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An epic history lesson - but no martial arts - from Jackie Chan

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By Mark Feeney
Globe Staff / October 7, 2011

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This year marks the centenary of the revolution that overthrew China’s last imperial dynasty. To observe the occasion, Jackie Chan has co-directed (with cinematographer Zhang Li) this epically didactic epic.

How didactic? “Oh, Dr. Sun,’’ a character says to China’s future president, Sun Yat-sen, “it seems like there’s something in today’s paper about China.’’ Another character announces, “I rejoice at my martyrdom.’’ Speeches alternate with battles, slogans with explosions. There’s enough explanatory caption material to fill a not-so-small pamphlet.

How epic? A reported $30 million budget will go a long way at Chinese prices. Costumes, sets, special effects, extras: Chan and Zhang have not stinted on spectacle. “This isn’t about money, Sun,’’ an American adviser tells him. “It’s about you.’’ With “1911,’’ art direction speaks louder than words.

Where the directors have stinted is on Chan (and the script). He also stars in “1911,’’ playing a revolutionary general who’s Sun’s strong right arm. A college football coach once said that a tie game is like kissing your sister. A Jackie Chan movie without martial arts is like kissing Jackie Chan? No, it’s like kissing the football coach.

Actually, there’s a shipboard sequence where Chan slides down a steam pipe (using his overcoat as a body-length oven mitt) then foils an assassination attempt with a bit of the old ultra-acrobatics. Otherwise, the camera moves a lot more than he does. It swoops, it pans, it noses around. The camerawork is almost as agitated as the editing. The directors seem to be trying to compensate for all the speechifying with as much random motion as possible.

Winston Chao, as Sun, looks noble and long-suffering. Bingbing Li plays Chan’s love interest. In keeping with the movie’s priorities, she shows more ardor for the revolution than for the general (which, in fairness, is OK with him). Chun Sun hams it up as an imperial general trying to play both ends against each other so he can come out on top. Not that he has a chance. You don’t need to know any Chinese history to see how things are going to turn out. Sun set? Sun rise.

Mark Feeney can be reached at

1911 Directed by: Jackie Chan and Zhang Li

Written by: Wang Xingdong and Chen Baoguang

Starring: Chan, Winston Chao, Bingbing Li

At: Fenway

Running time: 120 minutes

In Mandarin, with English subtitles

Rated: R (battlefield gore, including a sonically graphic amputation)

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