Director: Scott Waugh
Cast: Jackie Chan, John Cena, Amadeus Serafini, Pilou Asbæk, Jiang Wenli, Rachael Holoway, Amadeus Serafini, Rima Zeidan, Max Huang, Tim Man, Tazito Garcia
Running Time: 102 min.
By Paul Bramhall
It may be difficult to believe that a movie which started filming in 2018 featuring Jackie Chan as its star, was funded almost entirely by Chinese backers, and paired the action movie legend with WWE wrestler turned actor John Cena, could proceed to sit on a shelf unreleased for the best part of 5 years. But that’s exactly what happened with Hidden Strike. A production that started life under the title Ex-Baghdad, in subsequent years it was re-titled Project X-traction, then later became SNAFU (apparently a U.S. military term meaning Situation Normal: All Fucked Up), before finally landing with an unceremonious thud on Netflix in 2023 under the title Hidden Strike.
Needless to say the production has had a rocky road to the screens, a case of timing and worldly affairs constantly transpiring to delay its release. While the COVID-19 pandemic affected several productions, Hidden Strike simply couldn’t catch a break. From the U.S. pulling out of Afghanistan making the prospect of a story involving a marine saving a Middle Eastern country a not particularly appealing proposition, to John Cena’s referring to Taiwan as a country during the promotion of F9 drawing the ire of China, to the U.S. and China’s deteriorating relationship. The last one in particular has seen these kinds of U.S. and China co-productions become a thing of the past (it’s worth remembering when Hidden Strike started filming, the Jackie Chan and Johnny Knoxville caper Skiptrace had only been released a couple of years prior), so while the 2 JC’s may have been a draw at the start of filming, the tides changed remarkably fast.
The fifth movie from director Scott Waugh (although amusingly, even before Hidden Strike was released, it was being used as a reference on the poster for the also yet to be released Expend4bles), he’s sat in the director’s chair for the likes of middle-of-the-road actioners Act of Valor (2012) and Need for Speed (2014). The pairing of Chan and Cena are easily the highest profile stars he’s worked with, and with the success of Wolf Warrior 2 in 2017, the concept of a Chinese hero rescuing a bunch of Chinese workers and locals in a dusty Middle Eastern location was clearly seen as a recipe for box office success. Interestingly while some plot descriptions describe the oil refinery that the workers need to be rescued from as being in Mosul, Iraq, in the movie itself the location is only ever referred to as “the Middle East”.
The plot essentially sees Chan leading a special military unit, very much a precursor to the role he’d play in Vanguard, who are sent to rescue and extract the employees of an oil refinery that’s regularly being attacked. The person responsible for the attacks is played by Pilou Asbæk (Lucy, The Great Wall), a spiteful ex-employee who believes he’s owed for his woes, and plans what’s best described as an oil heist as a get-rich quick scheme. He hires a slightly naïve mercenary played by Amadeus Serafini (Summer Days, Summer Nights, Smiley Face Killers) to kidnap one of the extracted Chinese employees due to them knowing the codes to access the oil, and Serafini attempts to rope in his older brother, played by Cena, to take part in the plan. Cena’s resigned himself to a quiet life in a small village entertaining the local kids, however when their water runs dry due to a recently build dam and it turns out to be a costly fix, he agrees to do it so that the village won’t suffer.
As expected events transpire that Chan and Cena end up teamed up together, although you’ll have to wait 40 minutes for them to actually meet each other. Before that, we have to endure Chan in what’s (for me at least) become one of his dreaded attempts to act seriously, but only serves to come across as either irritatingly miserable or completely listless. It’s a style of acting that he started with 2011’s 1911, and similar examples can be seen in the likes of Dragon Blade and Bleeding Steel. Chan can be a solid actor, but I’ve realised now that he’s older, he really needs a good director for him to pull off these roles that see him cast in more authoritative positions. Many of his lines in his pre-meeting Cena scenes involve him yelling the likes of “what have you done with my people!?”, “who killed my people!?”, “where are my people!?”, and such dialogue only serves to suck the life out of Chan’s usual charismatic screen presence.
