Jackie Chan: An Appreciation
By Steven D. Greydanus
Why does the world love Jackie Chan?
It isn’t just his martial-arts chops. Sure, he does kung fu fighting, moves fast as lightning — but so do a lot of other folks: Jet Li, Ray Park, Michelle Yeoh, Van Damme. True, Jackie’s one of the best — and don’t let any hyperventilating American Jet Li fanboy tell you that Jackie’s anything less than a first-rate martial artist. The man didn’t get to be the biggest star in Asia — in fact, the biggest non-Hollywood star in the world — by being a poser. But he hasn’t finally achieved success in America through sheer technical prowess, either.
The fact is, Jackie’s appeal is hard to sum up in a single sentence. Ask five different Jackie Chan fans what they like about him, and you may get five different answers:
- Chops. For serious kung-fu fans, of course, the draw is plain: dazzlingly virtuoso martial-arts displays (some lasting the better part of a half hour) in Hong-Kong-style kung-fu films like Police Story and Drunken Master. (The 1994 sequel to the latter movie, rereleased in America as The Legend of Drunken Master, contains some of the most accomplished fight scenes ever committed to film, and makes instructive viewing for skeptical purists who doubt Jackie’s true ability.)
- Props. For adventurous American moviegoers who discovered Jackie in the mid-1990s when he finally broke into the U.S. market, the crux of Jackie’s appeal may be staggeringly creative choreography, balletic grace, and in particular his imaginative use of props, like shopping carts and folding ladders. Like other great physical performers from Buster Keaton (whom Jackie consciously emulates) to Douglas Fairbanks Sr. to Gene Kelly, Jackie has an exuberant athleticism that can’t be contained by the boundaries of his own body, but embraces his environment and everything in it. In the words of mystery writer Donald Westlake as quoted in Time magazine, "Jackie Chan is Fred Astaire, and the world is Ginger Rogers."
- Stunts. Action lovers are bound to be struck by Jackie’s stuntwork, which he famously does himself without computer trickery or process photography. In films where the plot is never for a moment to be taken seriously, there’s still genuine tension as Jackie prepares to throw himself off a rooftop across a dozen feet of empty space to a fire escape on the opposite building, or to leap from the edge of a cliff before catching hold of a hovering helicopter. He’s also famous for showing outtakes during the end credits revealing stunts that went wrong: the stumbles and trips, the whacked fingers and twisted ankles. It was for this that the same Time article rightly credited Jackie with being (in the phrase more commonly associated with James Brown) "the hardest working man in show biz."
- Laughs. Comedy fans will find much to enjoy in Jackie’s trademark blend of goofy slapstick, naive situation comedy, and cheerful low humor. Far from being a foreign element imposed on the action sequences, Jackie’s often self-deprecating comedy is an essential aspect of his physical style and overall moviemaking approach. In fact, it wasn’t until Hong Kong film bosses allowed him to develop his unique brand of action comedy that Jackie decisively emerged from a host of other post-Bruce Lee martial artists to become the new face of Hong Kong cinema.
- Charm. Finally, almost everyone is taken by Jackie’s winsome energy and self-effacing charm. Like the good-natured reluctant heroes he usually plays, Jackie is by all accounts a genuinely nice guy who never takes himself too seriously; he appears well-liked by his costars, and seems driven by a sincere desire to entertain and please his fans. It’s this basic likability that ties together the whole package and makes it all work: We feel for the guy as he does his stunts; we cheer his accomplishments and wince at his mishaps. It’s an index of the man’s common touch and accessibility that nearly everyone, from film critics to fans to reporters, tends to call him "Jackie" rather than "Chan" or "Mr. Chan."
With such broad-based appeal, Jackie can perhaps please almost everybody — but not all the time. Moviegoers in America and Asia both love him, but the two audiences have such different tastes — Americans expect more plot and dialogue, while Asians want more action with long fight scenes and elaborate stuntwork — that Jackie has ultimately been driven to alternate between films targeted for his Asian fans and those targeted to Americans.
Finding this balance hasn’t been easy. Jackie’s earliest attempt to break break into the American market was a 1980 film called The Big Brawl, a raw Hong-Kong-style actioner that understandably flopped at the U.S. box office. On the other end of the spectrum was The Protector (1985), a disastrous Hollywood cop movie that failed utterly to utilize Jackie’s special gifts. Despite these setbacks in America, Jackie’s success in Asia continued to spread with Hong-Kong films like Project A and Police Story.
