History can either be the most interesting thing in the world or one of the most dour and dire things to sit through. Released seven years ago but only now in Ireland, Jackie Chan and Zhang Li’s 1911 falls decidedly into the latter category. China’s history of war, revolution and general strife should make for captivating cinema especially with the Communist superpower’s obsession with heroes but not here. 1911’s only revolutionary act is to make a Jackie Chan film boring.
The Revolution of 1911 is one of the defining moments of modern China. Military general Huang Xing (Jackie Chan) and political leader Sun Yat-Sen (Winston Chao in his fifth portrayal of the “Father of China”) are leading the Xinhai Revolution against the imperial Qing Dynasty. Through great sacrifice and perseverance the Revolution topples the Qing dynasty and establishes the Republic of China.
1911 is a boring film and that’s the worst thing a film can be. It’s a pretty damning thing that 1911 fails to capture, let alone generate, any interest in the event that was the first building block of the China we know today. Revolutionary cinema is nothing new, especially to us here in Ireland. But at least the likes of Michael Collins, The Wind That Shakes the Barley and Black 47 were interesting. 1911 can’t even get us to care about a character played by Jackie Chan. I mean, come on!
Chan spends most of the film stoic and stony faced directing troops and charging headlong at the enemy. There’s one scene about two-thirds of the way in where Chan singlehandedly fights off three assassins with the kind of agility and style that made him China’s most famous actor. But by that stage I’d endured so many constipated scenes full of shoddy action and impassioned speechifying that all the kung-fu did was draw a slight eyebrow raise from me. Winston Chao fares slightly better but that’s only because playing the gravitas burdened role of Sun Yat-Sen is second nature to him by now.
No event is too small or too big to include in 1911. The deaths of 72 martyrs to the cause is given as much screen time as Sun Yat-Sen’s election as President. Battle scenes are cut short and both victories and defeats are explained away by the kind of text overlays you’d see at the end of a Discovery Channel documentary. For a film that wants to pack everything in it struggles to give itself a reason to exist at all.
1911 is a propaganda film but so what? So was Rambo 2. The problem is that it’s a dull propaganda film. If there’s one thing Chinese cinema does extraordinarily well it’s propaganda. The likes of the Wolf Warrior series, the Operation Mekong and Operation Red Sea movies and the period piece Ip Man series are all incredible action films with a propagandist bent.
What’s doubly puzzling is that 1911’s co-directors have great experience with these kind of epic action period films. Zhang Li was the cinematographer for John Woo’s six hour epic Red Cliff. This is Chan’s hundredth movie. This is the sort of film that should inspire an oral history “1911: What Went Wrong?” piece in Variety. It just goes to show that with a script as stodgy and starched as 1911’s not even Chan, Chao or female lead Li Bingbing (Resident Evil: Retribution, The Meg) can lighten it.
1911 shouldn’t be as boring as it is. Sure, Jackie Chan’s been pursuing more dramatic roles lately. But dramatic doesn’t mean Plank of Wood in Uniform. It’s a mystery as to why 1911 is as uninteresting as it is. Chan has shot incredibly complex battle scenes before and so has Li. Even a script as dreadful as Wang Xingdong and Chen Baoguang’s shouldn’t stymie all of the talent in front of and behind the camera. It’s a mystery one that, unlike the revolution of 1911, is best forgotten.