Jackie Chan at the Crossroads

It takes a little while for the non-action movie
fan to come around to Jackie Chan’s mode of cool. He’s had genre
devotees (even disciples) for a while, but as his popularity continues
to swell, it’s plain that his fan base now extends far beyond the
reach of any genre. Just who is this guy? Small and cheery, he
belongs to no visible evolutionary line of action heroes-not the
stoic-Existential branch (Eastwood, Willis) or the sheetmetal cyborg
line (Mel Gibson, Arnold Schwarzeneggar). His movies eschew gunplay
and dismemberment, bigass explosions and cool apocalypse. He catches
no rides on low boil noir-no jutting cigarette, no habit-acquired
squint. And if there are erotic sub-plots, even of the for-the-sake-of-it
sort Bruce Lee settled on, they must be rare. You won’t catch Chan
stroking himself with baleful wit or raising tension to the maximum
by waiting forever to act (American action heroes are almost always
slower than everyone else on screen). Jackie’s the opposite of
all that. He’s the opposite of the strategic pace, of the good/bad/ugly
heroics, of irony, of height and the cool aside. He’s Jackie, clean
and boyish-and although he may or may not nail a scene with his
acting, hand him a pool cue and before you can say "superhero" he’s
embodied the smarts and elan of a Cole Porter lyric.

First Strike (1996); Rumble
in the Bronx
(1995);Rush
Hour
(1998)

But his is a presence that’s been tooled and re-tooled
over the past decade and a half, from fighter extraordinaire to stunt
aerialist in extremis. And there’s some evidence that Jackie may
be undergoing even more change now that he’s firmly lodged in his
mid-40s. If the Sly Stallone route isn’t the logical option (blow
away the bad guys with strap-on artillery), he can hardly go on as
the Asian Jumpin’ Jackie Flash forever. One clue lies in the fact
that he has just published a mid-career biography, a retrospective
look back at his Dickensian youth, his punishing decade at the China
Drama Academy, his first film successes and the immediate past. I
Am Jackie Chan’s first chapters paint the picture of a troublemaker
whose parents sent him to the equivalent of military school at the
tender age of seven for one official reason (his parents were too
poor to care for him properly) and one unofficial reason (because
the ants in Jackie’s hyperactive pants demanded it). Of school, Chan
writes, "I hated it from the instant I walked through the gates."

The new school involved no reading or writing, only
endless days of drill in gymnastics, acrobatics, singing and tumbling
that would prepare him for the Peking Opera. The discipline was
such that to this day he can remember picking up kernels of rice
with moistened finger-tips as he ate to avoid being caned. (He
still sweeps on his film sets just to stay busy between takes.)
He spent a decade at the China Drama Academy before graduating
to the opera, which was beginning to fade as a popular entertainment
in the late 1960s. He started working as a stuntman to make extra
money, and it would be years after that, in the early ’70s, before
Jackie found his way into the movies.

He writes that his head swelled when money and fame
first came his way. But in person today he is unfailingly polite
and courteous. He’s also, very visibly, Jackie the cute martial
arts hero who made his name playing the anti-Bruce Lee. Where Lee
starred in revenger tragedies, Chan became a player in comedies
that showcased his amazing quickness, his resourceful improvisational
fighting. This is not the guy who once wore endless loops of gold
on his wrists and neck announcing himself. Today, at the height
of his fame, he’s modest, and dressed so he could pass for a million
other tourists, in plain white running shoes, white trousers and
a sucrose-colored wind-breaker that makes the sound of a thousand
zippers when he moves. He’s the kind of guy you could lose in a
crowd. Until he sits down, that is, and you catch a wave of that
jittery energy he describes in the biography. He sits on the couch
talking animatedly, with quick, chopping sentences and a tendency
to accompany descriptions of his fighting scenes with his own little-boy
sound-effects.

Here to talk about Rush Hour, which has just broken
New Line’s weekend box office record, Chan doesn’t mind a little
dish about Hollywood. Rush Hour is the first film he’s made in
the U.S. since 1981, when he initially tried to break into the
North American market, and he seems a little surprised the film
is doing so well. Why? Movies take so long to make here! Every
little thing takes so much time! "After I show them stunts
they take four hour to set up!" He confided this to his friend,
the director Stanley Tong, too. Tong confirms that Chan bristles
when the process prevents him from doing what he does best, which
is fight for 10 or 12 minutes while the cameras run.

Rumble in the Bronx (1995)

Still, Chan knows that this is, to some extent,
necessary. He knows that if Hollywood’s wheels grind slowly it’s
because of the attention to minutia. "When my films come here,
Rumble in the Bronx, Super Cop, they really fine-tune my baby. They
really work on the sound track," he says admiringly.

