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Jackie Chan, American Action Hero?

Whenever Jackie Chan leaves Hong Kong to make a public appearance in Shanghai, Taipei or Tokyo, or in Kuala Lumpur, Singapore or Seoul, hundreds—sometimes thousands—of his fans gather in a frenzy of adoration. Last June, Chan, the martial artist, comic actor and stunt man who is Asia’s biggest movie star, flew to Los Angeles for MTV’s annual Movie Awards. He was met at the airport by about 25 people. Among the signs and banners held aloft, a bright pink strip read: ALL AMERICANS LOVE JACKIE. SOME JUST DON’T KNOW IT YET.

Martial arts devotees and patrons of Chinatown movie houses have known to love Chan since the late 1970’s. More recently, his signature blend of comedy and combat, honed over 43 films, has turned him into a cult icon among a more diverse audience, including Hollywood film makers and Generation X hipsters for whom high-octane Hong Kong films have become required viewing. At the MTV awards, where Chan was given a Lifetime Achievement Award, Quentin Tarantino heatedly proclaimed him a cinematic virtuoso on the level of Buster Keaton (one of Chan’s acknowledged influences) and Fred Astaire.

Now that the action-comedy format he pioneered in Hong Kong has become a dominant genre in Hollywood, Chan will try to leap across the chasm separating the art house from the multiplex. This Friday, Chan’s “Rumble in the Bronx” will close the Sundance Film Festival. On February 23, New Line will release the film in 1,500 theaters across the country. (It broke box-office records in Asia last year.) This year, Miramax will release the two movies that preceded RumbleCrime Story and Drunken Master II; in the fall, the Topps Company is publishing a Jackie Chan comic book miniseries. Maxine Hong Kingston once wrote, “Nobody in history has conquered and united both North America and Asia,” but at 41, Chan has a chance to do just that.

What sets Chan apart from the movie stars we are accustomed to is immediately apparent on a humid morning in Kwai Chung, a landfill area outside Hong Kong. Chan and his crew are shooting a scene from Thunderbolt, the follow-up to Rumble. A large derrick holds a two-ton shipping container high above the ground, swinging precipitously at the end of a steel cable, like a railroad car where a wrecking ball ought to be. Inside, Chan caroms from side to side, scrambling to get out before the container strikes its target, a ramshackle auto garage. Seconds before impact, Chan leaps down to the garage’s second floor, dives over a balcony railing, turns a midair somersault and lands on his back—just as the wall above splinters into oblivion.

In an earlier shoot, Chan dangled by his hands from the bottom of the swinging shipping container. The night before, he did his own daredevil driving in a street-racing scene, several times turning to admonish his co-star, Anita Yuen, cringing next to him in the passenger seat, with a curt “Shut up!” when her involuntary cries of terror threatened to break his concentration.

Now the crew stops for lunch and Chan collapses into a chair. He reaches for a copy of The Apple Daily, a local Chinese-language tabloid. Die Hard: With a Vengeance is opening in Hong Kong, and the paper has a photography feature about the film’s special effects. In one picture, Bruce Willis’ head is shown close up against a green background, but it’s sideways, as if lying on the ground. The next photograph shows a car barreling down a busy city street. The third shot combines the two scenes, producing the illusion that Willis was actually brave enough to lie down in the car’s path. Chan studies the photographs and shakes his head ruefully.

First and foremost, Chan is a cinematic Evel Knievel, devising and performing bravura acrobatic stunts that straddle the line between courage and lunacy. The powerful devotion of his fans is largely a result of how clearly he risks his life to entertain them. “I want people to come out of the movie thinking, ‘Jackie Chan is good,’ not, ‘The special effects are good,’” he has said.

