Cast: Jackie Chan, Johnny Knoxville, Bingbing Fan
Director: Renny Harlin
Skiptrace is the latest in a series of conglomerate-funded films whose essential nature foregrounds their producer’s perception of their audiences’ collective sensibilities. It is not a recent phenomena — for long, in a world where the flow of capital is porous and unbound (the villain in the film logs into a screen which lists, as digital blots, his various offshore bank accounts), popular films, prospective blockbusters must render themselves basic — turn themselves inside out, so to say — in order to assume universal relevance. Therefore, even as these films depict diversity of cultures, these must be reduced to a series of clear icons — surface-level facsimiles severed from indigenous context — easily reproducible as merchandise to be sold in markets across the world.
Benny Chan (played by Jackie Chan, who has forged more bilateral treaties with America than the national government) mutters to his latest consort, Connor Watts: “You are a liar, you lie all the time,” while Watts is puzzled throughout the film by Benny’s selfless devotion to a code of honour. The creation of a clear, acceptable demarcation — an easy binary: the corrupt Westerner, the mystical man from the Orient. This is a clue, perhaps: the film’s major markets are outside America. The most interesting aspect of Skiptrace is how it flattens its own narrative tension to erect in its place, instead, a series of misadventures, interactions with local communities, a film driven not by plot, but by its location on the map — in essence, a road movie.
It opens with the murder of Chan’s partner, who while dying implores Chan to take care of his daughter. The incident traumatises Chan, who must now avenge his partner’s death by taking out a mythical character, “the Matador”, whose existence only Chan and his team of two younger officers believe in. This invocation of the past to construct a troubled, tortured protagonist of the present is obviously a loan from Jackie Chan’s very popular series of the Police Story films. Meanwhile, an American with a Texan drawl (Chan’s tag-team partners from America are always the most American Americans in the world) gets mixed up in an incident with the Chinese mob, who must now silence him. He is also in a bad debt with the Russian mafia (more markets) who abduct him to Siberia.
However, Chan must retrieve him because his presence in Hong Kong is required to prove the innocence of his goddaughter. Most of the film is kindled by a minor incident: Watts sets Chan’s passport on fire, and therefore, they must take the train from Russia to China — as such, they cross a vast swathe of land, stereotype various communities on the way, essentialise subcultures, appropriate them for the sake of a joke or two and generally, rev up a bromance. Their journey is met with brief interruptions when a band of perfunctory villains — the Russians and the Chinese doing shifts — manage to locate them and compel them to commit to an action sequence.
These are perhaps the best opportunities for Harlin to put an exhibition of his skills as a director, but he remains mostly content to shoot coverage and reduce Jackie Chan’s action — which is extremely precise, austere; choreography whose cumulative effect depends on a coherent, unified vantage point — to chaos. Early on in the film, Chan is referred to fondly as “Uncle Benny” — and this really is the cipher than proliferates through his international collaborations: a selfless, asexual soldier of honour, of the larger cause, of the nation. Later in the film, in a moment of silence, maybe unscripted pathos, Benny glances for a second at a family launching wish-lamps into the air and turns to Watts to declare, “I think I should settle down too.” Resident in this tired wistfulness is perhaps the next evolution of Chan’s cinematic icon.
The writer is programmer, Lightcube Film Society...