Chan, Jackie (Profile)
Canadian cities have been masquerading as American centres in the movies for years. And with a little set decoration, they can be pretty convincing. Rumble in the Bronx - the movie that unleashes Hong Kong action star Jackie Chan into the North American market - takes place in New York City but was shot in Vancouver. For a while, the illusion holds. The cabs are yellow and the money is green. But midway through the movie, mountains suddenly appear in the background of a scene showing a gangster playing golf. Perhaps he commutes to a course on the West Coast. But wait, now there are more mountains - majestic peaks loom over the New York waterfront as Chan waterskis (without skis) behind a hovercraft, which then climbs out of the ocean and starts plowing through the streets of "the Bronx." It soon becomes hilariously clear that the film-makers have given up trying to disguise Vancouver. The incongruity becomes part of the joke - and of the slapstick charm that makes Rumble in the Bronx such a hoot.
Jackie Chan is certainly not going to waste his time worrying about which side of North America the mountains are supposed to be on. The 40-year-old actor, director, martial artist and stuntman is too busy being Asia's biggest movie star. "We try to make Vancouver look like New York," Chan told Maclean's, speaking in broken but efficient English, "but later on too difficult. We hire all these graffiti people to paint walls. And after two days we must paint back. So I tell the director, 'What the hell, don't worry about these things. We worry about the movie.' "
A veteran of 43 films, Chan has forged a winning hybrid of combat and comedy. And now he is trying to win over North America. Rumble in the Bronx has been released on 1,600 screens across the continent - unprecedented for a martial-arts movie with a large portion of dubbed dialogue. But no one goes to Jackie Chan movies for the dialogue. His virtuoso antics, which owe as much to Buster Keaton as to Bruce Lee, need no translation. "Everybody says, 'Ah, you are one of the action stars.' No, I am different," Chan insists. "I am Stallone, Dustin Hoffman, Donald Duck and Gene Kelly."
Not to mention Evel Knievel. Unlike Hollywood action stars, who earn millions for going through the motions, Chan does all his own stunts. In Rumble in the Bronx, he portrays a vacationing Hong Kong cop who runs afoul of local gangs. In one scene, gang members corner him in an alley and pelt him with bottles. After the crew ran out of harmless "candy glass" bottles, Chan told them to use real ones. "We would have to wait for a week, so I said, 'Just do it,' " he explains, pointing to the scars where his face was cut by flying glass. "This is why we don't have a union in Hong Kong. In Hollywood, they won't let you do that."
Near the end of filming Rumble in the Bronx, Chan broke his ankle jumping onto the hovercraft. Meanwhile, two stuntwomen and an actress broke their legs on motorcycles. And even the director, former Hong Kong stuntman Stanley Tong, ended up on crutches with a sprained ankle. Asked how many bones he has broken, Chan shrugs and taps a join-the-dots map around his body. "Fingers. Break, break, break. And here the bone comes out and I twist it. And here the bone comes out from the chest. Three times nose. I still have a hole in my head here"
The actor comes from a school of hard knocks. The product of a poor Hong Kong family, he spent 10 years of his childhood boarding at a brutally strict Chinese opera school - similar to the one portrayed in Farewell My Concubine. Scrapping his way up from stunt work, Chan fused martial arts with slapstick wit and ingenuous charm. Now, he earns $5 million a movie, plus a cut of the profits. Though based in Hong Kong, he finds it easier and cheaper to film in foreign locations, from Morocco to Malaysia, which means he spends most of his time away from his wife and their 13-year-old son. "I never let them know if I get hurt," he says. "I'm always lying."
In Asia, Chan is routinely mobbed by fans. Meanwhile, along with other Hong Kong film-makers such as John Woo (Broken Arrow) and Wong Kar-wai (Chungking Express), he is acquiring cult status in North America. Director Quentin Tarantino (Pulp Fiction) has called him "one of the greatest physical comedians since sound came into films." For his part, Chan says he admires Tarantino's work, but "I don't like the blood and bad language. My movies have good violence. No blood come from nose, mouth. No dirty jokes. No make-love scenes. No kissing. Everything clean. I want children to see my movie."
The boy-scout morality of Rumble in the Bronx, and its wooden, half-dubbed dialogue, seem as phoney as its setting. But as a live-action cartoon, the movie moves a lot faster than Woo's lumbering Broken Arrow. And the actor's circus-like clowning extends right to the closing credits, which feature outtakes of injuries and failed stunts. Chan realizes his days as an action hero are numbered. "What else can I do? Jackie Chan make love story? Slow-motion running on the beach?" No. But he wants to shift to "natural comedy," he says, "so people will go see a Jackie Chan movie for the acting, not the fighting." That leap could be the most difficult stunt of his amazing career.
Maclean's March 4, 1996