However, in Hong Kong and throughout Asia, Chan is far more than super-stunt man. He is both Elvis Presley and Steven Spielberg: naughty boy and mensch, movie star and auteur, heartthrob and philanthropist. He produces his own films and those of other directors, makes pop records and organizes charity events, including an annual race-car extravaganza. He owns a piece of the local Planet Hollywood, a modeling agency called Jackie’s Angels and a shiny, hip store full of Chan paraphernalia. Cans of a popular herbal soft drink, Bobo Tea, are labeled “A Jackie Chan Product.” The Hong Kong entertainment community calls him Dai Goh, Cantonese for “big brother.” Entire families go to the theater to see his movies. Roger Lee, a film producer here, says the annual release of a Chan movie at Chinese New Year has become “a holiday tradition, like the Rockettes at Radio City Music Hall.”

Chan’s early years and rise to fame are already folk legend throughout Asia. In 1961, when he was 7, his impoverished parents contracted him to a training school nearby called the Chinese Opera Research Institute. There he endured 10 years of Dickensian cruelty and privation while being molded into a performer of traditional Peking opera. Students were awakened at 5 A.M. and trained until almost midnight each day. (Such a school is depicted in the film Farewell My Concubine, for which Chan was offered and turned down the leading role.) He ultimately mastered a complicated drill of tumbling, singing, acting, dancing, sword fighting and kung fu. As Chan tells it, the schools leader, Master Yu, enforced a pitiless pedagogy: “We are learning by the stick. The stick tell me jump, the stick tell me kick. The teacher say jump over the table, I say I can’t. ‘You can’t?’ Well, as soon as the stick comes up, I jump two tables!”

By the time he was finished at the school, Peking opera was a dying art. Chan went to work as a stunt man and fight choreographer in Hong Kong’s prolific film industry (which produces more than 200 films a year, compared with Hollywood’s 350, distributing them almost as widely). In 1975, the 21-year-old Chan was chosen to star in a Bruce Lee sequel. Fiercely charismatic, Lee had been the first international superstar out of Hong Kong, and in the wake of his death, producers were desperate to find a successor. But the film Chan made was a commercial failure, and his next several pictures did just as poorly. He didn’t carry himself like Lee. On screen, he appeared scrawny and lacked authority. 
The problem, as Chan now puts it, was, “How can I get out from Bruce Lee’s shadow?” His solution was simple. Just as Samuel Beckett made his mark by taking the extreme opposite tack from his former employer, James Joyce, Chan set out to become an anti-Bruce Lee. “I look at Bruce Lee film,” he says. “When he kick high, I kick low. When he not smiling, always smiling. He can one-punch break the wall; after I break the wall, I hurt. I do the funny face.”

Chan was remade, in a pair of 1978 kung fu comedies, as an overeager underdog who succeeds mostly by
 accident. Both films were wildly successful, and Chan, who was being paid $385 a month, suddenly found himself the object of a bidding war. When Chan signed a contract with Golden Harvest, Lee’s old studio, he became the highest-paid actor in Hong Kong, a distinction he has held ever since. Today, his fee is 30 million Hong Kong dollars per film (about 4 million American dollars). He also earns a percentage of the profits, a unique arrangement in Hong Kong.
 More important, Chan was given complete control over his work. During the next decade, he wrote, directed, produced and starred in a series of increasingly ambitious films. He studied old Hollywood movies, inspired by the outsize comic stunts and escalating mayhem of Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd. In the films of Frank Capra, Chan discovered a kindred sympathy for the common man.

The results were unprecedentedly popular. Chan’s manic-action comedies became giant Rube Goldberg devices designed to shuttle their star from chase to fight to stunt while resolving a rather simple plot. “The thing about my movies,“ Chan says, “you don’t have to understand the dialogue to understand it. So all over Asia, people go to see them.” He gets a serious look on his face. “For my philosophy, the more people look at a movie, it’s a good movie. Like Schindler’s List—I think it’s bad movie. I think Jurassic Park is a good movie. When you make a movie you get Oscar, O.K. Very difficult. But when you make one movie around the world everyone wants to see it, it’s more difficult than to get Oscar.”

In person, Chan is an irrepressible performer, punctuating his anecdotes with comic gestures and exaggerated faces. Everyone is an audience to be entertained, whether in Cantonese, Mandarin, Japanese, Korean or broken English. (Chan will often stop to translate a joke, so as not to exclude any listeners.) There often seems little distance between Chan himself and the eager-to-please characters he plays.

