by A.J. Hakari
There comes a time when all film fans must acknowledge that their idols are still human beings. Take, for example, Jackie Chan, whose work yours truly has followed since childhood, even as the past decade has been spent reconciling with the fact that he simply can’t pull off as many astounding feats as he once could. Time has nudged Chan towards taking on less taxing projects, although some, including 2016’s Skiptrace, still put him through the wringer to an extent. There’s no shame in an action icon of his stature kicking it back, particularly since sharp comedic timing was every bit a part of his appeal as left hooks and backflips. That said, when a movie like Skiptrace leans so heavily on what turns out to be lazy direction to carry out an already feeble script teeming with forced humor, the absence of those amazing stunts that would’ve otherwise taken the edge off such matters enables its mediocrity to ring out twice as clearly.
Jackie plays Bennie Chan, a cop on the hunt for one of the most ruthless criminal masterminds of our time. Years ago, a mysterious figure known as the Matador took out his partner, and now, he believes he’s found the culprit in well-to-do tycoon Victor Wong (Winston Chao). Without evidence, however, Wong keeps slipping through Bennie’s grasp, with even his own colleagues starting to doubt his suspicions. But not only is our man about to stumble upon his biggest break in the case yet, it’s also from the world’s unlikeliest source. Enter con artist, gambler, and sneak-about-town Connor Watts (Johnny Knoxville), whose fleecing of a Macau casino’s fortunes ends with him witnessing a murder…committed by Wong. After tracking Connor down and learning of the information he holds, Bennie makes it his mission to haul the lout back to his superiors and at long last bring the Matador to justice. But in addition to being pursued by both Wong’s men and the Russian mafia, Bennie’s charge himself proves to be a slippery customer, using every chance he gets to try escaping and throw all the dogged detective’s plans into disarray.
I’ll be the first to admit that many of the issues working against Skiptrace are ones that myself and legions of fans forgave in past Chan vehicles. The plot is a predictably slender affair involving determined cops chasing down sneering villains, wrapped up in a Midnight Run-style travelogue format that sees Bennie and Connor traipsing about the Asian countryside. The premise in and of itself isn’t incompetent, though the film’s relentlessly mediocre execution sure helps it feel that way. Skiptrace comes to us from director Renny Harlin, who has never been mistaken for one of cinema’s unsung artists but whose dopiest productions (Mindhunters, Deep Blue Sea, etc.) nevertheless had enough foresight to tap into their inherent crazy streaks. This flick, on the other hand, would be hard-pressed to come off as any less lethargic, with seemingly every facet — from its sanitized cinematography to its vanilla score — exhibiting the bare minimum of effort. It’s a flatness that infects virtually every scene, swiping the comedic wind from moments of levity and draining what are supposed to be neat action set pieces of their energy. What we get here is a textbook definition of a movie stuck on autopilot, shirking such flourishes as truly witty dialogue or creative fight choreography that usually prevent such easily excusable nitpicks as unimaginative storytelling from being bumped to the front of the line.
Skiptrace‘s tedious demise, however, isn’t for a lack of trying on behalf of its stars. At 62, Chan makes an effort to appear as spry in dealing out roundhouse kicks to the face as he is in rattling off quips, and largely, he succeeds. As evidenced by the Rush Hour trilogy, he’s had some experience playing the exasperated straight man opposite a motormouthed sidekick, but whether he’s rolling his eyes at the latter’s shenanigans or hopping across collapsing buildings, the man remains a consummate performer. In a part reportedly intended for Seann William Scott, Knoxville actually fares pretty well, a perfect fit for a swindler type who matches Bennie in terms of sheer stubbornness. The crook with a heart of gold character is one that can easily be rendered clichéd and boring, but Knoxville brings a charismatic edge to the role and keeps Connor as fun to watch as he can. In terms of supporting players, though, most are left with no choice but to lay low with thankless stock archetypes, and even those featured more prominently than others aren’t much better off. Fan Bingbing (X-Men: Days of Future Past) is absolutely wasted as what’s ultimately a damsel in distress, and despite some amusing one-liners at the expense of her character’s apparent invulnerability, wrestler Eve Gracie is just another thinly-written sexy henchwoman.
There’s an exotic, rip-roaring, butt-kicking good time to be whipped up out of Skiptrace‘s ingredients, but the final product has had nearly all the flavor pounded out of it. Viewers are served almost two hours of something that goes through the motions of your average martial arts buddy comedy but hasn’t a soul of its own. Not that I was rooting for Skiptrace to be a bust, but if it had to stink, the least it could’ve done was pack some go-for-broke lunacy for the way down.