It all seemed so promising – a commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the Chinese revolution that overthrew centuries of dynastic rule, coupled with the 100th film credited to international superstar Jackie Chan, and granted a budget that could see such a story being brought to the screen with sufficient pomp and scope. Why, then, is it an almost delirious mess, a misfire on almost every level?
The reasons are manifold. From the opening, the film tries to highlight dozens of stories, cramming a who’s-who cast of characters highlighted by chiron-like captions – this guy’s a rebel, and him, and him, and this guy, he’s a general, and so on. I grant that for the non-Mandarin speaking audience this is even more frustrating, as these captions compete unsuccessfully with the rapid-fire subtitles, but the use is so heavy handed that even for native speakers they no doubt would be annoyed to be introduced to yet another minor character that is obvious rebel only to have him killed seconds later.
The scattershot introduction of characters carries through to the telling of the story, crosscutting in time and place in unnecessary and often maudlin fashion, complete with clock-ticking cliche to round out the supposed tension. In fact, this film is so littered with docu-drama tropes that it could play as a kind of cheap movie-of-the-week, complete with gratuitous (and patently chaste) romance, and just the right peppering of violence.
As for the person on the poster? Jackie Chan spends his time in the movie sulking around wearing the smattering of an Evil-Spock beard seen in the photo above. Either dubbed or with processed voice, the near baritone of his speaking role is almost laughable – made all the more irritating through the continued use in modern mainland Chinese cinema of shooting MOS and dubbing after the fact resulting in poor lip-sync throughout. He plays a celebrated general, and we see him wince and scowl often enough as yet another charge is led, but it’s all a bit silly in the end. The truly egregious moment comes when the film takes a radical detour, and we find a character who only moments before was literally the president of half of China seeking out in the hold of a ship four characters who he could apply some chop-socky to. Sliding down a pipe to kick and punch his way, it’s such a sad, sordid reminder of his truly great martial art that it’s almost pornographic the way it’s shoehorned into the story.
We’ve got one strong character as the general in charge of the dynastic army, while the Lady Macbeth portrayal of the Empress Dowager, pointy finger claws and all with an incessant need to burst into tears, is both ghoulish and preposterous. Frankly, the shots filmed in the forbidden city look like tourist polaroids compared to what Bertolucci was able to achieve in LAST EMPEROR, a waste of a perfectly good magnificent location.
Atop all this pedestrian plotting, camera mugging performance and action free from any visceral thrill, the film manages to provide one of the more blatant, if not completely ridiculous propaganda vehicles regarding this period. There’s nothing wrong in such obvious nationalistic intent, nor even in the genre collision presented – the over-the-top nature of LEGEND OF THE FIST was almost more zealous in the reframing of Chinese history, unapologetically rewriting actual events in a fashion that might even make Michael “PEARL HARBOR” Bay blush (if he actually had an autonomic system). Still, that film bashed you on the head in an enjoyable, gregarious way. 1911 is so somber, so silly that the propaganda elements become even more tiresome and irritating.
Several years ago a film came out of mainland China that serves as a model for how this story could be dealt with – CITY OF LIFE AND DEATH was nuanced, with real characters and fantastic scope. The violence was wrenching, the complex tale told on a human level without pandering, and the Japanese enemy given strong characterization to never appear less than human, no matter the brutality of their actions. The film didn’t need any kung-fu side bar, it earned its romantic connections, and its beautiful photography in black and white was literally a stark contrast to the slick, almost greasy sheen of 1911. It can be done, this is an impressive story well worth exploring cinematically, which is why it’s all the more disappointing. It may not join the likes of monstrous cinematic abortions like PASSCHENDAELE, but in the end 1911 is a pretty bad, bad film indeed.