It wasn’t until the mid-nineties that Jackie finally hit the right balance of story, action, and comedy to engage American audiences while still entertaining Asian fans. Rumble in the Bronx and Jackie Chan’s First Strike were like Chinese takeout: modestly authentic in flavor, but made palatable to, and packaged for, American tastes. As with many chop-socky movies, the plots were threadbare and hokey and the dialogue was laughable, but like a shrewd martial artist Jackie turned these very limitations into strengths, playing it all with a wink.
Yet if the writing seemed like a joke, the physicality was anything but. The wit as well as the grace of Jackie’s slapstick and stunts prompted critics to make comparisons to the great silent comedians (Lloyd, Keaton, Chaplin) and dancers (Kelly, Astaire). Moviegoers were staggered by the sheer rate with which Jackie knocked off his little action gems, with only a second or two to appreciate some brilliant throwaway move before the next one came, followed almost immediately by the one after that.
After those first two breakthrough films, Jackie started to diversify his approach, returning to a purer Hong-Kong style for some films while going all-American in others. In the U.S., he has hit upon the successful strategy of making mainstream "buddy" movies with glibly motormouthed American costars (Chris Tucker in Rush Hour and RH2, Owen Wilson in Shanghai Noon and Shanghai Knights) who compensate for Jackie’s less-than-perfect English, giving him room to focus on his eloquent physicality. Meanwhile, for Asian fans who find his Hollywood films too talky and undistinguished by too-brief, unremarkable fight scenes, Jackie continues to make more traditional kung-fu fare like Who Am I? and The Accidental Spy.
This divide is not absolute. Jackie’s Hollywood movies may not be as popular in Asia as his Hong Kong films, but they still play there. Likewise, some of Jackie’s Hong Kong films, especially those that may be more compatible with American tastes (e.g., Operation Condor, Supercop), have begun finding a new audience here, though a tiny one in comparison to Jackie’s buddy films. (For example, the U.S. rerelease of The Legend of Drunken Master, though it made less than a tenth of what Rush Hour did, was still considered a success.)
Watching Jackie Chan movies
Although Jackie Chan is a singular talent and a great entertainer, he does not, alas, make great movies. With respect to such cinematic basics as story, dialogue, character, and so on, the best of Jackie’s films are merely competent, and many are less than that. Generally, the most we can hope for in a Jackie Chan film is that it will be an efficient vehicle: that it will showcase his strengths, and will not be so flawed as to become distracting.
Potentially distracting flaws can include too little plot or too many plot complications, not enough action or not enough of the right kind of action, and excessively nasty violence or other troubling elements.
Consider story first. No one watches a Jackie Chan movie primarily for the story, any more than anyone watches a Rodgers & Hammerstein musical primarily for the story. Still, there’s got to be a story of some sort. Without at least a token plot, a pretense of motivation and conflict, the movie would be only mere random footage of Jackie and his stuntmen, which is not at all the same thing. The audience wants to root for Jackie as he fights against bad guys; to have the pretense that he’s actually making up all those moves on the spot out of necessity, just as someone watching Gordon MacRae singing to Shirley Jones in Oklahoma! wants to have the pretense that he’s making up those words on the spot in order to woo her.
So we need a plot. At the same time, the plot should serve the action, not the other way around. It shouldn’t get too convoluted or complex, nor should it contain long lapses of story without action scenes. It shouldn’t take itself too seriously, or ask us to invest ourselves emotionally in the characters or their situations (as if the action were supposed to matter, instead of only to entertain). Nor should it raise the emotional stakes with disturbing themes or imagery; these may at times be unavoidable in serious drama, but they only sour the fun in a Jackie Chan film.
Unfortunately, few if any of Jackie’s films are completely successful in avoiding all of these pitfalls, though some do better than others. Jackie seems to have some insight into what makes his films work and what doesn’t, and long ago he worked out a formula or template for his movies that gives him room to do what he does best, while generally minimizing the pitfalls. The Jackie Chan formula can be summed up as follows:
- As mentioned above, Jackie generally plays a reluctant hero, a genial, good-natured fellow who doesn’t want trouble and would rather run away from a fight than win one. Of course, the phrase "running away from a fight" hardly does justice to the lengths he goes to trying to get away from his pursuers, leaping, rolling, tumbling, scrambling (he’s got a way of ricocheting up walls and over fences that’s got to be seen to be believed).
