Chan the Man

Hollywood's toughest actor knows how to break chops, kick ass and make money!

Author: Lee Server

Article source:  Gallery

   At a castle in rural Yugoslavia, movie hero Jackie Chan stands atop a 40-foot parapet, ready to leap to the branch of an adjacent tree. AT this point in your standard Hollywood production, the director would yell "cut," and the star would return to his trailer for some catered lobster while a stuntman did the leaping. But this star is different: Chan, the sinuous ebullient Hong Kong Actor who has become tyhe idol of millions, always does his own stunts.
   "I don't do special effects," the actor recently told Hong Kong Film Connection. "I don't do computers...It's not like Superman, Batman. Everybody can be Superman... But nobody can be....Jackie Chan!"
  Modest he's not, but then, he's more than earned the right to crow. Back at the castle, Chan takes his leap into what is to become the most famous sequence in Armour of God, an Indiana Jones-like adventure about evil monks starring--and directed by--Chan.
   The cameras catch it perfectly. Chan launches himself toward the branch. His hands fail to connect and his body flies downward through space, slamming into the rocks below. His head makes a direct impact. A portion of the right side of his skull implodes as if hit with a nuclear sledgehammer. His ears and nose pour blood like broken faucets. The film crew scrambles down to rescue him, rushing the crimson-soaked star to a primitive Yugoslav hospital where surgeons barely manage to save his life.
   "I jump off castle wall, grab tree branch. Easy stunt," he tells a reporter, recalling the notorious incident. So easy they didn't even take the time to set up a safety net. It was the second take, at the insistence of perfectionist Chan. "I go one time -- fine. But somehow not feel quite right. Go again.... I miss the branch!"
   A job-related accident such as this would be a signal to most people to think about retirement or another line of work. But Chan, as he likes to point out, is not most people. He didn't become the most successful and popular movie star on earth by worrying about little things like ruptured eardrums and a fractured skull that left a permanent crater-like indent at the top of his forehead. Indeed, Chan, like his fans, revels in these painful mistakes, showing them as "blooper" outtakes following the conclusions of his films. For the fans, these scenes are the most anticipated part of each movie: They see what wasn't supposed to happen--the broken leg, the burned flesh, the scrapes, crashes, and crunches, Chan and his costars and stuntmen being hurtled into an ambulance when an impossible stunt proves--impossible! All in a day's work for Chan. "It's very important I get hurt when I make movie!" he gleefully explains.

An international success for well over a decade, Chan's worldwide ticket sales make such rival action stars as Sylvester Stallone and Jean-Claude Van Damme pale by comparison. Only McDonald's has served more billions. But for years, the only people in America who got to see Chan's wild-and-wooly flicks were the denizens of big city Chinatowns and a smattering of cultists and adventurous film buffs. Now, in a little over a year's time, all of that has changed. Jackiemania has touched down in America at last--and Van Damme, Steven Seagal, and even Amold Schwarzenegger are beginning to look very tired to many. The Hollywood action movie may never be the same.
   "To jump through glass, to jump off buildings, to be dragged behind buses, and direct at the same time," gushed Pulp Fiction boy wonder Quentin Tarantino at the 1995 MTV Movie Awards as he prepared to give Chan a Lifetime Achievement Award. "He is one of the best filmmakers the world has ever known!"
   It all started with the 1996 U.S, theatrical release of Rumble in the Bronx, which surprised even Chan's greatest boosters by becoming the top-grossing film on its opening weekend. Those who thought Hong Kong martial arts movies were just campy Five Fingers of Death numbers from the '70s sat up and took notice. Neither the best nor the worst of Chan's dozens of vehicles, Rumble (in which the mountainous landscape of Vancouver, Canada, filled in for New York's battle-scarred borough) introduced American audiences to the world of Chan-shot full of high spirits, slapstick, dazzling fight scenes, and spectacular action. And seeing the success it had distributing Rumble, New Line quickly secured U.S. rights for Thunderbolt and First Strike, two more of Chan's major productions, while other companies grabbed up the three-year-old Supercop, as well as Crime Story, Drunkeut Master II, and the unreleased A Nice Guy, guaranteeing Chan's presence on American screens for several years to come. "Now," the star says, delighted that the last holdout country in the world has succumbed, "Jackie Chan is everywhere, you see!"