When the pair eventually do cross paths, the tone changes completely, and we get the Hollywood style comedic bantering that defined so much of Chan’s western efforts in the 2000’s. It’s a little jarring, but it works in the way that it allows Chan to at least show some signs of life. Unfortunately, unlike The Foreigner that was also filmed in 2018, and showed Chan could still display his action chops in the context of his age, here we’re forced to watch him choreographed as if he’s at least 30 years younger. The result is blatant doubling, props on wires, inappropriate wire assisted falls, and limply thrown kicks that rely on the reaction and sound design to sell their impact. It’s painful to watch, especially his fight against Tim Man (Boyka: Undisputed, Accident Man) which acts as a kind of finale, taking place in the equivalent of a foam party created by fire extinguishers, and executed in such a way that even the comedic beats miss the mark.
Cena fares better, however there’s nothing particularly noteworthy in the action design, delivered courtesy of Jackie Chan Stunt Team members Han Guanhua (Who Am I 2015, Europe Raiders) and He Jun (Saving Mr. Wu, Railroad Tigers). That leaves the car stunts by vehicular mayhem veteran Bruce Law (Special ID, The Raid 2) to pick up the slack, and there’s undeniably some well executed 4 wheeled stunt work in there, however Hidden Strike’s aesthetic is tainted by a kind of artificial gloss that permeates through every scene. It’s clear that many of the landscapes are CGI, mainly due to the rendering being not quite there (shots of the sand dunes look far too smooth, like they don’t have any texture), and it’s been a long time since I’ve seen a more obvious example of actors performing in front of a green screen due to the unnatural lighting. It’s harsh, but Hidden Strike feels like an ugly movie to watch, and the 5 years sitting on a shelf has unfortunately already aged it when it comes to its usage of CGI effects for backdrops.
The chemistry between Chan and Cena is somewhat of a saving grace, even rescuing a horrendous sub-plot involving one of the evacuees being Chan’s estranged daughter, played by TV actress Chunrui Ma. A contender for Hidden Strike’s most unwatchable scene, an exposition dump while driving down the “highway of death” reveals he left her and his wife when the later was hospitalised, due to needing to go on a “top secret mission”. His daughter has never forgiven him, however the ice eventually begins to melt when they visit the local village, and we watch Cena singing “Old McDonald” to a group of kids for what feels like an eternity. As if that’s not bad enough, the cutaways to Chan and Ma sharing reciprocal glances across the room almost sent me over the edge. It’s this scene that walks away with the most unwatchable award, and if I ever have to watch Cena and Chan doing animal impressions again, it’ll be too soon.
Interestingly it seems like the script was either originally a lot edgier when it comes to its humor, or Cena is just quite gifted at adlibbing, as during the end credits we see various alternate takes of scenes in which he lays on the sexual innuendo hilariously thick. Watching Cena tell Chan he wants to bend his daughter over and go at it like a freak was so extreme I wished they’d kept that version in the actual movie itself. Perhaps the funniest thing about the scene though is that I’m not sure Chan was entirely certain of what was going on. Of course for those who know Cena speaks Mandarin, he naturally gets a few scenes to flex his 2nd language skills that did make it into the final cut.
I was thinking if I’d feel any differently towards Hidden Strike if I’d seen it when it was originally meant to be released in late 2018, versus viewing it in mid-2023, and it’s fair to say I’m pretty sure I’d feel the same. In 2018 it would have been released between Bleeding Steel and The Knight of Shadows: Between Yin and Yang, in 2023 its release comes between Ride On and The Legend, productions which show the continued conflict between Chan playing age-appropriate roles, and those which think he’s still 40. Hidden Strike falls squarely into the latter, and does itself no favors with such an approach, feeling forced almost from the start, and ending on an unremarkable whimper. Perhaps it wouldn’t have been such a bad thing if it stayed on the shelf a little longer.
Paul Bramhall’s Rating: 5/10