Ride On was released on April 7th, 2023 – star Jackie Chan’s 69th birthday. Going into it, I had no idea what this movie was all about, only that it starred one of the greatest stuntmen to ever step in front of a camera. Coming away from it, I feel that for what writer/director Larry Yang tried to do with this film, it’s an effective summation and dramatization of Chan’s life as a stuntman, yet it has a way of hammering home its points repeatedly and often without any kind of tact – it just shoves everything at you and hopes you’ll go along with it.
This, honestly, is no problem, considering that the film is an homage to not only Chan’s legacy and history but the struggle which most stunt performers experience once their useful days are over. Those familiar with Chan’s films and – most notably – the injuries and problems that accompanied their making will get the most out of Ride On, whereas those not in the know will find themselves amused at watching a past-his-prime Lao Luo (Chan) try to get back into the limelight with Red Hare, a horse Luo’s been training since he was a foal.
Yeah, the stock-standard “aging/destitute star grasps for the impossible one last time” trope gets played out here to full effect, but it’s the cost that takes precedence over any of the obviously computer-aided stuntwork on display here. And that cost is the estrangement between Luo and his daughter Bao (Liu Haocun), now a near-graduate from law school. He’s barely been there for her all of her life, but when a property dispute threatens to take Red Hare away, he turns to her for help and, after a while, a possible reconciliation.
Yang’s script bridges and honors both the wear and tear on stunt performers and how much it takes them away from their loved ones, either by being on shooting locations or landing in the hospital (or worse). These were Chan’s own concerns as detailed in his biography I Am Jackie Chan, often wondering when the next time he’d be able to see his wife and child would be, or if he would never again if a stunt goes wrong. Red Hare and Luo are Chan’s own proxies in Ride On, pushing themselves for bigger and more dangerous stunts while Bao can only stand to the side and hope like hell they both survive. Times are changing, and Luo can barely (or may not want to) keep up, whether it’s in outdated references to how a boyfriend should be ready to fight for his girl or accepting the use of CGI to lessen the damage done to stunt performers’ bodies.
The film is also a celebration of Jackie Chan’s entire oeuvre, with visual and script references to almost every highlight of his career. One of his fights takes him through a Chinese opera school performance, a nod to his beginnings as a child acrobat; a training sequence from Drunken Master is repurposed for a meeting with Bao’s boyfriend Mickey (“Kevin” Guo Qilin); props and costumes from The Myth, Police Story IV: First Strike, and more make an appearance; a Thunderbolt poster is seen at one point; and the “Everybody’s Kitchen/Cocina Para Todos” van from Wheels on Meals (which I personally rejoiced at seeing!) even gets to come out and play. Longtime fans will have a whale of a time spotting all the little things about this movie, even the appearance of Yu Rongguang, someone who’s been with Chan since Shanghai Noon and New Police Story.
But Yang takes it one step further and crosses a line from the meta to the real with his use of genuine Chan outtakes to enhance certain pleas made for leniency or special consideration. In trying to welcome new audience members and to connect with longtime fans, Yang takes moments to remind us how Chan got to be where he is and the sacrifices – whether involving his family or his own body – he’s had to make to bring us his best. It feels a little self-aggrandizing and pushy for Yang to use these hard-earned outtakes as dramatic weapons, but it’s part of how he repeatedly hammers his points about the work and what it takes to get it done. For every step forward Luo and Bao take in their relationship, Luo has to commit an error taking them two steps back, and it’s like he can’t learn from his mistakes; we have to watch him make them until he learns, and by that time, it might already be too late for both of them. Mining the narrative thrust from this drama might be a little much, as we get to experience these lessons in a short while, compared to Chan having to learn them over a long period of time.
As Luo, Chan himself says: “Jumping down is easy; stepping down is hard.” For Luo, the hardest part about the chase for being the best is knowing when to let go. In that, the film’s title is more of a rousing cheer than anything else, an encouraging “kam pai!” to those putting their lives on the line for cinematic glory. The “stuntman spirit” is still alive and well, and while Ride On has its equal share of hits and misses in its attempt to cram a lifetime’s worth of experience into a quick drama (with some forced action by way of debt collection), it gets the most important parts right. Moreover, it says a lovely “thank you” to Jackie Chan and the stunt performers in the industry by acknowledging their pains and their triumphs with equal weight.
And to Jackie Chan himself: Happy birthday, sir.
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