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Choice Chan

There are two scenes in Rumble in the Bronx that go a long way toward explaining why, in Asia, Jackie Chan is a movie star who eclipses the likes of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis or Sylvester Stallone. The first comes relatively early on, when Chan has been chased into an alley by a group of teenage punks who look like extras that didn't quite make the cut for Mad Max.

Up until this point, the tone of the film has been relatively light; here, however, things turn dark fast. As the camera makes clear, Chan has no way out. High walls prevent his escape on three sides, while the street gang closes off the fourth. In a standard kung fu film -- or in a standard action film, for that matter -- a couple of things might be expected to happen. The cops might show up and run the gang off, saving the hero at the last minute; the gang members might tumble forward one by one to be sliced and diced by the martial arts star, until finally they split, leaving him behind exhausted but triumphant; or the gang might surge forward en masse, there's a confusing melee and the hero struggles his way to freedom. But with Chan, none of this happens. Instead, the punks begin picking up discarded liquor bottles and, using a baseball bat, hitting them toward where Chan is standing. The bottles tumble end over end in delicious slow motion until they explode against a wall to shower Chan with sharp shards of glass. He begins bleeding, and the bottles keep coming. It is an astonishing example of the star's vulnerability and of the terrible, and terrifying, beauty that can be found in some acts of violence.

The second scene comes a little further along with the same participants -- Chan and the teenage gang -- but in a very different setting. Chan has tracked them to a warehouse to teach them a lesson. This he does using pinball machines, grocery carts, refrigerators and a pool table in an exquisitely choreographed fight sequence that owes as much to Buster Keaton and Gene Kelly as it does to Bruce Lee. Here, everyone gets hit, but nobody gets hurt. It's conflict as amusement, done with the same Žlan and skill as the earlier example of conflict as terror.

To an American audience used to films that latch onto a tone and, for better or worse, ride it from start to finish, such a flip-flop might be hard to take. What makes it work is Chan himself, a charismatic presence who really has no parallel in Hollywood filmmaking. Bruce Willis is probably the closest comparison, though Willis has neither Chan's physical grace nor the aura of innocence that prompts an audience to accept even his goofiest attempts at humor -- of which his movies contain more than just a little.

That's just part of the reason why in Asia, Jackie Chan is the number one movie star. His most recent film, First Strike, opened to record-breaking figures, and will likely surpass the box office take of Jurassic Park, Asia's top grossing film to date. In the past two decades, Chan has done more than 40 films, breaking practically every bone in his body along the way while gaining fame and notoriety for doing all of his own stunts, which grow ever more amazing. During the filming of 1986's The Armour of God, Chan nearly died when a botched stunt resulted in his taking a 45-foot fall; the perseverance of his "devil-may-care" attitude in spite of it all does his Chinese name, Sing Lung (translates as "to become a dragon"), justice.

Chan has been revolutionary in Hong Kong action cinema, breathing new life into the kung fu genre in 1978 with Drunken Monkey in the Tiger's Eye and the cop genre in 1986 with Police Story. What set these films apart from their counterparts is what's come to be known as the actor's trademark style: martial arts with a Chinese opera influence, slapstick humor and, of course, jaw-dropping stunt work. Chan has proven so successful that he's been given complete creative control over his films, and sometimes takes on the roles of director and screenwriter as well as star. In fact, the majority of his films begin shooting without a script; dialogue and story are created on the fly around Chan's ideas for stunts and locations. While the end result is, like much Hong Kong cinema, loosely plotted, fans don't care -- it's the visceral experience that they're after.

But in the U.S., Chan's popularity has been restricted to a cult following. Two earlier attempts to break into the American market -- 1980's The Big Brawl and 1985's The Protector -- floundered, in great part because Chan was doing Hollywood roles with Hollywood directors, and Hollywood didn't have a clue as to how to use him. But in the decade since Chan's last attempt at American movie stardom, things have changed. The popularity of Hong Kong cinema has grown dramatically, thanks in part to praise from the likes of Hong Kong-film junkie Quentin Tarantino, and as a result, now may be when Chan finally gets some long-delayed stateside recognition.

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