When you market a film based on being from the writer of 2004’s New Police Story, a continuation/reboot of Jackie Chan’s action-martial arts-drama series, then you’d better be on par or be willing to lose a lot of face. Sadly, writer/director Alan Yuen’s The Rookies (Su ren te gong) follows the path of the latter, constantly feeling like an amalgamation of a Jackie Chan picture mixed with 2002’s XXX which fails to uphold the legacy of either. The comedy is there, the stunts are there, but the narrative makes little sense beyond setting up the next action set piece, wasting the talents of the cast in the process. There’re good ideas all around, you can see them desperately poking through, yet there is so no saving the film amid the inconsistency and half-baked aspects.
Daredevil Zhao Feng (Talu Wang) finds himself in over his head when an accident during a stunt lands him in the middle of an arms deal and he gets the attention of shadow organization Order of the Phantom Knighthood, led by Special Agent Bruce (Milla Jovovich). Recruited out of necessity, Feng feigns confidence in the presence of Bruce’s constant scowl, though he develops some faith once he forms his own team in the form of his inventor friend Ding Shan (Timmy Xu), Shan’s assistant LV (Meitong Liu), and police officer Miao Yan (Sandrine Pinna). With lives on the line as eco-terrorist Iron Fist (David Lee McInnis) grows closer to realizing his plan, it’s up to these spy rookies to save the day.
Before digging into the film, please allow a little context first.
The screener provided by Shout! Studios is an English dub with no alternative language option. The fact that the majority of the cast are obviously not speaking the same language as their mouths suggest isn’t an issue regarding the quality of the film, though this reviewer does prefer to watch any film in its natural language for the first time. The issue, though, is that the dub is poorly conceived and executed. There are a few sequences in which text appears on screen, contextually presumed to state where the characters are located, except there is no translation provided. The same occurs whenever someone is writing in Mandarin, something which the camera focuses on, yet no translation is offered. Early in the film when Feng is performing the stunt that causes him to cross paths with Phantom (i.e. Bruce), online messages are depicted as flying through the air at him (each written in Mandarin, each given an audible dub) so some thought as to translating for an English-speaking audience was made. But there is something truly comical about the film translating a translator, so that a scene that’s likely meant to be serious between Bruce and Feng comes out as ridiculous because it appears as though Bruce is working with idiots. The dubbed dialogue from Feng even suggests that Bruce is using a translator, so why not leave the scene alone? Perhaps that would be incongruous to the whole, but it would certainly be less intrusive to the internal logic if it had be left alone. Not viewing a film in its, presumably, native language is not a deal-breaker as there are plenty of solid dubs out there. For some, dubs are the gateway to foreign cinema. In this case, the dub hurts the execution of the narrative in ways big and small.
The Rookies comes from the script of first-time writer Kong Yun-Cheung, Xu Lei, and Yuen, baring quite a few hallmarks of prestige martial arts cinema, along with the flair of modern action films. This means that you get an introductory set piece for Jovovich’s Bruce (choreographed by Fan Yizhu (Kung Fu Killer, 2014; Skiptrace, 2016)) that brilliantly sets the tone for what kind of action is to come as Jovovich kicks, stabs, slides, glides, and jumps from opponent to opponent. Most of this scene enables the audience to track the action with ease, making it clear that Jovovich is doing quite a bit of work herself, though some of the reliance on edits to indicate movement and intensity does reduce a bit of the immersion. Other action set pieces are designed in a similar manner so that the geography and stakes of the action are maintained. So whether the characters are engaged in hand-to-hand melee, gun work, wire work, or driving, the audience can track everything without feeling lost in the chaos. This is a big benefit as the action grows larger throughout and the stakes increase. For this reason and, sadly, this reason only, is The Rookies an enjoyable experience. Try as the performances from the cast might, there narrative issues just can’t keep up.
Some of this may seem like a nit-pick, but, within the scope of the entire film, the numerous tiny issues amount to a size too large to ignore. After the in media res opening which sets up the terrible concoction the terrorist Iron Fist seeks, the audience is introduced to Pinna’s officer Yan. There’s a lot of time spent in the film addressing her need for copious medications which seem to control a ferocious temper (among other things), potentially suggestive of governmental control of latent powers. Is she a super hero drugged in secret? The film can’t decide if this is the case or if she’s in need of serious therapy and removal from any sort of occupation relying on force given her violent emotional and depressive swings. This isn’t comical by any stretch, especially with the dub, so perhaps it’s a cultural thing that doesn’t, itself, translate well out of China. Then there’s Bruce, played by Jovovich as her usual badass, who plays it straight around the circus that is the rest of the characters. This works for her, allowing her to play to her strengths while not having to do much throughout the entire film as the character is sidelined in a most strange fashion. The reason for the sidelining makes sense in order to put the focus on Feng and his ragtag team, but the explanation is nonexistent and nonsensical in context. Later, the film puts Bruce in harm’s way without explaining how she got there in the first place. It helps add pressure to the characters in the scope of the story, but it appears to happen “because reasons.” A member of Feng’s team is injured in such a way that the film presents as making her useless, when, her skillset wasn’t reliant on what’s injured yet the character is brushed off anyway. This doesn’t even get into a scene that plays out two ways back-to-back without explanation at all. One may imply that the first version is either a dry-run or a planning fantasy, but without any sort of set-up or break between the two versions, all the audience can do is sit in their confusion.
Despite the level-best from the actors to make each scene work, the fact that the narrative is missing key components to link scenes together, as well as establish some internal consistency, The Rookies is destined for failure from the start. You can see the good ideas at play between the casting, characterizations, and the presentation of specialties. Unfortunately, the narrative seems more intent on setting up *moments* than it is a coherent and compelling story. After making it all the way to the end of the film, there’s still no telling if Iron Fist set his plan in motion for personal or mustache-twirling reasons. Either one would be fine, but the narrative refuses to make a choice resulting in McInnis being a fun but empty villain. In a way, that’s the best way to describe the film as a whole, fun but empty. And there are plenty of other, better ways to get your fun.
In select theaters and on VOD April 16th, 2021.
Final Score: 2 out of 5.