When I was a kid my parents were very strict about my media consumption. My movie options were mostly limited to Disney movies, old westerns and carefully curated PG-fare. Around my mom, that is. I quickly learned that when I went to my dad’s office to spend time with him during his many long-hour workweeks he would humor me far more easily than my mom, as long as I didn’t bug him too much while he was working. What this translated to was free reign of the video shelves at the Brunswick Public Library, half a mile down the road from dad’s generic business park.
Using the “dad’s office” loophole, I was exposed to a world of movies I had only caught glimpses of before–a world with the kind of liberal violence and language that would make John Wayne blush. Huddled in the dark supply closet, inches away from the tiny six inch screen of my father’s Panasonic VCR/TV combo, sustaining my transgressive buzz with cans of generic Aldi’s pop, I watched my first R-rated movie (Patriot Games with Harrison Ford), my first horror movie (the 1990 remake of Night of the Living Dead) and I learned about a small, pug-nosed, bushy-haired Hong Kong action star named Jackie Chan.
I was obsessed with Jackie Chan movies. I marveled at his martial arts ability, was amazed by the bravery it took to accomplish his gravity-defying stunts (he does them all himself, without wires!). I watched and re-watched every title I could get from the Brunswick Library. I requested inter-library loans to get the Jackie Chan movies I couldn’t find locally. I even watched Cannonball Run for the fleeting scenes of Jackie as one of the drivers opposite Burt Reynolds.
But as I grew older, so did Jackie. In the late 90s and early 2000s–as Chan moved from his late 40s to his early 50s–his movies began to shift from broad cartoons based around his nimble choreography and clever set pieces to leaden comedies mistaking Jackie’s big smile and likeability for leading-man charm. This turn hinged on two movies: Shanghai Noon and Rush Hour. Both movies paired Chan with a seasoned comic partner (Owen Wilson and Chris Tucker, respectively) carrying the weight of the comedy, while a notably slower Chan performs routine martial arts that pales in comparison to his earlier work. My interest in his movies began to wane, especially when he committed the cardinal sin of supplementing his martial arts with CGI in trainwrecks like The Tuxedo and The Medallion.
I still loved the ballet of cinematic martial arts, but Jackie had fallen in my estimation. I began to get my action fix elsewhere; I found the flashy Muay Thai of Tony Jaa and the lyrical ultra-violence of “The Raid” to far surpass anything Jackie could do–even in his prime.
But do they really? Admitting a defeat to time, Chan has shifted to dramatic roles in recent years, playing a crime lord in the gangster drama Shinjuku Incident and taking on the Pat Morita role in the 2010 remake of The Karate Kid. Jackie gave up on supplementing his fading martial arts skills with CGI and tried to evolve into something new. I appreciated his willingness to stretch himself, but seeing him, grim and delivering nary a kick, in Shinjuku Incident, made me miss the wide-eyed marvel I saw in him in my dad’s office.
Driven by nostalgia and a morbid curiosity to see whether Jackie’s movies would hold the same magic I used to see, I decided to re-watch the six movies I have the most vivid and fond memories of, spanning from 1991’s Operation Condor to 1998’s Who Am I?.
What I found was largely that, well, they don’t hold up. But it’s also easy to see why they appeal so readily to the sensibilities of a nine year-old boy holed up in a dark closet for hours on end: the movies are live-action cartoons. Jackie plays the same character in each movie: an unambiguously good man (usually named “Jackie) whom only resorts to violence when he or one of his friends is being directly threatened.
The villains are evil businessmen, Mafioso’s and old amusement park owners in ghost costumes–well, maybe not that last one, but they’re so cartoonishly evil that they might as well be Scooby Doo villains. In Rumble in the Bronx, for example, one gangster pushes a disabled child out of his wheelchair and rips up his cushion (replacing the cushion becomes a surprisingly consistent subplot). In The Legend of the Drunken Master the boss of a steel forgery beats up and burns employees who object to working unpaid overtime.
Jackie’s antagonists always control an army of minions (how did you hire minions before Craigslist?) who are always kung-fu virtuosos—clearly calculated to never be as good as Jackie, although their lieutenant always comes close–willing to rush into such obvious danger that they might as well be lemmings jumping into a whirling sea of headbutts, sharp elbows and sweeping jump kicks. They exist to thanklessly strive to accomplish the Sisyphean task of knocking out the star of the movie.
Of course it’s no surprise that these movies exist as barebones vehicles for Chan’s undeniable talent for blending physical comedy with theatrical martial arts. They also walk a strange tightrope of being comfortable with violence, but not with its effects. People rarely die in these movies and blows that would put me in the hospital are shaken off almost instantly. The sign of “losing” a fight with Jackie Chan is a room filled with writhing, groaning piles of henchmen. An outlier to this lack of consequences is Rumble in the Bronx, when a gang member meets his end in a wood chipper in a scene like Fargo, if Fargo had been made by a toddler hopped up on Skittles rather than qualified filmmakers who understand how to maintain a consistent tone.
The cartoonishness in these movies—previous example exempted—is likely a purposeful way to undercut the serious nature of violence, especially when taken in conjunction with the boorish CEOs and clueless drug lords Jackie gleefully punch-kicks all the way to prison, but the filmmakers unwillingness to expand their structure to add some flesh to main characters hurts the movies in other ways.
