‘Skiptrace’: Film Review

Courtesy of Saban Films
Hardly a classic, but it’ll do until something better comes along.
9/2/2016

Action icon Jackie Chan (recently selected for an honorary Oscar) co-stars with Johnny Knoxville in a continent-spanning comedy well-attuned to the tastes of a global audience.

More in the vein of Chan’s Hollywood buddy movies like Rush Hour or Shanghai Noon than the classic '80s kung fu comedy genre that he helped originate, Skiptrace finds the still-limber Hong Kong superstar settling into a more sedate format that could remain serviceable for even another decade. In their first collaboration, Chan and Finnish action director Renny Harlin scored an impressive $60 million China debut over the July 22 weekend, the highest-grossing opener for either of them.

Prospects look rather more modest for Saban Films' U.S. release, although the typically quiet Labor Day weekend could provide opportunity for the movie to build word of mouth over the holiday frame. Overall, the film's cume should continue to grow significantly as it rolls out internationally into next year.

As the U.S.-China co-production opens, it’s nine years after the death of Hong Kong police inspector Bennie Chan’s (Chan) partner Yung Bai (Eric Tsang) at the hands of a Chinese crime syndicate. Chan still blames himself for his best friend’s tragic demise and is still chasing the shadowy underworld figure known as The Matador, whom he blames for the murder. Suspecting that his target is corrupt businessman Victor Wong (Winston Chao), Chan launches an all-out tactical assault on his drug-smuggling operation, only to fail spectacularly and very publicly. Captain Tang (Michael Wong) orders Chan to take a month off while things cool down, but Bennie gets called back into action almost immediately by his goddaughter, Yung’s orphaned only child Samantha (Fan Bingbing).

A guest-services liaison for high rollers at a Macau casino, she’s been duped by flamboyant gambler Conor Watts (Johnny Knoxville), who’s disappeared with a sizable share of the company’s assets. Chan soon discovers why — the American has been kidnapped and airlifted back to Russia, where he has some unfinished business with the unmarried and very pregnant daughter of a local gangster. Chan’s only chance of bringing the gambler to justice is to singlehandedly take on the Russian goons and extract Watts, who doesn’t know whether to be grateful or resentful, now that he’s in the custody of the Hong Kong police.

With their passports destroyed, Chan begins hauling his prisoner overland back to Hong Kong, first crossing Russia by train, then traversing Mongolia by tractor and horseback, before reaching the northern border of China. Their journey reveals that following a murder at the casino, Watts may have inadvertently obtained evidence that could incriminate Wong and finally reveal the identity of The Matador. Unless he can get Watts back to Hong Kong in one piece, however, Chan will have little chance of solving his partner’s murder or resolving his own lingering guilt.

Action vet Harlan (Die Hard 2, The Legend of Hercules) knows a thing or two about staging set-pieces and fight scenes, and while humor may not be his strongest suit, with comedic actors like Chan and Knoxville onboard, all the bases are covered. A typically bravura opening scene finds Chan escaping a building booby-trapped with explosives, as the entire edifice collapses on its neighbor, triggering a domino effect of disintegrating structures. Rafting a raging river, escaping a sinking ship and zip-lining across a treacherous gorge are just a few of the other daring challenges that the pair surmount.

Although the last two are actually effects-enhanced studio sequences, 62-year-old Chan performs all of his own fights and quite a few of the action scenes as well. Ever inventive, he continues to excel at prop fighting, always capable of turning the nearest household utensil or workshop tool into a makeshift weapon. An extended exchange with Russian gangsters in an abandoned factory, prominently featuring Eve Torres as a stylishly unrelenting assassin, makes extensive and amusing use of industrial equipment, as well as an oversized set of wooden Russian nesting dolls.

Chan’s English-language dialogue occasionally comes across a bit muffled, but his body language rarely fails to connect. Knoxville thrashes about in a fairly undisciplined manner, but succeeds in providing a sizeable share of the comic relief, even if it’s more of the wiseass, snarky variety than any demonstration of sophisticated humor, but what did you really expect? Fan performs almost as many stunts as Knoxville and looks way better in an evening gown, but her underdeveloped character doesn’t amount to much more than an ultimately ironic plot device.

With energetic action and comedy set-pieces staged across Russia, Mongolia and China, the film’s ambitions sometimes outstrip the resilience of Jay Longino and BenDavid Grabinski’s largely derivative script, but in the end, it’s hard to top Chan soloing on Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep” accompanied on traditional instruments by a village of yurt-dwelling Mongolian herders.

As a producer on the project, Chan’s role ensures that production quality matches or exceeds international standards, particularly in the film’s use of numerous stunning natural locations and colorful local extras. The filmmakers have dedicated Skiptrace to the memory of Chan Kwok-hung, the original cinematographer on the project, who drowned in a marine accident during shooting.

Distributor: Saban Films
Production companies: Saban Films, Talent International Film, New Culture Media, Dasym Media
Cast: Jackie Chan, Johnny Knoxville, Fan Bingbing, Eric Tsang, Eve Torres, Winston Chao, Youn Junghoon, Michael Wong
Director: Renny Harlin
Screenwriters: Jay Longino, BenDavid Grabinski
Producers: Jackie Chan, Charles Coker, Damien Saccani, Hongliang Wu, Esmond Ren, David Gerson
Executive producers: Frank Botman, Chris Lytton, Simon Oakes, Marc Schipper, Min Li, Xiaolin Lui, Jianhong Qi, Zhenhua Yang, Wenli Zhou, Yiwei Liu, Zhangliang Yu, Qunfeng Sun, Hang Chen
Director of photography: Chan Chi-Ying
Production designer: Lau Sai-Wan
Costume designer: Crystal Pa
Editor: Derek Hui

Rated PG-13, 107 minutes

comments powered by Disqus