Billed as Jackie Chan’s 100th* movie 1911 Revolution marks a staggering achievement of cinematic output from Chan but ultimately fails to live up to the legacy of such success. In tribute to the Centenary anniversary of the Xinhai revolution in China this historical political drama depicts, with an overwhelmingly unnecessary amount of data, a summation of the revolution that lead China from two millennia of feudal society to the formation of it’s communist government.
(*The figure is probably more in deference to the 100 year anniversary as his output is listed as already being above 100 before the completion of this movie.)
1911 Revolution dives headlong into the action that began revolution without setting up the story, relying instead on a system of text heavy overlays to fill in details – something that continues throughout the movie with an alarming constancy. The name of every Politician, General and Janitor present in most any scene is displayed on screen, often in addition to both the setting and information required to understand the sequence. During these moments dialogue rarely abates leading to a screen filled with contextual overlays as well as subtitles for the Mandarin, generating the effect of watching a Powerpoint presentation rather than a movie. The attempt, of course, is to portray the drama of the event as close to a documentary style as is possible without being a straight documentary – but in a movie sponsored by the Chinese government who knows how much fact there is behind what we are seeing.
This attempt at historical accuracy in detailing the corruption of the ruling Empire and it’s oppressive European allies results in the movie coming across as alarmingly dispassionate. Too much information passes across the screen, and too quickly, for the audience to engage with. By about the 30 minute mark you shut off, no longer caring who is who, as it’s confusingly difficult to follow any of it. There is no room to develop the characters involved in this revolution, and yet the movie tries to throw in fragments of background information, brief allusions to relationships, or impassioned speeches in the vain hope that it’s resonating emotionally with the over-arching theme of imperial hegemony, industrial age relocation, fractured ancestral roots, or martyrdom for a cause. It’s like the social tension, national upheaval, and emotional dislocations associated with revolution are a perfunctory afterthought to a prescribed list of events.
Despite this, 1911 Revolution is beautifully shot with some really playful use of light and contrast during battle sequences. It is in these brief scenes of battle that the movie works, a significant portion of the budget must have been allotted to creating a realistic portrayal of trench-style combat. These action scenes are also immersive and engagingly scored with a bombastic soundtrack that really made use of the whole 5.1 surround soundstage come alive.
Also, for the most part, the film is well acted with even Jackie Chan (who was always far superior in his native language) giving a commanding performance as the leader of the revolutions armed forces. Joan Chen, remembered fondly from Twin Peaks, and Bingbing Li, soon to be seen in this years zombie ridden sequel Resident Evil: Retribution, both show up in supporting character roles. The one caveat to the acting on display in this movie is any appearance by a western character, in particular an American who fights for the revolution who can only be described as disturbingly atrocious. Whilst the action is primarily engaged with guns there’s also a token, approximately 30 second long, martial arts sequence that sticks out like a sore thumb as being superfluous blatantly included just to confirm that this is indeed a movie with Jackie Chan.
1911 Revolution was perhaps the wrong choice for Chan to celebrate the milestone of (arguably) his 100th movie. A monotonous, soulless affair that relentlessly bombards the viewer with a textbook level of information that is neither required nor absorbed. Even for Jackie Chan completists this might be one to avoid.
4 out of 10 – A couple of well shot moments interspersed with hours of tedium.
1911 Revolution is out on Blu-ray and DVD March 19.
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