When a partially edited version of Rumble in the Bronx was released in the United States in the mid-1990s, America finally discovered Jackie Chan. The irony was that on its release no one had any expectations that it would be a success. Despite Chan being amongst the world’s most popular actors and certainly Asia’s biggest star, he had not managed to break the lucrative American market. If Rumble in the Bronx was an unexpected success, then Rush Hour (1998) was a phenomenon, the first step on the road that made Chan one of the highest-paid stars in the world.
It was not the first time that he had tried to court America. In the Eighties, partly to avoid the unwanted attention of triad gangs, Golden Harvest had loaned out its star to a number of American productions. Battle Creek Brawl (1980), a lousy, poorly paced beat ’em up offered some camp enjoyment but the dismal cameo roles (as a Japanese driver) in Hal Needham’s Cannonball Run (1981/3) films were almost unwatchable. A second attempt was similarly doomed – James Glickenhaus’s foul mouthed, casually violent and sexist The Protector (1985) was such an embarrassment to its star that he re-shot and re-edited the whole film for the Hong Kong market. But that’s all ancient history; Jackie Chan has made it big and is truly a global superstar. But how has his work changed over the years?
Chan’s upbringing has become the stuff of legends. As a child he was enrolled in Peking Opera School, a harsh and demanding environment that had its pupils practising tumbling, martial arts, face painting, singing and acrobatics for up to 16 hours a day. It was there that he befriended many of the people who would become integral to the future of Hong Kong cinema. Peking Opera was in decline by the 1960s, and cinema was becoming the new mainstream entertainment form. Chan and his classmates were hired out as film extras, and after leaving school Jackie sought a career as a stuntman and martial arts choreographer. His earlier roles are of interest to completists only, predominantly comprising generic revenge tragedies.
However, brief stunt work in Bruce Lee’s films brought him to the attention of movie producer Lo Wei. Following Bruce Lee’s death everyone in Hong Kong was seeking a replacement for the star, and Lo looked to Jackie as a possible successor. To this end he cast the young actor in an ill-advised remake of the Bruce Lee hit Fist of Fury (1972), the predictably monikered New Fist of Fury (1976). The result was a turgid mess. This led to a succession of increasingly low-budget films, none of which brought the success that Lo had anticipated for his prodigy, despite the plethora of gimmicks such as 3D, a teaming up with One Armed Swordsman star Jimmy Wang Yu and even kung fu slapstick.
In despair and disgust Lo hired his failing star to the newly formed Seasonal Films production company. The rest is history. If Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow (1979) launched Chan onto an unsuspecting world, then its follow-up, Drunken Master (1979), consolidated his position as the star to watch. The later film established Chan’s cinematic trademark – comedy mixed with breathtaking kung fu action. What marks Chan’s films out is his use of martial arts styles that appear cinematically impressive, even if they are not in themselves authentic. Hong Kong’s Golden Harvest wanted this new young star to join them and gave
Jackie carte blanche to film any project that he wished, having first brokered a deal with Lo. These early autonomous films, The Young Master (1980) and Dragon Lord (1982), followed in much the same vein as Drunken Master, albeit on a far larger canvas. It was on these productions that Chan’s meticulous attention to detail became apparent; repeating takes hundreds of times to get the perfect shot (making Stanley Kubrick seem positively impatient) and an uncanny eye for a good edit. However exhilarating these films were though, nothing could prepare for the public for his next venture, Project A (1983).
Project A was a revelation, it freed the kung fu genre from its predominant settings of ancient China or contemporary Hong Kong. It established Chan’s use of the super stunt or ‘money shot’, a stunt so unbelievably dangerous only a madman would attempt it. In an impressive sequence partly inspired by Harold Lloyd’s Safety Last, he falls several stories from a clocktower and crashes onto the ground. Indeed much of Chan’s work would be derived from American silent comedians as well as dancers Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire, distancing himself from other kung fu stars. Set in turn-of-last-century Hong Kong, Project A is so crammed full of visual gags, stunts, fights and all manner of comic shenanigans that it is hard to know where to begin. It marks the true beginning of Chan’s golden years.