Tong has been part of this revolution for Chan, too.
For years, Chan’s basic film plots beat even "Xena: Warrior
Princess" for simplicity. There was some vague challenge to
a temple, a kung-fu club, a what have you. The task for Jackie
(and sometimes he is known in these films as Jackie Chan) was to
get things back to normal, to rid the town of its pollution. He
achieved eye-popping effects with his body alone. But as Tong explains,
by the mid-’80s you could tell when a Chan movie was coming to
a close: Jackie entered a warehouse crawling with bad guys. "Very
predictable," Tong says dryly.

You can fault pretty much every Chan script for its
threadbare plotting. But his fans hardly regard the lack of a Hitchcock-style
McGuffin as a minus. His films have just about no cultural ambition
of the sort that made The Terminator great in the 1980s, or North
by Northwest great a generation ago, for that matter. But a Jackie
Chan movie holds your attention for reasons much closer to the
surface. Famous for using no stuntmen, his work often involves
less acting than sheer performative daring that combines the circus,
improvisational theater, and seat-of-your pants vaudeville. Chan
is only a serviceable actor, but his movies can be breathtaking
because of the performances. With Jackie it’s him, it’s his body-the
trick is that there’s no trick at all. In Hong Kong, the stunt
trade is simple, Chan says. "You do the stunt, and if you
die, you die." That’s been the appeal, too. Check the Chan
websites, talk to the fans. What do they admire? List after thrilling
list X-rays the heart of the martial arts fighting that Chan knows
(Shaolin, Snake, Crane, Drunken Fist, Dragon, etc.) against the
style of fighting he uses on film (a combination!). Writers separate
the 1970s "chopsocky" movies from the ones he began to
make in the ’80s (Dragon Lord, Project A), when he brought comedy
and more spectacular stunts into play. There are obsessive FAQs
that keep track of the top 10 stunts (lots from Rumble in the Bronx
and Police Story) and cover the Asian market versions of films
versus the American versions (those who know say to always get
the Chinese language versions, though be careful that the distributor
is giving you the real thing.)

Chan is acutely aware of his fan base. Before Rush
Hour he was offered many movie jobs in the U.S., which he refused. "They
are not a Jackie Chan movie," he says, listing the bad Asian
guy roles he was offered for a long time. And while he complains
about Rush Hour, one gets the impression he accepted it because
it’s part of the evolving style. It works harder than his last
few movies to bring together plot and action, for one thing. As
brilliant as his previous films were as collections of stunts,
Rush Hour evolved into a sort of concept album (think of early
Elvis versus later Elvis).

He can credit Stanley Tong, who directed him in Super
Cop, Rumble in the Bronx and First Strike with some of that new
innovative thinking. Tong claims that he basically introduced Jackie
Chan, the man and the movie star, to North American-style eye-popping
effects. Where Jackie objected to any stunt that didn’t focus on
his physical abilities, Tong argued that he had to face the fact
that sometimes the bad guys wear guns and shoot bullets. Sometimes
it was worth it, Tong said, for Chan to skedaddle out of the frame
to save his own skin. Before Tong, the typical Chan feature closed
on a toe-to-toe karate-fest. The stuff now had to have larger motifs:
Tong first introduced Chan to the thrills of skiing (water and
snow, neither of which Jackie had ever done days before he shot
the scenes); to the pleasures of hanging from a helicopter, to
scuba diving, to Bond, James Bond; to fighting with sharks, to
the hovercraft (which Tong had to talk Chan into: "anyone
can drive a hovercraft," Chan protested.)

It’s in this decade that his work has gathered itself
into a playful, witty physical eloquence. Rush Hour trades giddily
on the skills that critics have increasingly noticed Chan sharing
with silent film comedians Keaton, Chaplin, Lloyd, and with the
silky beauty of Fred Astaire. In the long opening sequence in which
Chan arrives in the U.S., he works without dialogue. Playing Inspector
Lee, Hong Kong’s finest stunt detective-or whatever-he gets flown
to L.A. when the Chinese ambassador’s daughter has been kidnaped
and the ambassador will trust her discovery to no one else. Disturbed,
the FBI recruits a large, verbally oppressive L.A. cop (Chris Tucker)
to keep Inspector Lee away from the FBI’s investigation of the
kidnaping.

This sets the stage for Chan/Lee’s arrival in America.
Trying to elude Tucker, Lee threads and unthreads himself out of
a series of moving vehicles like so many slipknots until he arrives
in the middle of the bureau’s work. On top of a tour bus, Lee hangs
off a street sign (which reads "Hollywood"), drops onto
the back of a truck carrying rugs, tumbles through the sunroof
of a mildly surprised family’s mobile home, and then tucks and
rolls from there into a moving taxicab. It’s a dazzling set of
stunts, linked like pieces in a manual-wind watch. Throughout,
Chan’s face is expressionless, very much the silent film star.
Whatever else you may think of the film’s flimsy plot or slapstick
dialogue, this sequence is undeniably in the master’s groove.