The man whose face is as familiar to the Chinese as Mao Zedong's, and who has been called the most successful actor in history, began life nearly sold off by his parents for the paltry sum of $26. Refugees to Hong Kong from mainland China, they needed money for food, for survival.
   According to Bey Logan, author of Hong Kong Action Movies, "At the time he was born, his father was so poor he seriously considered an offer to sell his baby to one of the doctors. In fact, Chan wasn't sold until his seventh birthday. It was then that his mother was paid a token sum by Sifu Yu Chan Yuan to enroll her boy in his Peking Opera Academy."
   The Peking Opera is a uniquely Chinese form of entertainment that has very little in common with the world of Pavarotti. These operas are brightly colored stage shows that feature death-defying acrobatics and spectacular martial arts displays, as well as drama, singing, dance, and comedy. Hong Kong's Peking Opera Academy is a legendary/notorious name in the British Crown Colony's popular culture. In it, contingents of Hong Kong children were consigned for ten years of rigorous training in the performing arts (few of the children were ever taught to read or write). Students at the Academy followed grinding regimes of gymnastics and martial arts fighting, non-stop, year after year, put through their paces by disciplinarian Masters who often bordered on the vicious.,br>    Living conditions? The Academy made a Dickensian orphanage look like Club Med. "It was bad," Chan told Logan. "If I tell you how bad it was maybe you won't believe me. If you didn't train hard enough you were beaten. At night we all slept under one blanket. That blanket! Dog had slept on it!"
   Under these mean circumstances Chan's extraordinary strength, agility, and fearlessness were forged. So too were his lifelong associations--a brotherhood really--with the others under that filthy blanket. Some of them--Samo Hung and Yuen Baio, for instance--became fellow mainstays of the Hong Kong film world. His former master would later remark that Chan was by no means the best of his students, but, he added, "One of the naughtiest, yes."
   Chan was made part of a troupe of boy stage performers known as the Seven Little Fortunes. Even as Chan trained for it, the elaborate Peking Opera was dying out as a popular form of entertainment and the burgeoning Hong Kong film industry was becoming a much more likely source of employment for the fearless Academy graduates. Chan actually made his first appearance in a motion picture (a family drama called Big and Little Wong Tin Bar) at the age of eight in 1962, his small salary going directly to his Master.
   It was the early '70s when Chan went out on his own looking for work in the movie business. He began in cheap action pictures, doing stunt work. Gradually he moved up to supporting roles. The Chan of this period cut a very different figure from today's idol of millions. Far from showing off his comedic flair, he was often cast in villain parts. He also looked considerably different: scrawny of build with bad teeth, a pencil mustache at times, and narrowly slit eyes (according to Logan, Chan underwent an "eye-opening" operation in 1977, common among Chinese film stars).
   Hong Kong's film industry was increasingly busy, but largely primitive in style and aspiration, churning out mostly low-grade formulaic kung fu actioners for local consumption. Then came the exception to this rule, and it was a big one Bruce Lee had returned to Hong Kong after very modest success in Hollywood and proceeded to turn the local picture business upside down. His breathtakingly brutal and kinetic action films put Hong Kong movie making on the international map and made the idea of an Asian superstar a reality.