He is almost shockingly free of celebrity hauteur. One night while shooting Thunderbolt, he takes advantage of a short break to head over to his production office to sweep the floor. Next, he straightens up his staff members’ desks, then takes a rag and bottle of Windex and works on the Xerox machine. “This is my office,” he explains. “These people, they just work here, they don’t care about dirty.” Even conscientious film makers like Robert Redford or Martin Scorsese are not likely to scrub their own photocopiers—or offer to drive home some extras when shooting ends at 3 in the morning.
 When confronted by his fans, Chan seems to appreciate them as sincerely as they appreciate him. Twice a year, he hosts a party for the Jackie Chan International Fan Club, many of whose members fly in from Japan. At one point, the club had more than 10,000 members, most of them girls. Being a teen idol, however, has exacted its price: in his films and his private life, Chan must be careful not to reveal too much romantic involvement. In 1985, after he mentioned in an interview that he was dating someone, a Japanese girl committed suicide. The next year, another Japanese fan arrived at his office, announced her intention of bearing Chan’s child and drank a vial of poison.

“I’m very scared,” Chan admits, “because I have a responsibility with all my fans. I cannot say, ‘Now I have a girlfriend, now I getting married, now I have a son.’ How many people die? So all those years, my private life, I’m very secret. Very hard for me, but I’d rather hurt one person, one girl. I don’t want to hurt many fans.“

In actuality, Chan is married, to a Taiwanese actress, Lin Fung-chiao. They have a son, Jaycee, a shy, skinny 12-year-old who is much better at video games than at martial arts. Chan and his wife live separately, however, and he also sees other women. Not that he has a lot of leisure time: he is almost always at work, promoting his work or thinking about new work. Like the Buster Keaton character who lives in a theater in a short film called The Playhouse, Chan often sleeps at the Golden Harvest complex while he is shooting, using his office as a studio apartment. (It has a shower, refrigerator and microwave oven.) “Sometimes,” he says, “everyone’s asleep, and my mind is still working. I come downstairs in the middle of the night and edit.

“Sometimes I shoot all night, drive to the day location, park my car, sleep in the car and then wake up and go shoot.” 
By the time Rumble opens in the United States, he will already have completed Thunderbolt and his next film, Piece of Cake, a globe-trotting romp in which Chan takes on rogue C.I.A. agents and a shark. “Maybe my philosophy different than some other people,” he says. “Today, most important is work. Relationship with all my staff because they help me. Girl, wife, son, doesn’t help me. So I do everything for public first. Then I think about family.”

Though some might find Chan’s priorities backward, a contemporary movie star who takes his public responsibilities so seriously seems almost too good to be true. In a fight scene in Rumble, Chan reluctantly beats up about a dozen members of a motorcycle gang. On his way out of their clubhouse, he turns around to say: “I hope next time when we meet we won’t be fighting each other. Instead we will be drinking tea together!”

“When I’m making a movie,” he explains, “I always think: ‘Is children gonna see it? Yes. Is it cheap dialogue? No. Is it sometimes too violent? No.’”

He is also a founder and officer of the Hong Kong Directors Guild, Performing Artists Guild and Society of Cinematographers. The Jackie Chan Charitable Foundation provides scholarships to young people for education and training in the arts. When stunt men are injured on his films, he pays for their medical care. One day in Kwai Chung, the actresses who play his teen-age sisters burst into tears after filming a dangerous shot in which an entire three-story building crashes down around them. They are unhurt, but very shaken. Chan takes them aside and recounts episodes of paralyzing cowardice that he has experienced over the years. Gradually, the whole crew gathers around to listen. By the time he is done, the two girls, along with everyone else, are laughing.

Will America, long in the business of exporting international pop superstars, be willing to accept the importation of one? Bruce Lee, after all, was born here and spoke English; before he started making movies, he was on television, as Kato in The Green Hornet. Chan’s kinesthetic sensibility also may take getting used to, with its references to centuries-old martial arts traditions, the classical grace of Buster Keaton and Michael Jackson’s dance moves.

