The Revolution will not be televised, Gil Scott-Heron once sang. Nor should it be filmed, we might add – at least not as a costume drama with stirring speeches, an inspirational love story and gloriously heroic military charges.
The film 1911 is the story of the Xinhai or Hsinhai Revolution, the overthrow of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912), a rebellion that eventually led, many battles later, to the communist takeover of China in 1949.
It's a film that also marks the 100th picture of Jackie Chan. That Chan's anniversary trumps the centennial of the Chinese revolution as 1911's promotional angle is all you need to know about how serious the film is about understanding history.
Like Warren Beatty's 1976 movie Reds, this is a movie that uses "world-shaking" events to tell personal stories, starting with how a Chinese exile, Sun Yat-sen, rallied his homeland against a feckless, teetering regime. Winston Chao plays Sun for the fourth time on film. And once again looks like he's running for public office. The movie never once catches him off-message.
His best friend and the revolution's military leader is Huang Xing (director-star Chan), who spends the film dodging bullets (not always successfully) in an effort to dethrone the elegant, fatally corrupt Empress Dowager Longyu (Joan Chen).
Huang is always getting hurt: A bullet in the gut.... Ka-boom, there go some fingers. Fortunately, he's been assigned a fantastic-looking love-interest-nurse, Xu Zongham (Li Bingbing).
Most of the rebels of 1911 aren't so lucky. The film regularly stops to salute fallen heroes, offering close-ups of martyrs expiring in their wives' arms. It's as if they're all posing for statues.
Indeed, dialogue more often sounds like an inscription chiselled in granite than actual conversation:
"The long enslaved masses are numb."
"I cry with blissful tears."
This may be unfair to the movie, which is crammed with convincing, thunderous action scenes and is no more foolishly patriotic than Hollywood war movies of old. There's the rub, though: Chan's film may be about a war and revolution staged in 1911, but it should feel like it was made in 2011. What we have here comes across as pre-Great War propaganda trumpeting the necessity of human sacrifice for the greater good.
Or as Randall Jarrell once wrote in his poem, A War:
"You can't break eggs without making an omelette That's what they tell the eggs."
If 1911 doesn't impress as historical spectacle, neither does it rank high as a Jackie Chan film. The most engaging of action stars, Hong Kong's most famous actor has carved a unique career by borrowing equally from all of Bruce Lee, Buster Keaton and Douglas Fairbanks. Here, sadly, those influences disappear as he plays an uptight, virtuous hero.
This is Serious Stuff!, the film announces early on. Except for a small, wonderful scene later on, it never allows us a minute of pleasure.
That sequence is vintage Chan, even if he's not involved as an actor. In it, Chinese warlord Yuan Shikai (Sun Chun) responds to news of Sun Yat-sen's military success by pitching an enormous fit. To accommodate his bad mood, obsequious servants race about handing him Ming vases to smash.
The scene recalls Jackie Chan's early Hong Kong films, where comedy and carnage went happily together. If all his work was as solemn as 1911, he would never have made 100 movies.
Special to The Globe and Mail
- Directed by Jackie Chan and Zhang Li
- Written by Wang Xingdong and Chen Baoguang
- Starring Jackie Chan, Li Bingbing, Winston Chao, Joan Chen and Jaycee Chan
- Classification: 14A