Following Project A he made smash hit after smash hit, and the classic films kept rolling. They were either directed by Chan himself or by fellow Peking Opera School pupil Sammo Hung, occasionally aided and abetted by Yuen Biao. However as Chan’s fame grew so did his budgets and shooting schedules. A prestige Jackie Chan production could take up to a year to shoot with sometimes more than a month being spent on an individual fight sequence. Regardless of the often breathtaking results, this represented something of a problem to Golden Harvest. Chan was their most marketable star, but he was also the most expensive. When his exquisitely shot homage to Frank Capra, Miracles (1989), proved to be unsuccessful at the box office despite its astronomical budget, they decided to rein in their star. Chan would continue to exercise control over his films, but ultimately they would be made with other directors at the helm. The result was more Jackie Chan films, but the downside was that they were more uneven Jackie Chan films.
After the glorious run of films such as Armour of God (1986), Project A Part 2 (1987) and two exhilarating instalments of Police Story (1985/7), not to mention his collaborations with Hung on Wheels On Meals (1984), Heart of Dragon (1985) and Dragons Forever (1988), the guarantee of a good Chan film was becoming distinctly unreliable. Following the epic production schedule, spiralling costs and gruelling conditions on Operation Condor: Armour of God 2 (1990), Chan would never receive a sole director’s credit again, even when he took control of projects due to creative differences on films such as the spectacular Drunken Master 2 (1995).
The key elements of the Jackie Chan film are, in no particular order, comedy, fight sequences and stunts. These are all visual elements, which make his films universal; it is perfectly easy to watch one of his films without the benefit of subtitles and still enjoy it. The empathy created by Jackie’s on-screen persona is one of palpable believability. When Jackie fights he gets hurt, and there is always a human side to his character that allows the audience to identify with him. Similarly on his own large stunt sequences Jackie goes to incredible lengths to show us that what we are seeing is real and not camera trickery. To this extent on a mega-super-stunt Jackie will often show the action from the number of angles, playing with elasticity of time to emphasise to his audience the reality, albeit cinematic, of what we are seeing. The tagline for Rumble in the Bronx plays on this notion: no fear, no stuntman, no equal. In Kirk Wong’s Crime Story (1993) Jackie escapes from a building that is genuinely exploding, in Supercop (1992) he is dragged around Kuala Lumpur hanging from a helicopter and the climax to his own Police Story sees a death defying descent on a light-bulb strewn pole through a Hong Kong shopping mall. It’s awesome stuff and still has the power to make the audience gasp, many years later.
However, following the success of Rush Hour, this tactile quality has diminished substantially. Despite signs of old school film making that can be seen in the enjoyable Shanghai Noon (2000) and the spectacular, if uneven, The Accidental Spy (2001), many of Jackie’s recent films have resorted to special effects spectacle over tangible reality. There is a danger that this will date his films – Project A does not appear to have dated a jot in 20 years while The Tuxedo (2003) looked passé even before it reached the cinema screens. It would be easy to dismiss Chan’s Hollywood work as pleasing his bank balance and his Hong Kong work as pleasing his fans, but the recent release of the long delayed Hong Kong production The Medallion (2003) seems to show that this is not the case.
The Medallion, an unfunny and slapdash action comedy, relies heavily on computer-generated effects and conspicuous wire-work. It is the antithesis of everything we have come to know and love about the cinema of Jackie Chan. While it would be churlish to suggest that a star in his fifties should be throwing himself around the screen with gay abandon (although The Accidental Spy shows he’s more than capable) it is nonetheless useful to compare his later years with those of Fred Astaire, who could still retain a physical presence long after his contemporaries had hung up their dancing shoes. The critical and commercial maulings of the loathsome The Tuxedo, the inferior sequel Shanghai Knights (2003) and the overlong (at eighty minutes!) The Medallion may have dragged Chan back down from his $15 million pay-cheque on Rush Hour 2 (2001) but he is still a marketable screen commodity, especially in his animated guise on Jackie Chan Adventures.
The Medallion’s attempt to appease international rather than local audiences demonstrates that Chan’s Hong Kong productions should focus on Hong Kong styles of filmmaking and not attempt to imitate Hollywood. It is this style of film-making that enabled Chan to be the world’s most popular action star, because his attention to detail, his vision as a director and his commitment to the process of filmmaking created something special. Amidst a plethora of Hollywood blockbusters he is no more, or less, than another green-screened actor waiting for ILM to add the "interesting stuff". His Hollywood films are enjoyed this week, forgotten the next – and that’s a real waste.