The most obvious way to invest us in these movies is generally a non-starter. Jackie Chan is a superman, and while he’ll get his lumps, he’ll always end the movie grinning from ear to ear, high-fiving his best bud in a freeze-frame ending. That’s not to say a few of these movies don’t try to make him vulnerable. Who Am I? tries to add some depth to Jackie by injecting an amnesia plot into the movie. The plot involves Jackie playing a commando who loses his memory on a mission, and has to try to piece together his scattered memories throughout the movie to try to re-discover his identity.
Unfortunately the script sucks, and the moments we’re meant to find heart-rending are laughably bad. While I found Jackie near-tears on top of a building in Rotterdam screaming “WHOOOOO AAAMMMM IIIIIIIIIII” affecting when I was nine, the scene’s clumsy attempt to manipulate the viewer is cringe-worthy now. Even more cringe-worthy than the scene where, mid-fight, Jackie dives in slow motion to save a puppy that’s fallen off a piano being hoisted into the air. How many times could something like that be in a movie and only be the second-cheesiest scene?
Because Jackie isn’t going to lose, a smart narrative move would be to include a semi-capable sidekick who isn’t wearing the mithril armor that Jackie has on under his loose tunics. I’m not expecting characters from Mamet in a low-budget martial arts movie, but we need something to invest in. It’s not like we actually care about the Nazi gold the crooks in Operation Condor are after, or the single disk containing a recipe for exploding bullets the crooked CIA agent wants in Who Am I?—by the way, how about making a few backups of that, criminals?—or any of the other McGuffins in the movies.
And, surprise surprise, we actually do get a few capable characters that I found myself truly invested in. In Supercop, Jackie’s titular super-cop teams up with Michelle Yeoh, a policewoman who is initially objectified, but gains agency when she reveals herself to be just as capable at punching criminals in the gullet as Jackie Chan. Supercop is the only movie in the bunch where Jackie is in real danger that he can’t extricate himself from, and the only one where he’s rescued by a woman. The Legend of the Drunken Master gives us perhaps the most compelling relationship in this limited filmography—between Jackie and his father. The two butt heads over how much Jackie drinks in order to utilize his “drunken boxing” style, which creates discord between a traditional father wishing to retain his respect in the community and a son more concerned with helping his community organize against profit-hungry moguls than retaining a nebulous level of respect. The tension in their relationship adds a real sense of stakes to the climax of the film, and makes a rather silly fighting style seem legitimate.
The fights—and the stunts—are what these movies are about though, and despite the fact that many of them hold little thematic weight they are often exhilarating. The ridiculous Who Am I? includes a heart-stopping sequence where Jackie slides down the side of a nearly vertical skyscraper; his character is invincible, but it’s hard to not be impressed by (and concerned for) the actor risking his life in service of an adrenaline rush.
Jackie Chan’s Building Slide From Who Am I?
Operation Condor has a similarly harrowing scene, when Jackie bounces down the side of a mountain in a giant, inflatable hamster ball. Unfortunately this remarkable scene opens the film, and nothing that follows lives up to it—although a climactic fight scene in a wind tunnel comes close. In a movie peppered with casual sexism—if only Jackie’s sidekick could hold onto a gun without falling down! —and racist stereotypes not even jumping off a cliff can save it.
Jackie Chan in Operation Condor: Zorb Ball Scene
Each of Chan’s films tends to have a marquee set piece—those big, glamorous moments that I was looking forward to re-living. Unfortunately a lot of the fighting before and after (and sometimes during) those scenes is generic and boring, with both Jackie and the stunt man fighting him looking more intent on nailing their choreography than actually defeating their opponent.
The one exception I found was The Legend of the Drunken Master, which is a marvel of a martial arts movie. The action throughout is stellar, with Jackie bouncing from one big moment (fighting the “Axe Gang” for example, which is exactly what it sounds like) to the next (getting really drunk and then falling into a pit of hot coals). While Who Am I? and Operation Condor wear their desperation to entertain on their sleeve, Drunken Master is more measured.
In fact, I found it almost frustratingly good: Drunken Master follows the same basic formula as the rest of Chan’s films, but it tweaks the little things in precisely the correct way. . The pacing is energetic but makes sense, the plot is basic and realistic and—most importantly—the characters the movie is built around act like actual human beings. With the tiniest bit of interest in the non-fight scenes, maybe the other movies could have reached the total entertainment level of Drunken Master?
I know I’ve been harsh on these movies, but—like a little league coach with a son on the team—I scrutinize the things I love the hardest. It’s inevitable that these movies were unable to live up to my nostalgia-flavored expectations, but I nonetheless found myself frustrated by the lazy filmmaking and misogyny that runs rampant through them.
For those reasons I can’t recommend any of these movies for the wide-eyed nine-year old you have locked in your closet, but if you find Jackie Chan’s wide grin and tenuous grasp on the English language as inexplicably charming as I do, these films are worth checking out. Just skip past the bogus parts.
SO Note: Micah LeFebvre is a Contributing Editor at Serial Optimist. Follow him @micahlef.