On two occasions Chan got to work with The Dragon himself, getting quickly and brutally dispatched in fight scenes in Fist of Fury and Enter the Dragon. The past and present superstars were amicable on the set but never became close; at the time, their status was far from equal. Asked for his memories of Lee during a recent on-line interview, Chan responded, "I was a stunt man. We worked for the same company. I was always following and watching. But there were always people around him." His most vivid memory of working with Lee: "One day he gave me a great kick. He asked me if I was fine and I said,'OK.' "
   Then, after only four sensational starring vehicles, Lee was dead. Hong Kong producers wondered, Who could replace him?
   Chan's career had been floundering; he was ready to give up the film business and join his parents in Australia, where he hoped to start a new life. Then Hong Kong producer Lo Wei, a former associate of Lee's, signed him to do a sequel to a Lee hit, calling it New Fist of Fury.
   Unfortunately, New Fist and the films that followed it in rapid succession were flops. The problem as Chan saw it was that his producer was forcing him to try and fill the dead Dragon's shoes. "Nobody can imitate Bruce Lee," Chan told Hong Kong Film Connection. "He wants me to do the same kick, the same punch. I think even now nobody can do better than Bruce Lee.... After he died nobody as handsome, right? So I tell Lo Wei that I want to change, but he won't listen to me. He just follows his style.... In the movie he wants every girl to love me. I'm not a handsome boy, not James Dean. I'm just not this kind of person. It's totally wrong, and none of them are a success."
   Chan's brief moment in the limelight seemed about to fade when he was given the lead in a Seasonal Films production called Snake in the Eagle's Shadow. The story dealt with an exuberant kung fu student and his unconventional old master. Sensing that this was perhaps his last chance for success, Chan was determined to avoid doing another grim Bruce Lee imitation in favor of something higher spirited and closer to his own fun-loving persona.
   "I kid around, totally opposite to Bruce Lee. When Bruce Lee acts like hero I act like underdog. Nobody can beat Bruce Lee, everybody can beat me. He's not smiling, I'm always smiling."
   After so many years of Lee's ferocity and the deadpan pieties of the historical kung fu actioners ("chop-sockies" as U.S. critics derided them), Chan's slapstick martial arts innovation and the warm lovable character he brought to the screen made Snake in the Eagle's Shadow a smashing success.
   His "drunken kung fu" style of fighting and subsequent comical inventions were exhilarating fun, an irreverent rethinking of martial artistry. The fights were still at lightning speed and intensity, but caused audiences to laugh and jump in their seats rather than groan and shudder. In Chan's battles, the hero didn't so much break the villain's bones as avoid getting his own broken through the performance of startlingly fast evasive movements and feats of physical dexterity. Instead of the classic martial arts weaponry, Chan used whatever prosaic objects he could lay his hands on. It was kung fu brought down to earth and then elevated again through the sheer grace and style of the performer.
   As the South China Post put it in a tribute to Chan, "So successful was he that Chan can be said to have revitalized the entire Asian film business. Many producers and their stars tried to imitate Jackie's new genre of comedy kung fu, but all came to realize that Jackie Chan--like Bruce Lee before him--was one of a kind, inimitable."
   Following the marketing strategy used with Lee, Chan's studio, Golden Harvest, rushed to put him into an American co-production. They hired Robert Clouse, the American director of Lee (there was just no getting away from him) in Enter the Dragon. But The Big Brawl, released in 1980, was a bomb, as was the semi-American-made The Protector. About his appearance in Cannonball Run and its sequel, the less said the better.

Chan went back home. But the American experience, if unsuccessful, had given him some fresh ideas for settings, story lines, and stunts. A sword-fighting swashbuckler that had been planned for him in the States would inspire Project A, his turn-of-the-century romp about young marine Dragon Ma battling South Seas pirates. His cops-and-crooks flop, The Protector, would later be "done right" as the delirious action masterpiece, Police Story. No longer cheaply made chop-sockeys, Chan's increasingly expensive productions would bloom in budget and ambition, often moving out of Hong Kong's cramped quarters to spectacular locations in Malaysia, Spain, Australia, and the Sahara Desert.
   But the most dynamic change Chan introduced in the '80s was inventive and outrageous stunts--stunts like no star had dared perform since the high-flying days of silent movies, when Harold Lloyd hung from actual skyscrapers and Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., did handsprings from castle walls. Chan noted another silent movie influence. "What I learn, I learn from Buster Keaton," he told Australian reporter Barrie Pattison. "What a surprise, Buster Keaton! He do everything, makes me very surprised." In Project A, Part Two, Chan did a direct homage to Keaton, recreating a legendary gag from Steamboat Bill, Jr. As an actual wall of a building falls over him, Chan positions himself right below an open window and misses--by inches-being crushed to death.
   Of his stunts, Jackie told Videoscope, "Don't worry about me. When I design all the choreography and fighting stunts, I know how far I can go."
   Right. Making Project A, he suffered a bone-breaking fall from a clock tower. Working on Drunken Master II, his arm caught fire after he dragged himself over live hot coals.A Nice Guy resulted in a two-story fall that nearly snapped his neck in half. He suffered a broken ankle for Rumble in the Bronx. He was hit by an out-of-control helicopter filming Supercop. And, of course, there was the Armour of God accident that put a permanent dent in his skull. The truth is, Chan's injuries and near-disasters have become as much a part of his appeal as his irrepressible personality and physical skill.
   He shrugs it all off as the price to pay for some really good pieces of film. "I get hurt," he told Entertainment Weekly, "but the movie gets released for one hundred years. OK. I broke my leg three months!"

