After viewing nearly every film action director also-ran Renny Harlin has made, I’ve come to the conclusion that he has no distinct filmmaking style, and I only mean that 20% as an insult. Fact is, if you watched Nightmare On Elm Street 4‘s MTV-hyperactive horror pastiche, Cutthroat Island‘s shambolic pirate spectacle, and Devil’s Pass‘ stumbling found-footage mishaps back to back, they’d scarcely seem like the same art form, let alone the same director. No, Harlin’s gift has been and always will be mimicry, the adoption of affectations and the creation of moderately convincing facsimiles. Again, I do not mean this entirely negative; I’d be a liar if I said I didn’t adore Deep Blue Sea and its hyper-intelligent killer sharks, and Harlin’s Exorcist: The Beginning is actually my favorite Exorcist film (though it should be noted I think the original is no great shakes). It takes a real knowledge of film to put on and shed such differing forms as quickly, consistently, and entertainingly as Harlin does.
Skiptrace, Harlin’s newest film, is his attempt at making a Chinese co-produced action blockbuster aimed at a foreign market, starring none other than Jackie Chan himself, as well as former Jackass masochist Johnny Knoxville. Though more subtle in its aping of tropes than his recent output (nothing like the 300-come-lately of The Legend of Hercules, Skiptrace essentially has no visual style beyond the Domino-lite character describing onscreen graphics), it differentiates itself from other medium-budget films of its kind through what is an essential silliness that is too often thrown away, even in Harlin’s own oeuvre. Skiptrace makes 12 Rounds look self-serious in comparison, which is certainly to the film’s benefit. Technically, death is a serious threat in this universe, but only in the way death is a serious threat in the Looney Tunes universe. Though not a live-action cartoon in the way that, say, The Spirit was, it certainly exists in a reality where violence is more of an abstracted kind of physical goof than a chance at real bodily harm, and most of the film’s charm comes precisely from this unusual tonal decision.
So what happens in Skiptrace? Well, Jackie Chain plays Bennie, a Hong Kong cop who has been tracking crime boss The Matador for decades, even after his best partner was killed because of their investigation. Despite years of work and no solid evidence, he is convinced that Victor Wong, a famous philanthropist and business man, is the same Matador, and his two younger charges are working hard with him to prove it. At the same time, gambler and con man Connor Watts (Johnny Knoxville), having come to Hong Kong to make some cash at the casinos, happens to meet and fall in love (or lust, as Knoxville more easily conveys) with casino public relations ambassador Samantha, who also happens to be the daughter of Bennie’s murdered ex-partner, and Bennie also happens to be her adopted parent. After a series of events too convoluted to explain here, Connor gets handed (literally) evidence that could dissolve the Matador’s crime syndicate, and Bennie intends to drag him from Russia (again, long story) to Hong Kong across the massive Asian continent, all the time with the two engaging in an odd couple dance of no-good thief and principled lawman who slowly come to respect each other.
I know, that sounds insufferable, and, in other hands and with other actors, it might very well have turned out that way. But, along with a sprinkling of high points throughout, the ace in the hole turns out to be the person you’d perhaps least expect to sell such rote road-adventure-action-comedy pablum: Johnny Knoxville. It’s not that I’ve ever disliked Knoxville (as someone who has on various occasions called Jackass 2 one of the best movies of the new millennium, how could I?), but he’s never seemed like “movie carrying” material. But as a scoundrel with a heart of gold? I’d dare say there’s no more perfect casting for the man, all smarm and sarcastic swagger that never feels indebted to a tradition of irony. If his role in The Last Stand perhaps came out as a bit too silly in that film’s (relative) seriousness, Skiptrace hands him low-level Buster Keaton bits of slapstick and self-defacement, and he is more than willing to chew them up with all he’s got. His energy even enlivens Jackie Chan, who too often in scenes by himself can feel tired, maybe even phoning it in. Knoxville got him to say the words “’Rolling in the Deep’ is a classic” in a way that made me laugh in good fun instead of patronizing embarrassment. Essentially, Knoxville’s demeanor is what the film excels at: good-natured, ever so slightly ribald, maybe even distasteful, but never cruel and totally committed.
That’s not to say it’s all hits. Much of Skiptrace passes by in ways so nondescript they become completely unmemorable, and a couple stray gay panic jokes (along with an out of nowhere joke about Eve Torres’ breast size relative to Jackie Chan, which is as strange in context as it is out) leave a sour taste where the rest feels, at worst, innocuously serviceable. Fan Bingbing in particular is given a short stick to work with, without much more to be than the immeasurably pretty love interest and plot motion device. To be fair, Fan Bingbing is certainly up to the task of being, frankly, almost too pretty to be believed, but she’s also a good actress with interesting range, the kind of ability the movie almost explicitly doesn’t call for. Eve Torres even gets to ham it up more in her small role as a Russian super bad-ass, though her part is just as underwritten. Plus, despite the camaraderie between Knoxville and Chan, their arcs seem to just circle around each other, with every development undercut until the point where the movie has to begin wrapping up.
That said, there’s far worse one can do than the average Renny Harlin film, and Skiptrace is, to damn with faint praise, an entirely serviceable Renny Harlin film. In a sea still infested with the vestiges of grim-dark storytelling, such an embrace of goofy nonsense has its own quaint charm that I’d love to see extend to the traditional American marketplace (though, if Now You See Me 2 is to be believed, that wonderful tone already has its home turf fans). And hey, if Skiptrace‘s huge opening in China is any indication, maybe there’s more of a market for this than I thought. Sometimes, what you want to see is the kind of movie TBS would play at 3pm on a Thursday afternoon, and for that, Skiptrace delivers. It’s a film of low expectations and equally low but entirely fine rewards, like the movie version of a Little Caesars five-dollar hot and ready pizza. Renny Harlin, shine on you entirely competent if unexciting diamond.
Skiptrace is currently playing in a limited theatrical run and is available On Demand.
Directed by Renny Harlin; written by Jay Longino, BenDavid Grabinski, and Wen-Chia Chang; starring Jackie Chan, Johnny Knoxville, Fan Bingbing, and Eve Torres; 107 minutes.