One would assume that an international film star with the appeal and cult of Jackie Chan would not have much if any trouble getting his way; and yet the path leading to Little Big Soldier, which premiered in Asia in the winter of 2010 and has yet to secure a proper release across most of Europe or the United States, began some 20 years ago, when Chan (by then an established action star, if not yet a legend) concocted a genial humanist comedy set at the end of the Warring States Era in Chinese history, around 225 BCE. And that is where things stood for a long, long time, as the script developed at a snail's pace, with the writer/star (who, in the end, also produced) eventually graduating from the younger role - a neophyte general, a deeply honorable young warrior from the Wei clan, the only survivor of a brutal ambush by the Liang clan, played in the finished film by Wang Leehom - to the older role - the soldier of the title, the only Liang survivor of the same battle, an aging pragmatist who would rather be accused of cowardice than throw away his life needlessly. The Big Soldier manages to take the Little General captive, and plans to bring in his prisoner to the Liang leaders for a reward of a small patch of land to call his own, where he can retire to the peaceful life of a farmer after so many years of killing.

A long and rambling gestation period though the film had, Little Big Soldier doesn't show it: it is one of Chan's best films in a very long time, and not just because his increasingly frequent Hollywood projects are so foul and degraded (a thought that petrified me: there was a time, several days at least, when Little Big Soldier was playing theaters in China, while The Spy Next Door was still hanging around in America). The film has a sensibility that is not entirely like most of Chan's other projects; it is more thoughtful, introspective. It is situational comedy, rather than slap-stick (though slap-stick is certainly present, with Chan himself choreographing the action which is, like most of his recent films, a great deal less acrobatic than in his peak era, and still a hell of a lot more fluid and demanding than a 56-year-old has any business attempting).

In fact, what I was reminded of most of all was not even the grand tradition of martial arts cinema, but the work of Charles Chaplin. Now to be fair, comparing Chan and Chaplin is neither a new observation nor a particularly difficult one. But Little Big Soldier, from its title on down, is Chaplinesque more in theme than just in the cosmetic similarities in the way that both men position themselves within comic-action setpieces. The Chaplin who wrote the unashamedly mawkish ending of The Great Dictator would certainly find favor with the Chan who writes and plays the well-meaning coward who keeps holding forth his essentially pacifist ideals with every step in the mountains and forests through which he drags the irritated general (in his tendency to espouse highly self-regarding aphorisms and to prize the logic of cowardice over the stupid sacrifices demanded by honor, I must confess that I also saw just a hint of John Falstaff in the little soldier.

Of course there is still fighting; there are still loopy sight gags; there is a revenge saga with brutal violence just along the edges that never lets us forget that we're in History Epic territory. But all of this is packed alongside a basically human comedy of manners, in which the soldier and the general start to learn a degree of regard for one another. The blend of high-energy action and character work is not unheard of, or even particularly uncommon; and yet it is achieved here with a special degree of pleasant grace, befitting the fact that the man at the center of the project was rolling it around in his head for two decades.

It is only the second film from director Ding Sheng, who carries the film off as well as it needs to be; the visual aesthetic is simple but effective, while the gentle drift from comedy to sentimentality to outright melodrama in the last scene is handled nobly; at all points, Ding keeps his touch feather-light, allowing the performances to create the atmosphere and emotion rather than using heavyhanded cameras and music and the like (I might as well point out that Little Big Soldier navigates the shift from comedy to melodrama much more effortlessly than Chaplin's own The Great Dictator, which rather does shriek to a halt at the end). It is an easygoing movie, fun to watch and likable, with even the simplified action sequences proving themselves creative and impeccably-executed. It does not, perhaps, try to do very much, but all the things it does try, it achieves with glowing perfection.