The most brain-meltingly sublime cinematic vision of the year comes from an unlikely source, arriving in the middle of Jackie Chan’s latest action movie Skiptrace. Like all unforeseeable miracles it is dreamlike, and one could not possibly make it up if one tried, although several professional minds clearly came together to pull off the sight and sound of 2016: Jackie Chan and an entire Mongolian village sitting by a campfire at night in the great Eurasian Steppes, breaking into a rousing rendition of Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep”—complete with musical accompaniment on traditional instruments (for added authenticity).
Listen closely and you can even hear a bit of Tuvan throat singing in that Adele group cover, one of many cultural nods that idiosyncratically accompany the unrelenting onslaught of pratfalls and dick jokes that also fill 107 minutes of the Asia-set English-language Chan vehicle. It’s a wholly unironic, seemingly unintentional reminder that we’re living in a post-postmodern era of mass entertainment in which one viewer’s world-colliding trash heap is another’s treasure. When else does sometimes-popstar Chan get to flex his singing chops?
Chan isn’t here for your skepticism, either. “Rolling in the Deep,” he assures a bewildered Knoxville as they bond in an enclave of yurts, “is a classic.”
On paper, Skiptrace, directed by Renny Harlin from a screenplay credited to BenDavid Grabinski and Jay Longino, is a buddy comedy-road trip adventure that pairs the 62-year-old Chan with Johnny Knoxville as a cop and a con artist bumbling their way across greater Asia. The concept and colorful location photography probably sounded like catnip to Chan’s fan base (and financiers). They were right: Chinese ticket buyers came out in droves last month to boost it to a $60 million No. 1 opening, and it’s since grossed a reported $133 million so far during an otherwise lethargic box office season in the coveted Chinese marketplace.
I’m not going to venture that it was the Adele that sealed the deal for Chinese audiences. They probably came for Chan, China’s greatest living export, and the cast of fellow Asian stars (Fan Bingbing, Eric Tsang, Winston Chao, Yeon Jung-hoon) whose characters exist to build a Hong Kong crime conspiracy plot upon which the rest of the movie’s zany hijinks hang. But that’s what earned it a place in my heart—that and the gaping hole left in a slow year for great movies between an underwhelming summer and the coming Oscar season. That, and the love that Chan’s character Bennie Chan harbors for alpacas—another seemingly random quirk that is so specific, it must come from somewhere deep within the man himself.
There’s an endearingly dorky silliness to the antics Chan and Knoxville get into in Skiptrace, which begins with Chan tortured by the death of his partner years ago at the hands of a mysterious criminal named The Matador. Convinced he knows the identity of The Matador, he infiltrates the waterfront hideout of a bunch of bad guys and blows his cover, triggering a chain reaction collapse of several houses on stilts that fall like dominoes as Chan kicks his way through a dozen nameless villains while wearing sensible dad shoes. Skiptrace is a film that finds delightful PG-13 humor in making Johnny Knoxville eat goat testicles, get hit repeatedly in the groin, and roll down the streets of Russia stuffed inside a filthy garbage can. It is a movie in which Knoxville, who dodged death several times over on Jackass, silently pleads with us to buy him as a smooth-talking American con man while delivering boorish lines like, “I didn’t think you could get pregnant the way we did it!”
There’s an admirably intentioned zaniness to those details, though, like how the aforementioned trash receptacle gets sling-shotted through the windows of a neighboring factory in order to propel Skiptrace from one action scene to the next. Random coincidence exists in this universe solely to give the characters somewhere interesting to be, like a local Chinese mud festival so that they may engage in a mud fight with villains, or the aforementioned Siberian factory so that Chan and Knoxville may use the chutes and conveyor belts of their shooting location for maximum value. What kind of factory is this, you ask? A Russian nesting doll factory, because of course it is, and also because that gives Jackie Chan a reason for wielding a doll as an increasingly tinier and tinier makeshift weapon against former WWE diva Eve Torres.
That’s the ballsiest conceit of Skiptrace: That every cliché and gag and set up has a purpose, and that is to fulfill the terms of its own convenience in service of a punchline first, and a plot second. And yet you might find actual thoughts sneaking their way into your brain. As it zips along its dizzying series of locales with hilarious brevity, Skiptrace makes you appreciate the greater Asiatic region, and marvel at how the emerging ticket-buying populations of Russia and China are connected geographically. As you watch Chan and Knoxville desperately blow up hollowed-out pig carcasses with their mouths so that they may float down a river on a raft made of them, you may appreciate the raw natural beauty of the continent and its flora and fauna and the resourcefulness of the ancient Chinese who did the same.
Skiptrace is reminiscent of Chan’s earlier hit-or-miss American buddy comedies—crowd-pleasing cross-cultural Hollywood offerings like Shanghai Noon, Shanghai Knights, and Rush Hours 1, 2, and 3, that created a profitable subgenre within Chan’s own filmography. Those English-language flicks helped Chan cement his crossover superstardom beyond the Hong Kong martial arts classics that made him an acrobatic favorite stateside, and paid off more than the weaker action-comedies that paired him with Hollywood love interests—or Steve Coogan. But even while continuing to make all kinds of movies at home and in Hollywood, he’s struggled to really define what the last decade of Jackie Chan the brand looks like.
Chan gave good drama teaching Jaden Smith kung fu in 2010’s The Karate Kid remake, for example, but he feels utterly at home and himself in a goofy movie like Skiptrace. In spite of the film’s clumsy execution and exasperating juvenile streak, Harlin captures some legitimately amusing action with the spry Chan on a massively staged fight sequence set on a cargo ship that plays like a spiritual nod to Titanic, or perhaps Deep Blue Sea. It’s not a good movie by any measure, but in the film’s comedic moments he captures the Chan we’ve come to love offstage, in interviews, and in life.
So does it matter that Skiptrace is a messy sprawl, coarsely and occasionally offensive, and will probably be barely seen stateside as it opens in limited theaters next month? (It’s currently available on VOD via DirecTV.) Not as much, I’d argue, as the idea that Jackie Chan loves Adele and alpacas and looks like he’s having a blast in a vehicle that dads like him all over the world might enjoy. At times, Skiptrace feels like the most Jackie Chan movie Jackie Chan has made, certainly in recent years, and possibly ever. Let’s let him live his truth and keep rolling in the deep.