I cannot say that I get as excited about a new Jackie Chan release as I used to; remembering the halcyon 90s, there was such anticipation for each new project announced. Now, I encounter the latest Chan flick with a bit of trepidation – will it be ‘Kung Fu Yoga’ bad or ‘Railroad Tigers’ good (and, to be sure, ‘Railroad Tigers’ wasn’t 80s/90s ‘good’)? ‘Ride On’ is quite a different offering though, part tribute, part drama, all with a distinct flavour of fin de siècle.
Famous stuntman Lao Luo, along with his beloved horse and fellow performer Red Hare, has fallen on hard times. Forgotten by the industry he loves, indebted to loan sharks and ignored by his estranged daughter, Lao struggles to make ends meet as a street performer. Two twists in his life promise to change things forever though: firstly, after a legal challenge is presented to him on the ownership of Red Hare, his daughter and her boyfriend decide to get involved in the case; even more surprisingly though, Lao and Red Hare’s fight with the loan sharks goes viral and he starts to get offers again. Yet, in an era where computers can do the majority of the work, is there still place in the medium for someone like Lao Luo?
‘Ride On’ is a hodgepodge of a film. Not necessarily in a terrible way, but certainly in a manner that requires patience to get to grips with. Its lack of focus harms the overall quality of the film and yet there are some moments in it that genuinely work. To get to that point the viewer needs to sit through a very episodic first hour, though there are rewards for those who manage. The initial problem with ‘Ride On’ is the tone; is it a comedy, or a drama, or an action film or a homage to simpler times? It bounces among all of these things breathlessly without achieving anything of note. The father-daughter relationship (complete with flashbacks and Jackie sporting some very dubious wigs) is mawkish, the action looks like someone trying to perform a Jackie Chan-style set piece and the comedy falls flat. The only thing that truly convinces is the scenes between Lao Luo and Red Hare which quite moving.
As it moves into the second hour though, everything appears to connect in an unexpected way. There are a few scattershot digs at the industry, but what shines through is a respect and appreciation for that most ignored and endangered of contributors to cinema, the stunt performer. It nods the hat to the brave men and women who put their lives on the line and very rarely get much recognition for it – in this, it reminded me of ‘Hooper’ and ‘The Stunt Man’. The other thing that dramatically changes is the relationship between father, daughter and future son-in-law. It’s almost as if it has crept up and you suddenly realise that the overwrought first hour has somehow morphed into an involving drama. Though the action is on the back-burner here, even this improves and there is an enjoyable sequence that recalls ‘Miracles: The Canton Godfather’ and even ‘Gorgeous’.
That is what proves to be the glue that holds everything together: the tribute to the career of one of cinema’s greatest stars. Easter eggs pop up early on, but are left in the background and not forced into the discussion in that oh-so-fashionable meta-way of modern cinema. There are nods to ‘Drunken Master’, ‘Wheels on Meals’, ‘Thunderbolt’, ‘First Strike’ and countless others, with writer/director Larry Yang openly alluding to his inspiration. Then, ‘Ride On’ treads into autobiographical territory as it shows clips from previous films and noticeably has something to say about the regret of losing family for the sake of fame. And this is one of the first films that shows Jackie Chan appearing truly ‘old’ – and it’s not a bad thing at all. It has the added effect of peppering the last quarter of the film with unexpected poignancy as the audience sees this once-great physical star coming to terms with his age and mortality. For those of us who have grown up (cinematically speaking, of course) with Jackie Chan, this leaves quite an impression; it recalls an era of cinema, not just Hong Kong but worldwide, that will never be repeated again. And it makes you feel slightly privileged to have lived through the 80s whether it be here in the UK, or in the US or in Hong Kong and to have experienced cinema at that time. The days in the UK when, on nearly every Bank Holiday, there was a programme that you would gather around to watch where you would be shown how they performed the stunts in ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ or the latest James Bond film, and you would sit there in awe at what men and women went through to get the action on the screen. ‘Ride On’ is a reminder – though not always successful – of how we should cherish those moments. As those days seemingly pass into antiquity and film becomes more a product of computer and agenda (and probably AI) than it ever was, it is difficult to ignore what will be lost.