Director: Leo Zhang
Cast: Jackie Chan, Show Lo, Nana Ou-Yang, Callan Mulvey, Tess Haubrich, Erica Xia-hou, Damien Garvey, Kaitlyn Boyé, Isabelle Wojciechowska, Olga Miller, Kim Gyngell, Amanda Hedges, Temur Mamisashvili
Running Time: 110 min.
By Paul Bramhall
To say that Jackie Chan has had a busy couple of years could well be construed as the understatement of the century. With starring roles in Skiptrace, Railroad Tigers, Kung Fu Yoga, The Foreigner, and now his latest with Bleeding Steel, the last time one of action cinemas most enduring icons was this busy was 1985. Over 30 years on, and Chan certainly no longer has the gift of youth on his side, but as a man who’s spent almost his whole life dedicated to thrilling audiences, it’s understandable that old habits die hard. While Chan’s enthusiasm doesn’t seem to have diminished for appearing onscreen, the quality of the productions he chooses to appear in varies greatly. While The Foreigner was arguably his best role in over a decade, Kung Fu Yoga was a career low.
Bleeding Steel sees Chan’s first excursion into the realms of science fiction (notwithstanding his role as producer on Reset from earlier in the year), in a Mainland Chinese production that has him paired with director Leo Zhang, here helming his sophomore feature after his 2012 debut Chrysanthemum to the Beast, which starred Jaycee Chan. So we have an aged action star, in a movie made by an inexperienced director, in a genre that’s still largely unexplored in Mainland cinema. What can possibly go wrong? As you may expect, the answer is, practically everything. Bleeding Steel falls into that niche market, all be it one that has a rapidly increasing catalogue of titles, that we’ll call – The Incompetent in Every Way Mainland Blockbuster. It was Switch that essentially set the bar for this genre back in 2013, but it’s since been joined by the likes of Bounty Hunters and Chan’s own Kung Fu Yoga.
The plot of Bleeding Steel is equal parts incomprehensible and idiotic, so to even attempt a summary seems like a fruitless task, but the in-a-nutshell version goes something like this. A scientist is attempting to make the perfect human weapon, called a Bioroid, but is murdered by one of his former subjects. Through various incomprehensible events, before the scientist dies he transfers his research and memories into Jackie Chan’s daughter, who has leukaemia. The transfer makes her lose her own memories, so she grows up in an orphanage. But of course Chan is always watching over her, in a variety of creepy ways, the latest of which (13 years after the death of the scientist – not that you’d know as he hasn’t changed a bit) has him working in her university canteen. Oh, and the orphanage she’s sent to is in Sydney, Australia, because, why not?
In that regard, you could say that Bleeding Steel completes Chan’s Australia Trilogy. First Strike took place in the Gold Coast, Mr. Nice Guy took place in Melbourne, and in 2017 he’s finally made it to Sydney. It’s just a shame it has to be in this disastrous mess. Bleeding Steel is a confused beast from the get go. Despite being set in 2020, the futuristic vision is poorly defined to say the least, and seems more like it’s operating in its own bizarre alternate reality. This is personified particularly by the Australian cast members, who all appear to be having a laugh at the director’s expense, by hamming up their accents to hilariously exaggerated levels. Lines like “Sir, we’ve found the transvestite” are delivered completely poker faced, and even the subtitles get in on the act, with one particular standout reading “Rick is a dick.” As an unintentional comedy, Bleeding Steel is gold.
The character design is equally bewildering. The failed subject dresses like an emo version of an unmasked Darth Vader, before he ends up half blown to pieces and re-appears fitted out like a Borg from Star Trek (complete with some brain on show for extra impact). The lead villainess runs around in a PVC cape and outfit that looks like a Matrix reject (and for good reason). The bad guys dress like an Asylum version of the Robocop reboot. We get a spiritual medium that wears a Native American headdress, a dwarf played by a cast member credited as Sammy the Dwarf, and a magician that looks like David Copperfield mixed with Jack Sparrow. I could go on, but it’s already painful to recall.
The more Bleeding Steel progresses, the more it begins to feel like Zhang is making it up as he goes along, as the tone varies wildly from scene to scene, and plot twists occur with little attention paid to if they actually make sense. Even the quieter scenes quickly turn into cringe inducing moments of bewilderment. When Chan’s daughter, played in present day by Nana Ou-Yang (last seen in Mission Milano), innocently bumps into another student on her way to lunch, it quickly descends into a catfight with the pair of them rolling all over the floor. Played out to a script which has insults of speaking Chinglish being thrown around, and the bizarre praise of Ou-Yang’s punch in the face to the other student making her a credit to China, ultimately all you can do is raise an eyebrow.
Chan himself frequently takes a back seat to the pairing of Ou-Yang and Show Lo (a recent Stephen Chow regular, appearing in the likes of Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons and The Mermaid), who plays a thief that takes an apparent liking to Ou-Yang. Lo has learnt well from working with Chow, as he delivers the couple of genuine laughs to be derived from Bleeding Steel’s surprisingly humourless runtime. These very brief moments of respite are short lived though, as he’s equally lumbered with painfully self-aware jokes, which see him referencing Jackie Chan by name not once, but twice.
Of course with Chan headlining proceedings, action is a prerequisite, and while it happens frequently it never feels remarkable. The biggest set piece takes place during the opening, when the special forces agents protecting the scientist are ambushed, leading to a series of exploding cars and bodies flying through the air every which way, preventing the credits from finishing until we’re already 15 minutes in. The more grounded action though simply sees Chan rehashing the same routine we’ve seen him perform for over 30 years, with even a mid-way showdown that takes place on top of the iconic Sydney Opera House feeling perfunctory and dull.
The finale in particular is a hoot, as it turns out that the Borg/Bioroid (played by Australian actor Callan Mulvey from Beyond Skyline) has spent the last 13 years living in a sterile room housed in a (presumably) permanently airborne spaceship. At least I think it was a spaceship, in truth it’s more of a rip-off of the floating bases from the Avengers franchise. In it Chan, Lo, and Erica Xia-Hou team up to take on both Mulvey and the cape wearing Tess Haubrich (Alien: Covenant) in a completely generic and uninspired set piece. Containing one of the most inconsequential arm dismemberments I’ve ever witnessed, a heart being bare handedly ripped out of someone’s chest, and Chan being strangled by a completely naked Mulvey, it’s impossible to do justice to with words. Don’t get me started on the sky diving escape they all have to do.
Despite the absurdity of Bleeding Steel, or perhaps because of it, in the end I still found myself enjoying it more than Kung Fu Yoga, all be it the enjoyment was definitely of a morbid variety. While Stanley Tong’s latest effort was consistently infuriating, Bleeding Steel kept me glued to the screen simply to see what it had up its sleeve next. Whenever you thought it couldn’t get any worse, a random dwarf would appear, or a magician would sacrifice himself for no reason whatsoever, or Chan would start crying. It’s that special level of incompetence which is most commonly referred to as “so bad it’s good”, and Bleeding Steel achieves that level almost effortlessly. If you’re a Jackie Chan fan like myself, regardless of the reviews, fate predestines us to still watch it. Just be warned that when the end credits roll, the only thing likely to be bleeding is your brain.
Paul Bramhall’s Rating: 3.5/10