small village in India who is accidentally transported on a train to more than a thousand miles from his home and is eventually adopted by an Australian couple (played by Nicole Kidman and David Wenham). More than 20 years later, Saroo, now all grown up (and played by Dev Patel), begins to use Google Earth in an effort to find the home and family he had long lost and almost forgotten about.

As one would imagine, Lion is a gut-wrenching yet heartwarming tale full of sadness, longing, and ultimately inspiration. It’s one of those films that is just as powerful and impactful even when you know the ending. Expect to cry buckets of tears, especially if you are a parent who has ever feared losing a child, or in Nicole Kidman’s case, an adoptive parent in real life. That said, it’s not like director Garth Davis intentionally tries to milk tears out of his audience — it’s simply the effect of the story itself.

Of course, the film would not have worked as well without the amazing performances, starting with the little kid, Sunny Pawar, who comes across as believable as you could possibly get in a situation like that. Dev Patel shines in his best role since Slumdog Millionaire and is well-deserving of his Oscar nomination, though it’s a little bit of a shame that they chose to put in the Best Supporting Actor category as opposed to Best Actor in order to boost his odds. Nicole Kidman is also as good as she has ever been, and I’m admittedly not the greatest fan of her work.

Interestingly, Davis chose to tell the story essentially in two chronological parts — first telling the child’s story in its entirety before telling the adult’s version — as opposed to starting off as an adult and using flashbacks. I personally think it worked quite well this way, because the first half of the film is definitely the stronger half. That sense of fear and “oh no” from seeing a child’s life change forever before your eyes and the struggles he went through before getting adopted is some really heavy stuff, and using flashbacks to tell that part of the story wouldn’t have done it justice.

Conversely, it also meant the second half of the film wasn’t quite as impactful. My concerns on how they were going to depict the Google Earth search turned out to be unfounded as they did it in a way that was not boring at all, though even then, it felt as though there was no enough material to sustain half a movie. For me, the interesting part was Saroo’s inner torment from leaving his brother, mother and sister behind and his struggles with identity, but the film put too much attention on this love story with an American character played by Rooney Mara, which I thought wasn’t really necessary for the story at all. I would have rather the movie focus more on Saroo’s relationship with his father and troubled adoptive brother (Divian Ladwa), two areas that weren’t fully fleshed out. As a result, there were some scenes in the second half that I found plodding.

Flaws aside, Lion is still an incredibly uplifting and powerful film. The fact it is a true story amplifies everything even further. While it is not exactly subtle, the film deserves credit for finding the right balance between empathy and entertainment, drama and melodrama. I think it’s an even better film than Slumdog, certainly deeper on an emotional level and with greater resonance.

4.25 stars out of 5

Skiptrace (2016)

It’s hard to believe that Jackie Chan was just awarded with an Oscar for lifetime achievements late last year! In celebration of the man’s career, I decided to watch Skiptrace, an action movie that apparently came out in 2016 but I had no idea even existed.

To be honest, I expected absolutely nothing from this movie. The last couple of Jackie Chan films I watched were all garbage — Dragon Blade, Chinese Zodiac, The Spy Next Door — essentially lame efforts to promote cross-border collaboration for the mainland Chinese film industry. Skiptrace seemed like more of the same, with Chinese actress Fan Bingbing being cast in the lead female role and Johnnie Knoxville as the American buddy sidekick. But you know what? I actually didn’t mind it. It’s definitely one of Jackie’s more watchable movies in recent memory.

The plot is pretty non-existent. Chan plays a Hong Kong cop trying to track down a criminal mastermind called the “Matador”, and somehow he has to track down a conman gambler played by Knoxville who witnessed a murder. Naturally, this takes the two of them on a trip around from Russia to China through Mongolia. Oh, and Fan Bingbing plays his goddaughter and the damsel in distress.

It’s a fairly typical Jackie Chan script, with the usual cringeworthy plot points, dialogue, jokes, and Asian actors forced to speak uncomfortable English. I’m actually quite sure some of Fan Bingbing’s lines were dubbed, or at least recorded later. Like many of his previous movies, Skiptrace felt like a tourism commercial, this time for Mongolia and parts of scenic China.

Having said that, I was surprised by the chemistry between Chan and Knoxville, who gets thrown around an awful lot (his forte, I suppose). Chan also seems to have a bit more of a spring in his step despite having hit the age of 62 and is involved in more action and stunts than in his prior films of the last few years. The action sequences and fights in general are just more creative and better choreographed too.

These positives don’t quite make up for the cringe moments and the bad Jackie Chan movie trademarks (such as always having a woman young enough to be his daughter as his love interest), though on the whole, Skiptrace turned out to be a surprisingly entertaining movie. Perhaps five-time Golden Raspberry Award nominee for Worst Director, Renny Harlin, somehow managed to turn back the clock to work his magic this time.

3.25 stars out of 5