Chan’s silence is a shrewd comment on what has become
a bromide about him, that he is the last of a breed that began
with Keaton, Chaplin, et. al. They were, Chan writes in his biography, "the
first action heroes." But what did he learn, specifically?
From Keaton and Chaplin, he says, he learned "situation comedy," by
which he means letting the audience feel the danger of a stunt
rather than telegraphing it through his character’s facial expressions.
And the dancers, Astaire and Gene Kelly? "I see them, I say,
this kind of tempo, this kind of rhythm is good for fighting.’
Because if you’re just fighting-bong-bong-bong pah-pow–bong–bong," says
Chan, chopping at the air, "it is boring."

"I want to show something in my movies, some
technique," he continues. "American movies show you how
to fight and break arms and necks. I want to make action in my
movies like dancing."

Chan’s been honing that technique for three decades.
Since the late ’60s he’s worked as the stunt choreographer on almost
all his films. In the early days the cool of that was almost unspeakable.
And it’s not like a giant math problem for him, either. He’s naturally
good at it. "Everybody knows that first meeting with me I
give them all the ideas like that," he says. He reads a scene,
asks the director if there should be action, and when he gets a
yes, like automatic writing he comes up with whole sequences on
the spot. "Ask anybody in Hollywood-they say, ‘Jackie, wait.
Hold on! I have to write this down.’ But you can ask me tomorrow
again. I remember."

That finale stunt in Rush Hour, where Chan hangs
from an air duct 16 or 17 stories from the ground? Chan thought
about that for a half second.

Jackie goes on. "I think in Hollywood the big
action stars, they just training, waiting for a script. But myself,
I have to survive, so I have to write."

Suddenly Chan jumps up from the couch. He calls to
his assistant in Mandarin. "I show you my secret," he
tells me. "Nobody knows." A cafe au lait colored leather
carry-on bag appears in the room-a piece of luggage Chan bought
on his first trip to the U.S.

"Every day my life is a creating," he says,
unzipping the bag. He pulls out a fat wallet and gingerly draws
out four or five thin sheets of paper, which he lays on the table. "Here
is all my script," he says, displaying neat columns of Chinese
characters. "Taken with me more than 20 years, wherever I
go."

Forty or more movies on these four or five sheets?
Is it code? Some kind of Mandarin haiku? What does he mean? Chan
leans over the table and points to a couple of the characters.
Rumble in the Bronx. And to another: Project A II."

In one or two characters? "I just write a little
bit. Then I know." He points to another character. "Here
it says fight in bar.’"

It’s a trigger for him, helped, no doubt, by the
visual element in the Chinese characters themselves. With one image,
all of the steps, all the feints, punches, and soaring leaps come
back to him.
And for ideas, he keeps a folder of pictures and shows me collages of gizmos
and Bond-like contraptions from one glossy Hong Kong magazine. "Maybe
a story on spies. But I keep things, anything could be a prop. Wherever I go
I keep it, all the tricks, all the details. So many tiny things. Later I will
get my secretary to combine it all onto one piece of paper. It’s money. It’s
my secret. I never tell anybody."

Tong says later that Chan has a backlog of stunts,
too. On the set of Super Cop Chan told Tong that he wanted a scene
in which he drove the bad guy’s truck. Tong, worried about stunts
topping stunts in one film, convinced him to put that aside for
another day. (It would turn up, finally, in Mr. Nice Guy.)

As for the credit-sharing, Tong allows that he conceived
of major stunts in their three films, but it was Chan’s roll, playing
Lennon to his McCartney, to finesse the idea. A note like "fighting
with refrigerators" needs to get worked out a little.

And his next creation? Despite the success of Rush
Hour, Chan has returned to Hong Kong. As you read this he will
likely have wrapped The Glass City. He’s concerned that Rush Hour,
with merely five set-piece stunts, will alienate his massive Asian
audience, which demands many more fights, chases, flights down
snowy mountains and netless leaps from rooftops. But there’s another
reason for him to return to Hong Kong. This movie will be a romance,
with almost no action at all.

"I know I cannot do action movie forever," he
says, almost wistfully.

At 44, Jackie admits that he’s at a crossroads, and
one can’t help wondering if this screen hero, whose early life
so resembles Chaplin’s, hasn’t considered a future that might include
peril and romance as versions of each other, a la Chaplin-romance,
maybe, as the ultimate stunt. Is there a Jackie Chan future that
includes a dozen slamming refrigerator doors and, um, yearning?
Is that too much to ask? MM

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