How Jackie Chan vehicle Skiptrace, a 2016 US-China co-production by Hollywood director Renny Harlin, put the clash in culture clash
The history of Sino-American co-productions is littered with Hollywood blockbusters that include ill-thought-out Asian elements designed to appeal to Chinese audiences.So it’s no wonder the makers of Skiptrace, a buddy cop film pairing Jackie Chan and Johnny Knoxville from Jackass, were keen to try something new.Their plan? To match a Hollywood director and star with a Chinese cast and crew for a co-production that would play well in Asia and America. The results? Mixed to say the least.Finnish-born Renny Harlin made Hollywood blockbusters such as Die Hard 2 (1990) and Cliffhanger (1992) until mega-bomb Cutthroat Island (1996) saw him relegated to the lower leagues.
While scouting Asian locations for a Genghis Khan biopic, he found that, as he told Forbes, “China left a mark on me”.When 9/11 forced the cancellation of his next project – Nosebleed, a Jackie Chan movie set in the World Trade Center – the director decided to head east. “I put all my chips on red and spun the wheel,” he said.
Although Skiptrace would see Harlin charting new territory, at least the plot would feel familiar – it’s exactly the kind of jokey action film he was making in the 1990s.While hunting a gangster called The Matador, Hong Kong detective Benny Chan (Chan) sees his partner Yung (Eric Tsang Chi-wai) murdered.Vowing to look after Yung’s daughter, Samantha (Fan Bingbing), Chan becomes embroiled with American gambler Connor Watts (Knoxville), who has cheated corrupt casino owner Victor Wong (Winston Chao), also Samantha’s boss.
When Wong kidnaps Samantha, Chan is forced to bring Watts to him – the only problem is, he’s been snatched by Russian gangsters.
Cue a trip from Russia to Hong Kong, in which the mismatched pair slowly begin to bond – like Midnight Run (1988) relocated to Mongolia.The title refers to a tracking device that allows Wong’s henchmen to catch up with them at inopportune moments.After nearly 40 years in the business, Harlin knows what he’s doing. Compared to a lot of Chinese movies, Skiptrace is reasonably well directed; Chan and Knoxville have charisma to spare; and there are some fun set pieces, such as a raid set in the stilt-house village of Tai O in Hong Kong that sees the houses falling like dominoes into the sea.But the culture clash that gives the film its spark also threatens to scupper it. The script, by Jay Longino and BenDavid Grabinski, often feels like it’s been translated by bots.
“You want justice for your partner – I understand that – but your obsession with this case has taken a toll on you personally,” warns angry police chief Captain Tang (Michael Wong Man-tak).The eye-catching locations could have been chosen by the Chinese tourist board, with the pair coming across a Kongming lantern festival and Monihei Mud Carnival. “Are you on Wikipedia all the time?” Watts asks Chan as they interrupt another narratively convenient gathering.The awkward cultural cross-pollination climaxes in the deeply strange moment when, after a bout of drinking in a Mongolian village, Chan busts out a version of Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep” accompanied by traditional instruments.
“I never would have figured you for an Adele fan,” says Watts with an admirably straight face. “‘Rolling in the Deep’ is a classic,” offers Chan, as if to say, case closed.“I thought this would be an awesome kind of East-meets-West-meets-Mongolia-meets-rest-of-the-world kind of scene,” Harlin told Slash Film. By the time Watts returns the favour by singing Chan’s 1991 hit “Please Understand My Heart”, all bets are off.Fittingly, the release was just as lopsided as the film. In China, it grossed US$62.2 million on its first weekend, becoming Chan’s biggest ever opening. In America, however, it made US$1,792 on limited release, then slunk off to streaming.
It may have been a mixed blessing for its producers, but for Harlin it was the beginning of a lucrative second act, directing Chinese-language films such as Legend of the Ancient Sword (2018) in China.“In China, you can do anything,” he said. “In China, nothing is impossible.”