With his worldwide popularity and the undeniable entertainment value of his films, it seemed inevitable that Chan would one day break through in the United States. Before Rumble, importers found buyers for his laser disks at over $100 a pop and video bootleggers did a brisk business in unlicensed Chan titles. In Hollywood, fans like Tarantino and Oliver Stone sang his praises. For years, the films of Stallone, Van Damme, and others recreated--stole ?--whole action sequences from his films. But why settle for second-best, his American followers asked, when you can get the original? Chan himself, burned by his first attempt at success in America, appeared uninterested. But lacking a foothold in the prestigious U.S. market must have been a serious thorn in his side. Then came the news that the mini-major studio New Line had decided to take a shot at breaking Chan with his American-set Rumble in the Bronx, which had broken box office records in Asia. New Line marketing chief Chris Pula told Time magazine that after all the "seven-foot Aryan walls of muscle" seen in Hollywood action pictures, Chan was "a breath of fresh air." The film earned $9.9 million on its opening weekend and became the first Chinese film and one of the few foreign films ever--to make Number One at the American box office.
   Chan returned to America and was, for the most part, treated with respect and adulation. MTV honored him and the Oscars saw him present an award standing beside Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (Chan told GQ magazine: "Hong Kong media keep asking, ''Why Oscar put tall people in front of Jackie Chan? Make our yellow people very short? Why Oscar want to destroy Jackie Chan?' But that was my idea!"). Chan did Leno, Letterman, and any other show that asked him. Though for the most part he played the affably cool clown, Chan occasionally let slip to interviewers his feelings about the tame state of Hollywood action films. Hollywood, he derided, still used "sixty-year-old Clint Eastwood" for such roles. "Van Damme can knock me down for one second," he said, "but on the street he cannot chase me." He also felt U.S. stuntmen were a little too slow for his tastes.
   "In Hong Kong I can hit one of my stuntmen--bam-bam- bam-and he will block every punch. American stuntmen...I hit--bam-bam-bam--and by the third time he will have blocked the first punch!"
   Just months later, a second distributor gave the three-year-old Supercop another maior U.S. release and Chan did the publicity rounds all over again. On MTV's Beach Party, he coached Jenny McCarthy in kick-boxing and promised to star her in his next movie, and on NBC's Late Night, he staged a mock fight with Conan O'Brien, and sang-karaoke-style--the Elvis Presley chestnut, "I Can't Help Falling in Love With You!" Suddenly, the small steady Chan cult in this country bloomed to the same massive proportions found in every other part of the world. Fanatical entries could be found on the Internet newsgroups, like this one from Alt.Asian-cinema: "Jackie could kick Van Damme's ass!" New fans and old began to eagerly anticipate the steady stream of Chan flicks they will have available on the big screen instead of on grainy bootlegged videos: Thunderbolt, a wild, non-comic race-car adventure--a live Speed Racer with high-octane stunt driving; Drunken Master II, a return to the costumed kung fu genre but with Chan in some of the most amazingly choreographed fight footage ever put on film; First Strike, a globe-trotting (Russia, Australia, the Ukraine) James Bond-style adventure epic that puts GoldenEye to shame.
   At 42, he expects to turn out at least one vehicle a year for the foreseeable future, before possibly working strictly behind the camera. But planning for the future is not high on his list of priorities. Nonetheless, his place in the stratosphere of all-time great film stars seems secure. But the man himself remains cheerfully down-to-earth.
   "If the books of film history have all these names," he told Hong Kong Action Films, "Charlie Chaplin, John Wayne, Steven Spielberg, and just a small footnote, Jackie Chan, then that's enough. I'm happy."