Director: Xiao Feng
Cast: Bruce Willis, Liu Ye, Song Seung-Heon, William Chan, Nicholas Tse, Fan Bing Bing, Ma Su, Fan Wei, Adrien Brody
Runtime: 2 hrs 7 mins
Rating: PG13 (Some Violence and Coarse Language)
Released By: Shaw Organisation
Opening Day: 31 October 2019
Synopsis: During World War II, under terrible conditions, lack of resources, weapons, knowledge and experience - the Chinese Air Force fought bravely against the powerful Japanese Imperial Army. Commander Jack Johnson (Bruce Willis) from the United States Air Force not only teaches the Chinese how to battle against the Japanese, he also leads his own Chinese aviation squadron against the trained Japanese air force. Meanwhile, a Japanese spy sneaks into Chongqing posing as a refugee and tries to steal Chinese military plans, causing a great deal of damage. Two Chongqing families with a hundred-year feud resolve their differences as the enemy invades, reflecting how the Chinese have always prevailed through constant struggle and mayhem.
Now that the dust of Fan Bingbing’s tax evasion scandal has settled, those who are curious to find out just what her big-budget wartime blockbuster whose release in 2018 was scrapped can finally see it on the big screen. Chances are if you do though that you’d wished you had simply avoided it altogether, for director Xiao Feng’s clumsy portrayal of the Japanese bombing of the provisional capital of Chongqing in the late 1930s and the heroic Chinese response to that is so appallingly bad you’d wonder why he was trusted with the film in the first place.
Even without her real-life woes, Fan plays but just one of the many characters relegated to supporting parts here. As a schoolteacher trying to protect her pupils, Fan struggles nobly to emote against a rinse-repeat stream of explosions, and the same can be said of every other star who made the ill-advised decision of signing up for this bomb (pun intended). Among the others recruited to demonstrate how the civilians had tried to go about their everyday life is Fan Wei as the owner of a teahouse who had just lost the property in a mah-jong competition and hopes to win it back, as well as Adrien Brody and Rumer Willis as volunteers at a hospital taking care of the wounded and helpless.
The more substantive subplots among the hodgepodge are that of a mission led by ex-pilot Xue Gangtou (Liu Ye) to transport some top-secret cargo to a military base, and the gung-ho Chinese air force pilots led by US commander Jack Johnson (Bruce Willis) to counter the Japanese attacks. The former unfolds as a sometimes tense, sometimes quirky, road trip which sees Gangtou pick up along the way a teacher (Ma Su), a government scientist (Wu Gang) and a shady stranger (Geng Le); while the latter has Jack doing plenty of Wills-style macho posturing to a group of hot-blooded pilots including that played by William Chan and Song Seung-heon.
Despite being worked on by six writers (whose names we shall not subject to further ignominy), the script looks like the work of an amateur film student, demonstrating neither an effort to build any of the subplots into anything compelling or any sort of deftness to link these stories into a coherent whole. The fault belongs too to director Xiao, who seems equally content to cut from one scene to another with little regard for continuity, pace or simple basic logic. Indeed, the result is not just jarring, but also utterly frustrating, as you quickly find yourself giving up trying to string together the chain of events.
What Xiao seems most seized by is showing the aerial dogfights between the Chinese and the Japanese, for which he had apparently recruited Mel Gibson as consultant. Unfortunately, Gibson is no help to Xiao’s sheer ineptness, such that there is little thrill to watching the pilots take to the skies against one another; in fact, the green screen work is too painfully obvious and Xiao’s tendency to turn each death into some melodramatic event undercuts what excitement you may have of watching the pilots play cat-and-mouse in the air.
As much as Willis gets top billing, he is quite clearly here just for the paycheck, slumming it in a couple of scenes that are even worse than the direct-to-video stuff he’s been doing in recent years back in the US. At least Brody seems to be trying to make the best out of what little material he has been given, although he may simply be relishing the opportunity to relive his similar much-touted role in Roman Polanski’s ‘The Pianist’. Liu fares mostly ok until close to the end, when his character is made to endure an utterly ridiculous turn trying to stop a bomb stuck on the roof from going off while topless on his wedding night. And as two pilots fighting over who gets to fly a shiny new plane, Chan and Song are understandably puzzled what to do with their respective roles.
So really if there is any pleasure to get out of sitting through ‘Unbreakable Spirit’, it is to marvel at how such a significant endeavour could have gone so wrong, one that managed to attract the likes of Simon Yam, Ray Lui, Kenny Bee and Nicholas Tse to appear in utterly inconsequential roles. No matter whether it had fallen apart due to Fan’s scandal, the movie itself was always already in tatters, and not having it released probably saved the cast and filmmakers the embarrassment which everyone could have done without. Unless you’re prepared for curiosity to kill two hours of your time, you’d best stay away from this awful mess of a movie.
(Fan Bingbing's tax evasion scandal turned out to be a blessing after all to save everyone involved - including unsuspecting audiences - from this woefully inept, shamelessly melodramatic and patriotic, and almost unwatchable mess)
Review by Gabriel Chong