The year is 1941 and the place is China which the Japanese are occupying as the Second World War has gotten underway, but not everyone in the territory is going to sit back and kowtow to the enemy, some Chinese are part of the resistance such as Ma Yuan (Jackie Chan), who works on the railway but also arranges raids on trains which are carrying Japanese soldiers. Today he assembles a team of various tradesmen and thieves who express an interest in participating in these raids, and they stage an elaborate method of pole vaulting onto the carriage rooves, whereupon they sneak inside and infiltrate the military travelling there, getting one over on them with apparent ease. However, they will soon be recruited for a mission that's impossible...
You might call it a mission: impossible, especially as this wartime action movie featured more teamwork than the average Mission: Impossible entry, with Chan generously giving over screen time to his younger co-stars, including his son Jaycee Chan who pointedly was not playing his son, but nevertheless received a "hilarious" scene where somebody mentioned how alike they looked which they hotly denied. Fortunately such meta humour was not prevalent, though what was turned out to be a loose technique from director Ding Sheng which verged on the chaotic for at least the first half of the two-hour experience, introducing characters willy-nilly with their own captions well into the half hour mark.
Not helping was that many of those characters had little bearing on the plot as far as you could see, therefore you were left wondering why Ding chose to introduce them with such fanfare when they verged on the inconsequential in the great scheme of the storyline. It was not based in truth, but it was a tribute to Chinese resistance of the Japanese seventy-five years before in that patriotic way that many of the movies emerging from China were embracing, often using Hong Kong talent to do so since the handover of 1997. How much you felt you could take this was up to the viewer, you could either see it as an indulgence in nostalgia for the heroism of the war years - Hollywood and Britain were still churning out these World War II films - or something more sinister.
Sort of a muscle-flexing exercise to remind the Japanese who was boss, and casting actors from Japan to play the bad guys too (though in the expected outtakes we see both nations' performers getting along famously, which took the sting out to some extent). Whatever, Railroad Tigers did take an age to warm up and get its characters onto the main locomotive which the heroes had to board to set about blowing up a strategically important bridge: in a witty scene the question arises what the motive could be for destroying a Chinese bridge, to be answered that it was OK, because it was now a Japanese bridge. But you did find yourself hanging around increasingly impatiently for the film to get to the point, which was the action set on a train full of Japanese soldiers that will transport the rebels to the bridge.
Before that, we were offered various sequences of mostly comedic, but occasionally more serious tones as that jumble of characters built up to the final, lengthy setpiece. Ding achieved this with a dose of accomplished effects work, made better because he was unsatisfied with a pure computer graphics rendering and therefore used miniatures, including a model train. Obviously there was still CGI implemented, but the model work was satisfying, looking more convincing than it might have otherwise (without actually crashing full-size vehicles, which was a bit beyond the production), and only the selected shots where an explosion went off for instance came across as fake. It was a nice return to traditional styles, mixed with the modern approach. As for Chan, our supposed star, he was permitted to save the day, but until then got lost in the ensemble; he also wore a not very impressive beard throughout, as if trying to conceal his identity for some reason. Once the second half arrived, Railroad Tigers was pretty decent, but it was a long wait for that eventual pay-off. Music by Lao Zai.