Jackie Chan knows the buddy comedy/drama subgenre like the back of his hand; comfortably enough, in fact, for him to take the framework back in time (even further than Shanghai Noon) and offer a fresh, relevant outlook on its conventions, powered by his proclivity for action. Doubling as writer and actor, he brings us the history-rooted Little Big Soldier. Set during China's Warring States Period, his script flings together two opposing soldiers with starkly different outlooks in a situation not unlike Martin Brest's Midnight Run, where one drags another cross-country for monetary benefit and, begrudgingly, the two build a love-hate bond. But with an anti-war message and modestly-gripping martial arts ramping up the energy, Chan and director Ding Sheng construct a surprisingly capable and exciting epic-scaled spin on the formula, sporting an affective side that'll sneak up on you.
You've seen what Little Big Soldier has to offer in terms of story, just dressed more modernly -- and, well, without as much bloodshed. Following a battle that killed the entirety of their two platoons, a lowly farmer-turned-soldier (Chan) and a high-and-mighty general (Lust, Caution's Wang Leehom) meet amid a sea of their fallen brethren. A course of events leads the all-important general to fall captive to the foot soldier, who aims to exchange his prisoner for a plot of farming land and a modest sum of money upon arriving home. He's got to get the general there, though, which means he must keep the skilled warrior within eye- and ear-shot as they trek across the land. Along the way, the two bitterly swap stories about their past; the amiable Liang soldier offers tales of his family, while the general tries his hardest to keep his actual place among his people -- as the crown prince to the Wei throne -- a secret.
Chan's writing fills out the clear-cut familiarity with character dimension and historical breadth, making Little Big Soldier spry, amusing, and more substantial than expected. The loggerheaded bickering between the two nameless characters lets their personalities slip out and mesh, paired with Chan's appropriate jollity and Wang Leehom's subtle thaw, which makes their intro reasonably fun to watch and adept at fleshing out their individual personalities. Conversely, it's also lop-sided against the second half; following the brutal body-riddled preface, the comedy trips into impracticality more often than the solemn framing allows, reaching particularly outrageous points involving singing maidens and stray bears in the wilderness. While off-kilter against the sensible historical drama, it's also clear that Chan has taken notes from his comedic misfires -- remember The Tuxedo and, ugh, The Medallion? -- while hammering away at the humor, as it's still grin-inducing even if it feels blatant.
On the other hand, the action in Little Big Soldier doesn't feel the least bit out-of-place, slipstreaming along the story's grandness and bickering in measured, punchy doses. Against the early-China production design, complete with convincing suits of ragtag armor and cramped rustic interiors, Chan and director Ding Sheng incorporate clanking warfare and quaint hand-to-hand battles that only arrive when it feels sinuous with the storytelling. Sure, Chan's finally succumbing to the fact that he can't exert the same wide berth of maneuvers and chaos as when he was younger (or even a few years back in The Medallion), but he still flaunts his engaging fight style with the abandon that only he can exact. You'll even get to see a well-executed, albeit unassuming battle that recalls his wavering, physical-comedy-laced Drunken Master, in which he "cripples" himself to use only one leg and a wooden sword. I do take issue with the stylized editing, though, which all too often chops the scenes up into overly-brief flashes.
When the significant shift in tone occurs in the second half, Little Big Soldier meshes the build-up of the characters and involving action into a journey towards the anti-war message that Chan has written, residing in self-aware, multihued patriotism within a portrait of pre-unified China. It's ultimately about the people at-play within the sides they represent, ranging from a farmer lugging around his small country's flag to a member of warmongering royalty gaining perspective on the lands his people invaded, and their head-butting boils to a surprisingly affective -- albeit mildly operatic -- climax that requires some tonal risk-taking to achieve from its buddy-comedy tones. Pint-sized depth stirs in Little Big Soldier as a result, which conveys its standpoint convincingly while it entertains with clanking blades, cavalier humor and a grand pair of performances from its leads -- especially from Chan, ever the multi-hat-wearer.
Well Go USA wheel out Little Big Soldier in a two-disc presentation: one Blu-ray, and one DVD offering of the film. A cardboard slipcase adorns the outer package, replicating the front and back cover artwork with a few raised/glossy points for visual flair. The DVD contains all of the special features from the Blu-ray (and the menus, pictured above, are the exact same across both standard-definition and high-definition offerings).
Video and Audio:
I've been impressed with the quality of output that Well Go USA have offered in the high-definition arena -- especially with their Man From Nowhere disc -- and Little Big Soldier continues that impression with a distinctly-detailed 2.35:1 1080p treatment, preserving the film's slate- and dust-colored palette with extensive clarity and appropriate contrast balance between the tones. That's not to say that color can't be seen in the image, as you'll spot muted crimson and green at several points, to which this treatment's fully aware of allowing them to pour from the print. The camera's constantly moving in the film, actively in fight sequences to subtle shaky-cam jitters while wheeling around on a carriage, which the disc presents without any pixels appearing out-of-place and a full range of motion to boast. You'll also catch an eye-full of spectacular robust details, namely in the intricate costume work and the densely-textured canyon and desert exterior shots, as well as impressively-rendered details in close-ups (though they occasionally appear a bit smooth in some scenes, namely the shots in the forest). Overall, however, this is a smashing high-definition offering with impressive awareness of its digital presence.
Working its tail off to match the visual treatment, Well Go USA have also nailed Little Big Soldier's sound design within a deft Mandarin DTS-HD Master Audio track that delivers a hefty punch around nearly every corner. Subtle elements like the cackling of a carriage's wheels, the stirring of a dervish around a canyon campfire, and the natural sounds of a forest spread themselves out among the sound design's channels, delivering forceful wood creaks and chirps and gallops at every point they're needed. Activity stays near the front-end of the surround design where it's needed, specifically during verbal delivery, while throaty sound effects from clanking blades, slammed bludgeoning weapons and hand-to-hand fighting frequently discover impressive vigor in their respective quadrants -- forceful bass thrusts and hair-raising high-frequency points. And it stays that way from start to finish, impressively so, with only a few sound effects coming across as mediocre or lacking in spatial awareness. An English DTS-HD Master Audio dub delivers about the same aural experience (and, surprisingly, an inoffensive range of vocals for the leads), while Mandarin and English 2.0 tracks are also available. Only English subs.
Aside from two trailers, one Domestic Trailer (2:03, HD AVC) and another International Trailer (1:39, HD MPEG-2), and a Jackie Chan Music Video (3:09, SD MPEG-2), we've also got a series of generic Making-Of (14:05) packets that offer standard behind-the-scenes glimpses and interviews without much in the way of insightful material.
There's a lot of reward to be found in Little Big Soldier, which, though directed by Ding Sheng, marks a full-on creative exertion from Jackie Chan that's exciting, often amusing, and meaningful when the time comes. Martial-arts fiends won't find a relentlessly-dazzling array of brawls, nor will action hounds be delighted with a bevy of warfare; instead, it mindfully incorporates these elements into the foundation of a ying vs. yang buddy comedy/drama set in pre-unified China, and it does so with a steady hand and an eye for balancing all the things it offers. It's not without a few follies -- a lop-sided feel to the film's two sides, some overly-silly humor in context of the film -- but the end result easily marks on of Jackie Chan's most fully-realized and effective pictures of the last ten years. Well Go USA's Blu-ray disc looks superb and sounds great, with minimal special features that include a trailer and some behind-the-scenes material. Strongly Recommended.
Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site