Body slam

Jackie Chan, the most popular screen actor in the world, doesn't make movies. He is his movies--a one-man film industry, kicking and spinning and leaping his way into cinemas all over the planet.

For more than 15 years, he's helped define and develop the Hong Kong film community, appearing in a string of action-comedy flicks of such tremendous popularity as to put Arnold Schwarzenegger to shame. But in America, he rates barely a blip on the name-recognition index.

Those lucky enough to see Chan's films regularly understand that the reason for Chan's appeal is comparable to Evel Knievel's. Chan never uses a stunt man, so every bit of action you see in his films--and they are stunning combinations of gall, brawn, and stupidity--is pure Jackie, and working without a net, to boot. No one, not even Lloyd's of London, will insure him.

It's difficult to explain why this one fact has created such a worldwide fascination with Chan, but it would be wrong to disregard the value his personality plays in his success. With the "gosh-darn" attitude of a Chinese Clark Kent, he's instantly endearing. For several years, he tried unsuccessfully to be "the new Bruce Lee," but it wasn't until he created his own niche--mind-blowing action with the addition of a brilliant sense of physical humor equal to silent greats Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd--that his distinctive brand of kung fu and clowning really caught on.

Rumble in the Bronx, Chan's latest picture, is his first in more than a decade to go wide in the United States. The movie is a fairly typical example of the Hong Kong action technique. In fact, based on its routine content and predictable, hokey plotting, there's no reason Rumble in the Bronx should prove any more successful here than previous Chan ventures, despite its Americanized title. If the movie survives, the reason will be simple timing: After years in the wings, receiving kudos from the likes of Quentin Tarantino, The New Yorker, and others, Chan may have finally generated the kind of positive buzz that will confirm his star power among the masses, and spark an interest in this uniquely corny screen personality.

Chan's unique persona is indeed his greatest screen asset. By performing superhero stunts without the benefit of superhero powers--and showing himself getting injured doing so, often during the painful "outtakes" that play over the closing credits--Chan represents the perfect audience surrogate. He's no muscle-bound freak like Arnold or Sly, nor a humorless CIA-connected counterterrorist like Seagal, but a regular Joe--Bruce Willis without the smirk.

In person, Chan seems as likeable a goofball as he does in his films. You can't ask him a question about his movies without getting an expressive, endless anecdote about every bone he's broken, every American movie icon (Keaton, Chaplin) who has influenced him, and his own evaluation of his role in world cinema.

"In Hong Kong, I'm too big," Chan says over a Ginseng tea at Dallas' Planet Hollywood. He hopes that his widespread popularity will serve as a buffer against the censorship common to the mainland when the Chinese government assumes control of Hong Kong in 1997.

"I'm staying. I'm staying," he promises. "In my movies, there's no politics. I hate politics. So [I'm] always happy-go-lucky. China always welcomes my movies. Every time I go to China, they take care of me: 'Jackie Chan cannot get hurt in China!' I have confidence." He pauses, then continues: "If it really happens in 1997 that China government, that they don't want me to make any movies, and their politics stop me, then I may go away. If I have the chance, [I may] swim to America to make movies."

Despite his perky smile, you don't doubt he could do just that. Rumble in the Bronx may be an ideal vehicle for him, since it contains the same ballsy, farfetched hamminess that Chan himself embodies. Although set totally in the New York boroughs, the movie was shot entirely in Canada, which shows in some unintentionally idiotic ways. The majestic mountains in the background are laughably out of place, and the continual use of stock footage of lower Manhattan as "establishing" shots is outright comical in its ignorance:The Bronx is at the other end of New York City.

As with virtually all Hong Kong films, the movie is filmed on location without synchronized sound, and all sound effects--including dialogue--are haphazardly dubbed in later, giving it an artificial quality.

The movie also manages somehow to find the time to include almost every stereotype imaginable, even a hopelessly outdated jive-talking young black man. The very expectation that a film so quaintly uninformed would be accepted by the American moviegoing public is almost charmingly nave. And yet you can't help but appreciate Rumble for what it is--an unpretentious action comedy that's far too good-natured to be accused of insulting its audience.

A discussion of narrative in any Jackie Chan film, including this one, would be as misplaced as an analysis of the environmental issues raised by Bio-Dome. The plot doesn't thicken so much as it congeals, like cream sitting on a window sill in August. For the record, Jackie comes to New York for his uncle's wedding, gets chased down by an enormous street gang, eventually becomes involved in a diamond-smuggling ring...well, I told you. The dialogue, comparable to the plot in quality, is generously sprinkled with the kind of creative bon mots that one would normally have to spend hours scouring reruns of "Starsky and Hutch" to unearth, such as, "It's the cops!," "Let's get outta here!," "He's mine!," and my personal favorite, "Let's get 'em!"

Yet it's easier to forgive Jackie's movies for his storytelling transgressions than similar, bigger-budget, and more pompous action flicks produced in Hollywood. Largely that's because Rumble in the Bronx isn't some prepackaged, THX-recorded, Industrial Light and Magic-style extravaganza, but a hands-on chop-socky movie. The action scenes are peppered throughout the film like sprints in a marathon, giving you a burst of adrenaline and then drawing back to give you a breather.

Chan is the Rube Goldberg of action sequences, staging a series of perfectly choreographed fight ballets full of wit, elan, and dash. His character--from film to film, it's always a variation of the same winsome, goofy athlete who never has time to win over a girl--has MacGyver's sense of resourcefulness, mixed with Curly Howard's comic style. As he waddles like an oversized duck from one danger to the next, Jackie's our tour guide of life-threatening excitement, an Asian Robin Leach inviting us to enter the "Lifestyles of the Dumb and Daring." We share in his jeopardy vicariously, and we share his enthusiasm--possibly the most elusive and undervalued of all action-hero qualities. Perhaps that's why Jackie Chan hasn't caught on here--he seems to be enjoying himself too much.

Rumble in the Bronx, like Chan himself and the Hong Kong style of filmmaking, is paradoxically critic-friendly and virtually critic-proof, a sui generis exercise in audience-friendly entertainment. You'll either enjoy it or you won't. I don't know which. I don't care. I just hope Jackie Chan makes it through his next picture, and lives to keep making more.

Rumble in the Bronx. New Line Cinema. Jackie Chan. Written by Edward Tang and Fibe Ma. Directed by Stanley Tong. Opens February 23.


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