Although Jackie Chan’s name appears above the title, this film is in no way a chop-socky slugfest. In fact, the aging stunt master puts in only one brief martial arts fight scene, settling the rest of his skirmishes with bullets, not acrobatics. There’s a good deal of military action for the war-movie crowd, but the film is primarily a historical drama that functions as a centennial celebration of the founding of the Republic of China. In other words, it’s not very exciting, and actually somewhat confusing for those not well-versed in Chinese history.
In the waning days of the Qing dynasty, revolutionary leader Sun Yat-sen marshaled his forces to overthrow the Empress and reclaim the country for the people. The film traces that movement from the early stages of the revolution through the leader’s abdication of the throne, focusing on the military skirmishes as well as the deep friendship between Sun (Winston Chao) and military leader Huang Xing (Chan), each working their respective areas of expertise to achieve their desired results. Sun spends most of the film abroad, both in the U.S. and Europe, cultivating political and financial connections to aide the new country’s transition in the event of the revolution’s success. That leaves Xing to do the dirty work, leading his troops through scores of deadly encounters, seemingly meeting his end at least twice, and losing a couple of fingers along the way.
Regrettably, the film is painfully dull and hard to follow, with the narrative never really forming a cohesive whole but instead drifting by in poorly transitioned scenes that fail to build any momentum in spite of liberal use of explanatory historical subtitles. The friendship between Sun and Xing isn’t explored enough to make us care much about either of them, and other minor characters are so far off in the periphery that they’re all but forgotten by the end. It’s nice to see Joan Chen pop up as the Empress Dowager, a fun bookend to her early palace work in The Last Emperor, but the role is one-dimensional and brief. Jackie Chan celebrates the film’s other centennial, that of his 100th film, but has even less character to work with than his Mr. Miyagi redux in The Karate Kid (2010), leaving him with a mostly dramatic role with little drama. That leaves the action and cinematography as the only redeeming qualities, with the battle scenes barely getting a pass but the cinematography stealing the show.
The Blu-ray presentation maximizes the exquisite cinematography by Wai Huang, with each shot lit and framed like artwork ready for a museum wall. The sound mix isn’t especially impressive, but the battle scenes are suitably immersive in DTS-HD. Bonus features on the Blu include some unedited behind the scenes footage and trailers. The Collector’s Edition also includes a DVD with the film’s Hong Kong press conference featuring Chan, Chao, and inconsequential lead actress Bingbing Li, as well as another interview with Li and a selection of deleted scenes.