- Despite his efforts to escape, Jackie is finally forced to fight — often to protect an innocent, such as a child or a young woman. Like the first point, this is intended to ensure Jackie’s good-guy status; although it can backfire if the images of children or young women in peril become too troubling or unpleasant. (For example, Mr. Nice Guy opens with a scene in which a young woman in a bikini is actually killed in a gratuitously nasty scene.)
- Once the action starts, it’s played for thrills and for
laughs, not for dramatic tension or emotional impact. As a
rule, the fight scenes are not mean-spirited or bloody; unlike
other martial artists from Bruce Lee to Jet Li to Steven Segal,
Jackie plays characters who avoid seriously injuring or killing
his opponents, and combatants in his movies are seldom if ever
shot, stabbed, or killed. Despite his dazzling martial-arts
prowess, Jackie takes his lumps. He winces, reacts to blows,
hurts his knuckles, and so on. This, too, is often played for
On unfortunate occasions when a Jackie Chan movie does lapse into unnecessary unpleasantness, this is usually not during a fight scene, but represents a flaw in the surrounding story. For example, Rumble in the Bronx has a non-fight scene with mob hitmen killing a gang member in a particularly gory fashion. There’s also an unnecessary sequence at the end of a fight scene in which Jackie is badly bloodied by flying glass; but even this can’t be described as a fight scene per se. As a rule, when the fists are flying, Jackie’s movies are fun.
- Also as mentioned above, Jackie does his own stunts, and they’re always real stunts, not special effects. He says he originally began including outtakes of failed stunts to show children that his stunts were dangerous and should not be attempted at home, but they’ve become a popular finale attraction in their own right — not so much, I think, because his fans like seeing Jackie get hurt, but because it heightens our appreciation of the sheer difficulty of the things he attempts.
Besides occasional lapses into unnecessarily grim imagery, Jackie’s movies may suffer from certain other flaws. Although Jackie avoids sex, foul language, and dirty jokes, the comparatively sexist tendencies of Eastern culture are sometimes evident, and women may be presented in ways that can seem jarring to Americans.
Sometimes even the action may pall: Supercop is one of Jackie’s better all-around movies, and costar Michelle Yeoh ("Michelle Khan" in the credits) adds a welcome dynamic; but I found the fight scenes surprisingly conventional, and Jackie’s big action highlight involves dangling from a helicopter by a rope ladder, which hardly maximizes his unique skills. The Rush Hour films, too, have not served his action abilities as well as might have been hoped.
Who is Jackie Chan?
Although Americans have now heard of Jackie Chan, few have any idea of the magnitude of his celebrity in the East. Over there, he’s like the Beatles or Elvis in their heyday; he is mobbed wherever he goes, and once, when he announced in an interview that he was dating someone, a Japanese woman hurled herself in front of one of Japan’s famed 200-mph Bullet trains.
Jackie is thus understandably enormously guarded about his personal life, and it’s hard to get a clear picture of what he’s really like. Although I greatly enjoy his movies, I must sometimes wonder what drives a human being to do what he does. I suspect that, as with other comedians from Charlie Chaplin to Lucille Ball, there are tears behind the laughter.
According to his own accounts, Jackie had a nightmarish childhood: Born to desperately poor parents who almost sold him to the delivering physician for lack of other payment, Jackie was indentured at a young age to a Hong Kong drama academy, where for ten years he endured nineteen hours a day of grueling training in martial arts, acrobatics, and dance, and was caned for small infractions (which he says has left him with a marked aversion to violence).
Some of Jackie’s critics have suggested that behind his self-depracating charm is a need for acclaim: His earliest efforts to crack the U.S. market came only a couple of years after he became a star in Asia, and his many injuries and broken bones have become a point of celebrity that he willingly discusses, perhaps even fosters.
A husband and father, Jackie admitted in 1999 to an extramarital affair with an actress who has since borne his son. This confession has somewhat tarnished his positive image in Hong Kong, where his public advocacy and charitable foundations have earned him the affectionate nickname "big brother."
Did any religious tradition or ideas play a role in shaping Jackie’s early life? I don’t know. He does, however, tell a story about a formative encounter with Christianity that was a factor in his desire to help children through his charities. A priest from the Red Cross provided food and milk for the children at the drama academy, telling Jackie not to thank him, but instead do the same for others when he grew up.