Jackie Chan: Schadenfreude
Jackie Chan can't seem to help digging deeper into the grave that is now his career. The news that he's trying to pull a Dustin Hoffman and make the transition from kung-fu films to respectable Oscar-bait. The way the mixed reviews for his latest CZ12 aka Chinese Zodiac are entirely unsurprising. Even the just really poorly phrased 'I like it when countries are hit by earthquakes and tsunamis' debacle or the 'Chinese people need to be controlled' controversy. It's hard not to want to try to distance this crazy man from the actor whose films were once amongst the greatest in the action genre. The Legend of Drunken Master from 1994 best explains why everything he's done since has been a disappointment (or just straight up embarrassing). Released on the verge of his emergence onto the Hollywood scene, it encapsulates everything that made his Hong Kong outings great. It ratcheted up on both the action and the substance of its predecessors, as well as containing some of the most brilliantly engrossing fight sequences of all time. The plot was also a potent political commentary on the lead up to Hong Kong’s 1994 electoral reforms and Britain’s relinquishing of its sovereignty over the region. This backdrop provides the action with clear stakes and an emotional grounding and by the end of the film, Jackie Chan is literally fighting for his cultural heritage, his history and his way of life. He’s fighting the western notion of stealing popular tenets from other cultures and claiming them for yourself. It's fucking incredible.
Unfortunately, this metaphorical arc also doubles as a sad reflection of the trajectory of Chan’s career. His following film, Rumble in the Bronx, marked his first legitimate crack at the US market. And while The Legend of Drunken Master had Chan fighting oppressors to retain his roots, Rumble in the Bronx wrests them from him and forces him to adopt the classic western hero arc. The film opens with Jackie Chan touching down in New York and driving into Manhattan, ready to take on a new market. The camera pans out to his car flowing through traffic, the backdrop is the urban expanse of the proverbial action kingdom he’s poised to conquer, free from the weight of celebrity from his previous work. The 90 minutes that follow, however, see him deprived of the elements that made his action star prowess and short of fighting against cultural thievery, Rumble in the Bronx does exactly what those campy British antagonists did in Legend of Drunken Master. The film cuts the physicality from his back-catalogue and pastes it onto a western template. The problem is, the stereotypical hero arc means he’s fighting for himself, mostly, and the stakes never amount to anything as tangible as a slice of Chinese history. While that may have proven substantial enough for a different action star, it completely misses the point of Jackie Chan. While the film served as a tasty morsel for the production powers that be, it undermined what made him an attractive action star in the first place.
Very rarely in his Hong Kong work will you find Chan acting obtusely and getting away with it. His characters are always innately flawed and goofy - a fact that flew in the face of earlier kung-fu heroes like Bruce Lee. Whether it’s the big-headed tenacity of Police Story’s Ka-kui Chan or his young-minded muellish-ness in The Legend of Drunken Master, these guys act hypocritically and are punished for it. Ka-kui Chan is constantly embarrassed and demeaned by the enemy because he embarrasses and demeans those around him. Wong Fei-hung in The Legend of Drunken Master is disowned by his father, stripped naked and hung from the town’s gate for brash acts of petty insolence and insubordination. The gold behind Chan’s roles are that they’re characters who are vulnerable to pain and abuse and their arcs always abide by the karmic laws of getting what you give. He’s a far-cry from Bruce Lee’s cocky infallibility and that’s what makes him the better action star. His first legitimate crack at the US market saw a veto of these traditional Hong Kong roots and a homogenising of the uniqueness of gems like The Legend of Drunken Master. The decent fight sequences aside, Rumble in the Bronx was generally a ham-fisted mess: full of poor characterisations, disjointed plot sequencing and all-rounded goofiness. But its biggest sin was completely misunderstanding the appeal of Jackie Chan and setting up the flawed template that Hollywood has since worked from.
Since then on (and with the exception of Rush Hour, whose stakes mimic those of Legend of Drunken Master pretty closely), Chan’s films from abroad lack what made his originals perfect action films - their gritty, realist action sequences and their roots in fallible protagonists. Hollywood just didn't understand that we love Jackie Chan best when he's punished for being a physically gifted douchebag.