We stand at a perilous threshold in the career of Jackie Chan. The knockabout clown who parlayed his unparalleled physical skills into international superstardom is well into his 50s now, and leaping across tall buildings in a single bound is no longer in the cards. He’s been engaged in a slow process of reinvention for his last few films, but 1911 announces a radical departure from business as usual. That’s not a good thing.
Chan serves as co-director here as well as the star, endeavoring to deliver a massive epic about the 1911 revolution that overthrew the centuries-old Qing Dynasty in China. To put it mildly, he hasn’t the first idea what he’s doing. The material is ripe for a full-blooded historical drama, with national hero Sun Yat-Sen at the heart of it and a plethora of fascinating figures swirling around him. Unfortunately, Chan and co-director Li Zhang completely fail to bring it to life. 1911 exists as a haphazard grab-bag of context-free fight scenes, cardboard characters and constant title cards explaining key details that the film itself can’t reveal in any other way.
You’d be better served by reading a history book – any history book -- than trying to make sense of the storyline here. As the Qing rulers sell off China’s assets to foreign powers, growing discontent explodes into full-born rebellion. While Sun (Wen Xuan Zhao) travels in exile trying to raise money for the rebels, various soldiers on the ground battle desperately against the ruling hegemony. Among them is Huang Xing (Chan), who loses parts of his hand in an early battle, then pushes forward with due fervor until the revolution succeeds.
Most of those key points come about via title card, or from post-screening research on the Internet. The Chinese are presumably more familiar with the various key figures than Westerners, but the film takes so much for granted that they hardly feel like people at all. They exist solely to give stirring speeches that smack suspiciously of modern propaganda. We learn nothing about what drove them, personally, to take the actions that they did, or the tactics and political strategies used by the two sides. There’s a vague sense of the Qings compounding their folly by taking out further loans to buy guns, but the backstory and development remain a frustrating fog bank.
The same holds true for the interminable battle scenes. Chan and Li deliver the nuts and bolts admirably enough, but they don’t bother to fill us in on the stakes. We just see people shooting at each other, with no sense of why one side or another wins, or (more importantly) what the importance of the particular battle is. 1911 does the same thing with its characters: shoveled at us from all directions and limited to a brief name and title before being hurled into the meat grinder. Sun himself remains the only character with a purpose and an arc, and even he is reduced to crude political analogies rather than actual characterization.
Chan does even worse, a blank slate whose celebrity only distracts us from the particulars of who he is and what he’s supposed to be doing. The remainder of the cast rushes to and fro at random: searching (one can only hope) for some reason to be there. Their quest fails utterly, leaving the poor audience to fend for themselves amid the hash.
The problems go beyond east/west cultural divisions. A good film can connect its viewers to the events depicted regardless of background. Films like Hero, Mongol and Red Cliff do astonishing jobs of depicting key moments in Asian history, as vibrant and irresistible on our side of the Pacific as theirs. 1911 plays like a celebrity vanity project, desperate to say something Very Important without bothering to consider how. It closes on a borderline offensive statement about how well the Communists have upheld Sun’s legacy, demonstrating a profound misunderstanding of the very struggle it is so keen to depict. It’s not just bad history, it’s bad filmmaking… and if Chan wants to change his stripes, he needs to do a hell of a lot better.