Just where Chan will fall on the culture curve in this country remains to be seen. At the MTV awards, Tarantino’s presentation speech placed him firmly in the realm of art, down to a pretentious mispronunciation of his last name as “Chon.” What followed was a hyperactive montage of fight scenes from Chan’s films, accompanied by the cheesy 70’s pop hit “Kung Fu Fighting”—as if to imply that Chan might be merely another oddball addition to the kitsch pantheon.
 It may be, however, that Chan’s moment has arrived. As American audiences have warmed toward Asian and Asian-themed films, the trendiness of Hong Kong action movies in particular among the 20-something crowd has increased Chan’s visibility. But to put Rumble over the top, New Line is intent on minimizing Chan’s foreignness.

“We’re in the business of Americanizing Jackie Chan as much as we can,” says Mitchell Goldman, president of marketing and distribution at New Line. “Once we establish him as an action star in an American setting, it will be easier for his Asian pictures to cross over.” In Rumble, which was shot not in the Bronx but in Vancouver, British Columbia, Chan travels to New York to help his uncle sell the family grocery store, where he encounters menacing neighborhood gangs and heavily armed mobsters. It may not be his greatest film, but its American backdrop makes it an excellent introduction for audiences unfamiliar with Hong Kong cinema. Rumble has also been re-edited for Western audiences, with a clever dramatic justification for dubbing much of the film—with Chan’s participation—into English.

Still, Edward Tang, who wrote the screenplay and has worked with Chan since 1979, isn’t convinced the gap can be bridged. “We know how good is Jackie,” he says. “Even the Americans know how good is Jackie, but so what? If you want to be popular in America, you have to be American. It’s the culture.” And Chan has tried before. He moved to Los Angeles in 1980 to make The Big Brawl with Robert Clouse, who had written and directed Lee’s first English-language film, Enter the Dragon. Chan felt misused in the Clouse movie; worse, a Hollywood stunt man choreographed his action scenes. “I always teach people the fighting, but when I come to Hollywood, someone teach me,” Chan says. “I ask, ‘How long you been in action film?’ Oh, six years.’ Six years teaching me how to punch somebody!” The film disappeared quickly from theaters.
 The next year, Chan was cast in The Cannonball Run—as a Japanese character. He was flown cross-country to appear on the Today show, only to be told that his English wasn’t good enough for an interview, and that he should demonstrate kung fu instead.

It’s not surprising, then, that he would be ambivalent about making it in America. Willie Chan (no relation), his longtime manager and business partner, says, “Jackie is happy about Rumble, but he’s not putting all his hopes on it.” In Hong Kong, Chan can do pretty much whatever he wants; even the reabsorption of Hong Kong into China in 1997 doesn’t particularly worry him—he is a hero on the mainland, where Rumble is the highest-grossing film ever. Yet it would surely hurt Chan’s pride to fail where Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, Bruce Willis and Jim Carrey have gone so far while putting out so much less. Chan is also eager to collaborate with certain American directors, offering to work for free if Spielberg, George Lucas, Francis Coppola or James Cameron wanted to make a film with him. “I want to find out what happen, my action and their technology,” he says.

Such wishes, if they are to come true, must be realized soon, while Chan is still capable of the exertion his roles require. Though he is in excellent condition, the years of stunt work have taken their toll. A fall from the shipping container in Kwai Chung hurt his back, and twice over the next week he must call off shooting because of the pain. On the Rumble set, he mistimed a jump from a bridge onto a speeding Hovercraft and broke his right ankle. He had to perform his remaining scenes in a cast, painted to resemble a sneaker.

Even if an American wave of Jackie-mania doesn’t materialize, Chan says he will have few regrets. Late one night, he stands outside his production company’s building on the Golden Harvest lot. Around the corner, a sound stage holds an elaborate set—a lavish pachinko parlor—that will be demolished in a fight scene next week. The parking lot in front of Chan is filled with high-performance cars and motorcycles, many of which he owns. The next building over houses Filmtech, an equipment-rental company he started as an excuse to buy himself the latest high-tech camera gear. “Twenty years ago,” he says, looking around, “I work here as the lowest stunt man. Now I have all this. I am very happy.”