Jackie Chan understands what a well-thrown punch and a well-delivered punchline have in common: When each of them land, they strike a visceral blow to the gut.
“These days, there’s a lot of movies that combine funny scenes with fight scenes,” says Tony Zhou in his video essay, “Jackie Chan – How to Do Action Comedy.” “Even when the movie’s good, the comedy and action seem to be two different directors and two different styles. That’s why Jackie’s so interesting: In his style, action is comedy.”
To keep his fight scenes fresh and funny, much like a rapper might pick out a random person or object in a room to freestyle some bars about over a beat, Chan will pick up any item or use any part of his surrounding area to wield as a weapon or use as an assist for a move into or away from incoming attacks. As Zhou explains: “Because he’s the underdog, Jackie has to get creative. He uses anything around him. This is the most famous aspect of his style: Take something familiar, do something unfamiliar. I’ve seen him fight with chairs, dresses, chopsticks, keyboards, legos, refrigerators and of course[, ladders]. Not only does this make each fight organic and grounded. It gives us jokes that couldn’t happen anywhere else.”
But that’s just the performative side of things. From behind the camera, Chan’s style is doubly instructive about staging and shooting action, as well as how to work with stuntmen (if you aren’t lucky enough to have the next Jackie Chan headlining your film) to achieve visual clarity. “[Chan’s] framing is so clear,” explains Zhou, “that in every shot, he’s setting up the next bit of action. [In one scene,] even though we’re watching the stuntmen, two thirds of the frame is the staircase. A few seconds later, we see why.” (Jump to the 2:17 mark of the video for the payoff.)
Chan’s camera movements (or lack thereof) are also perennially teachable for directors aiming to enframe as much physicality and believability of fight choreography as possible. “In American movies, you can see there’s a lot of [camera] movement,” says Chan, “because when there’s camera angle movement, that means the actor, they don’t know how to fight.” Rather than have camera operators swing cameras around to enhance the impression of a violent fight scene, Chan asserts, “I never move my camera. It’s always steady, wide angle: Let [audiences] see I’m jumping down, I do the split, I do the fall…” When crafting your own fight sequence, ask yourself whether you and your crew can afford to go the extra mile to shoot both action and reaction in the same frame, so audiences can visually absorb and feel the weight of the action.
While you may not have months to shoot a single fight sequence, as Chan has often had with support from the Hong Kong studio system, adopting some of these tricks and philosophies to action comedy can help scenes executed by even the most untrained of actors feel a little less paint-by-numbers and a lot more fun. MM