Director – Larry Yang – 2023 – China – Cert. PG – 126m
Ageing stuntman Jackie Chan must fight to retain ownership of the horse he has befriended and trained since rescuing it at birth – out in UK, Irish, Chinese and US cinemas on Friday, April 7th
Why does one go to see a Jackie Chan movie? The usual reasons are the incredible stunts coupled with the likeable, knockabout comedy which is his trademark. Perhaps the star’s winsome personality also plays a part. His best films over the years have probably contained a mixture of all three. While these elements, notably Jackie’s personality, are all present to some degree here, they aren’t really its strengths – which are (1) the depiction of a career, reviewed by a person who is old, past their prime, and forced to confront the fact and (2) the relationship of a man with a horse which he has known from the time of its birth.
The day Ride On was released in both the UK and China was also Jackie Chan’s 69th birthday. While I don’t doubt he keeps himself in good condition, he is clearly no longer the young man he once was. And although the film has its share of stunts, and some of them are genuinely thrilling, they are mainly of the fight scenes in small spaces variety. There is also much work featuring a horse, some of which, as the outtakes at the end make clear, were realised with green-suited handlers who were removed from the shot afterwards to give the illusion of the horse doing things it couldn’t do without help. Certainly there are scenes where the horse gallops riderless which were filmed with riders who were removed later on in post-production. If the horse is CGI in places – and it may well be – it’s so well animated and realised on the screen that I didn’t notice. And I usually do notice these things.
Possibly more by accident than design, this plays like a lightweight version of The Shootist (Don Siegel, 1976), John Wayne’s last film in which he plays a dying gunfighter and which opens with a sequence of clips from his career playing cowboys on the screen. Wayne died of cancer three years later. Ride On doesn’t open the same way, but does include various scenes of montages of stunt sequences from Jackie’s filmography which play at various points on large television screens, among them the dangling from the side of a bus and the slide down a shopping mall pole covered in live electric lights from Police Story (Jackie Chan, 1985) and the slide down a 45° angled glass fronted building section from Who Am I? (Benny Chan, Jackie Chan, 1998).
There’s no dark cloud of death here and to the best of my knowledge Jackie Chan is currently in good health – I hope he remains with us for a good while.
There is, however, the sense of the stunt side of the movie business changing through a mixture of widespread concern for health and safety at work and more specific advances in computer technology which allow for incredible stunts to be realised onscreen without performers being put at risk. Given that Chan dangled for real from a helicopter on a rope ladder thousands of feet above Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpa in Police Story 3: Supercop (Stanley Tong, 1992), all this has a particular pertinence to his career.
Veteran stuntman Lao Luo (Jackie Chan) lives with his beloved horse Red Hare who he rescued at birth when it looked like the newly born foal wouldn’t survive and has trained as a s stunt horse. The pair are inseparable, but unfortunately there’s a complicated legal case as to whether he or a corporation owns the horse, and there’s a possibility he may lose it to corporate head He Xin (Yu Ronggwang) who sends younger thug Dami Ge (Andy On) to take the horse from Master Luo.
Meanwhile, the old stuntman is seeking to re-establish his relationship with estranged daughter Xiao Bao (Liu Haocun), whose boyfriend Naihua (Guo Qilin) is a newly qualified lawyer and believes he can resolve the matter of Red Hare’s ownership. Bao is concerned for Red Hare’s safety and wants Luo to give up doing dangerous movie stunts with the horse.
Meanwhile (I hate to reuse the word, but that’s effectively what this narrative construction does, so it’s in keeping), Luo’s protégé Yuanjie (Wu Jing) has risen from stunt performer to major star and wants Luo and Red Hare to do the stunts on his latest film – for which they don’t have to endanger themselves as computer technology can create most of the required images. Luo, however, wants to film the stunts with Red Hare the old and dangerous way.
I won’t go into the finale, which is all to do with who gets the horse, except to say that it lays the emotions on thick with an over the top music score to match, and (to my complete amazement) I thoroughly enjoyed it. Maybe it’s something to do with seeing the film on a big screen.
If you go expecting bags of action of the sort Chan delivered at the height of his career, you’ll be disappointed. You do get him doing some horse stunt scenes, which is not something of which he’s done much before and these are likeable enough, including various scenes playing a stunt man with a horse performing stunts on movie sets. There’s a a fight scene with Andy On and others in a restaurant which would be a showstopper in a film by just about anyone else but in a Jackie Chan film feels pretty lightweight. And there’s one terrific fight scene on the open ceiling rafters of Luo’s house involving ladders and swinging beams that resembles in miniature the more extensive and impressive one staged with Jet Li in a nineteenth century warehouse towards the end of Once Upon A Time In China (Tsui Hark, 1991).
The horse, Red Hare (I’ve been unable to ascertain if that’s its real name or merely that of the character it plays), delivers as memorable a performance as I can remember from a horse in a film (as well as a very silly fart joke when Jackie attempts to push it down a narrow alleyway early on to escape some bad guys) and you really feel the bond between Jackie and the horse, which isn’t something I’d have expected as a major selling point of the film. As mentioned, there are scenes where the horse has been manipulated by technicians removed in post-production, but he does some convincing falls and is arguably the star of the movie.
Jackie Chan, with his history as a stunt performer originally trained in Peking opera, is possessed of a great physicality, and perhaps this is why his interaction with the horse onscreen works so well. An unexpected new string to his bow. You come away with a great sense of the bond between man and horse that I can’t remember seeing in a film before. (It’s not something I’ve ever gone looking for, so perhaps other films achieve this, but I know of none.) Even War Horse (Steven Spielberg, 2011) put its horse through serial scenarios rather than just pairing him with one human throughout. Writer-director Larry Yang’s films are generally dramas about people forced by circumstances to rediscover their true selves, and it may simply be that he’s a very good fit for the man and horse material here. I have no idea whether the original idea came from writer-director or star in this instance.
The film has a PG certificate and even though it has a couple of fight scenes, they’re not that violent. It does plot a bit in parts during the first hour although it picks up later on. It’s not a children’s movie and not aimed at them, but because of the element of the relationship of the man and his horse, it’s possible some children might get a lot out of it. If you love horses, or even more if you actually ride them, you almost certainly will. Incidentally, I don’t ride horses myself yet was glad to have seen it.
Ride On is out in cinemas in the UK, Ireland, China and the US on Friday, April 7th.