The American reissues of Jackie Chan films have met with declining box-office success since Chan burst onto the scene in 1996 with Rumble in the Bronx. With any luck, the latest Chan opus to be recut and redubbed for Americans, the year-old Mr. Nice Guy, should reverse the trend.
No one can fault the way New Line's publicity department delivered for Jackie during Rumble's rollout. But it's easy to blame whoever controlled the film's editing: The cutting made a lame plot even worse, and a few of the movie's best punch lines were removed, presumably in order to make Jackie conform to the traditional image of a "serious" action star. (Of course, this made virtually no sense to anyone who had followed the star's Hong Kong career; it was akin to removing all the jokes from Blazing Saddles in order to sell the film as a "serious" Western.)
Since then, New Line and Miramax have alternated releases of Jackie's newer and older films respectively, with a varying degree of sensitivity to just what makes him special. Despite a scheduling tie-up, Miramax's Supercop was the least butchered, and the original film was the best of those to be given the American treatment.
Mr. Nice Guy, in contrast, has barely been trimmed at all: The film was made with international--read "American"--audiences in mind in the first place. Set in Australia, the film has far more English than Chinese dialogue, and the exposition was handled more swiftly and gracefully than in most of Jackie's recent work. Even more important, it was the best of Jackie's recent films since at least Rumble...probably since Drunken Master 2.
As has become the recent custom, Jackie's character--a Melbourne-based TV chef--is named Jackie. (Chan actually did train as a cook before his acting career took off.) While leaving the studio one day, Jackie rescues Diana (Gabrielle Fitzpatrick), a freelance TV journalist being chased by murderous thugs. Diana has videotaped a meeting between two gangs squabbling over a stash of cocaine. While the gangs are at each other's throats, they both go after Diana to retrieve the incriminating evidence. Through a silly mix-up not worth detailing, the tape ends up with friends of Jackie's, so the bad guys (led by Richard Norton as druglord Giancarlo) kidnap Jackie's girlfriend, Miki (Miki Lee), and hold her hostage. Jackie, Diana, Jackie's assistant (Karen McLymont), and a cop named Romeo (Vince Poletto) have to find the tape and save Miki.
That's more of the story than you really need to know: It's just an excuse for Jackie to run, leap, kick, fly, swing, and scramble all the hell over the place, while getting the shit kicked out of him by the usual gang of beefy Anglo stunt guys. No one is supposed to worry about the details of the plot...which is just as well, given the sparse attention it's been given by the filmmakers. The issue of the tape's whereabouts simply disappears halfway through; worse yet, the tape, when we briefly see it, turns out to be the best-cut multiple-camera-angled video ever shot in real-time on one hidden camcorder.
This time around, New Line appears to have the action sequences almost entirely intact, with no punch lines removed. They've trimmed something like 10 minutes' worth--mostly little pieces of exposition and bits of arguably unnecessary dialogue. The new score is sometimes better, sometimes worse than the original; the faceless J. Peter Robinson, who did similar chores on Rumble and First Strike, provides effective generic action music, lifting a bit from The Rite of Spring, of all sources. (And he cuts out a dissonant sax solo that was particularly groovy in the original version.)
Mr. Nice Guy has no single stunt as spectacular as the balcony leap in Rumble or the helicopter work in Supercop--which is just fine. What it does have is a greater percentage of the sort of comic, acrobatic action at which Jackie is unsurpassed--just the sort of thing that he'll be able to keep doing for another decade if he doesn't kill himself first, trying to please fans who demand bigger, more dangerous stuntwork.
There are too many really hilarious, imaginative bits of shtick to list, involving an unfinished construction site, a calash, a huge inflatable King Kong, power tools, a trolley, a water hose, and a truckload of Pepsi cans. (Pepsi receives two very unsubtle product placements.)
Only the climactic sequence is a disappointment. In classic American action-movie style, Mr. Nice Guy ends with about a dozen minutes of sheer mechanical destruction, as Jackie routs the bad guys with a gargantuan earthmover. Sure, lots of stuff gets smashed up real cool, and finally the filmmakers blow everything up real good...but who cares? It could be Mel Gibson driving the machine, or Estelle Winwood, or the guy who plays Urkel, as easily as Jackie.
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One has to give credit for much of Mr. Nice Guy's quality to Sammo Hung Kam-Bo, who is Jackie's only peer at directing Jackie. Sammo is one of the few creative figures in the Hong Kong industry whose impact and body of work are in the same exalted league as Chan--quite literally. He grew up with Jackie in the Chinese Opera Research School, became (in effect) Jackie's brother, broke into the film industry first, helped Jackie repeatedly in his early career, and had undeniable influence on Jackie's filmmaking style.
Sammo co-starred in and directed several of Jackie's best films during his run of brilliant work in the 1980s, including Wheels on Meals, Dragons Forever, and Heart of a Dragon. The two have had rifts in recent years, and the Hong Kong release of Mr. Nice Guy represented Sammo's comeback after several lean years. (The phrase "lean years" will sound ironic to anyone familiar with Sammo's substantial physical presence. He gives himself a brief, very funny role in Mr. Nice Guy; he's the one the bad guys call "fat boy.")
If Mr. Nice Guy does better than other recent Jackie films--as it deserves to--it should encourage distributors to start mining Sammo's large back catalog of wonderful films, even those without Jackie in them.
Mr. Nice Guy.
Directed by Sammo Hung. Written by Edward Tang and Fibe Ma. Starring Jackie Chan, Gabrielle Fitzpatrick, and Miki Lee. Opens Friday.