Jumping down is easy. Stepping down is hard.
Stuntmen who worked in the Hong Kong film industry in the 1970s and 1980s seemed to be cut from a different cloth. As detailed in Junzi Wei’s excellent 2020 documentary, Kung Fu Stuntmen, stuntmen genuinely put their lives on the line, taking hits and falls all in the name of art. If these stuntmen weren’t the lucky ones who wound up with movie careers working in choreography, stunt coordination, directing, or even acting, they generally left the industry battered, bruised, and penniless.
Ride On is the newest Jackie Chan movie, written and directed by Larry Yang, dealing with ageing stuntman Lao Luo (played here by Chan), his estranged relationship with his daughter, his troubles with debt, and his passion for stuntwork. A family-friendly affair that tries to approach its central narratives from one too many angles — a family melodrama, a courtroom drama, a kung fu comedy, a sports movie — while simultaneously acting as a sort of Jackie Chan retrospective. An ode to the action star and stuntman who inspired so many and pushed the boundaries of action stunt choreography at a very formative time. The film has a lot that it wants to show and tell in a finite amount of time, resulting in moments that feel rushed through (specific narrative beats being underdeveloped or underutilized) and a final film that feels more like three or four movies cobbled together. Fortunately, It just so happens that I like all of the movies within this movie. The threads are woven together in a rather formulaic and safe manner, but the edit does prioritize some beats over others. The melodramatic, soap opera family dynamic at the heart of the movie might not be the most captivating, but it serves a narrative purpose and allows for both humorous and heartfelt scenes with the daughter (played nonchalantly by Liu Haocun).
The standout performance here is Red Hare, Jackie’s horse and right-hand man. Raised from a foal with crooked legs, Red Hare becomes a strong and energetic horse, and a ‘son’ in Lou’s life in lieu of the daughter he rarely saw. The dynamic between Red Hare and Jackie’s character is fantastic; at times they can dole out funny vaudeville-style slapstick routines, and at other points, their bond and connection serve for really heartfelt drama, with Chan delivering some of his most sober and emotional scenes. The awkward relationship between Lou and his daughter is offset by the bond between stuntman and horse, a man who chose his career over family when family needed him the most. While not necessarily the film’s primary focus, there is also an interesting conversation at play throughout the film about the treatment of animals on film sets and within the entertainment industry at large, especially those involved in stuntwork. In confluence with this, there are moments when CGI is utilized for the more ambitious and risky moments on the backlot, an idea that Chan’s character himself warms to towards the end of the picture, bridging this generational gap that has lurked at the fringes of the movie for its entire runtime.
Although not as acrobatic or daring as his younger self, an elderly Jackie Chan still puts on a good show. You can see practically every shade of Jackie Chan in this movie. At points, he is the goofy kung fu comedy prince, chopping his way through fight sequences with glee, using the environment around him to produce a whirlwind of energetic action, but also there are moments when he allows himself to be vulnerable, and soberly human, delivering one of the most direct and emotionally moving performances of his career. As with any classic JC film, there are three or four well-staged action sequences peppered throughout this film. Although Jackie is approaching a spry 70 years of age, he can still take gnarly tumbles and move with grace and fluidity. The editing in these sequences is choppy, but Chan can no longer run through long takes of uninterrupted choreography. The hand-to-hand combat is as exhilarating to watch as it is in any top-drawer Jackie movie — not since Buster Keaton has there been a man in such precise control of his body, with the knowledge of how to present it efficiently and gracefully on screen. One sequence in particular, as Lao Luo and Red Hare film a cameo in a new action movie, is very reminiscent of the famous Tea House scene from Legend of Drunken Master (1994). Swarms of bodies and weapons, parried gracefully and energetically by Jackie, with crunchy and heavy sound design to really reinforce the strikes.
There are several moments that won’t mean much to those not overly familiar with Chan’s entire cinematic oeuvre, but these throwaway moments are enough to showcase the director’s admiration for Chan and his impressive career. The film blurs the line between Lou and Chan; a captivating sequence sees the daughter watching a compilation of her father’s incredible stunts and terrifying falls, utilising footage from Jackie films from Police Story (1985), First Strike (1996), Operation Condor (1991) and more. Visual references to the iconic Safety Last (1923) style stunt in Project A (1983), a training sequence lifted from Drunken Master (1978), a hat worn in First Strike, and even a dance move used in Rush Hour (1998). All are completely incidental moments but moments of pure glee for audiences who adore these movies.
Ride On seems to be an ideal tribute to one of the most iconic voices in action cinema. It is a movie that wears many hats over the course of its two hour runtime, but each of those hats represents a certain aspect of what has made Jackie so exciting to watch for 50 years. The movie blurs the line between the fictional character and the real-life stuntman, serving as a reflection on Jackie Chan’s career as a stuntman and action star. While it may mark the end of Jackie’s screen presence, it serves as a kind pat on the back for a lifetime’s contribution to the art of falling and getting back up again.
Action! Jump! Hospital.