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Jackie Chan, the Actor and Filmmaker

Written by James Mudge Tell a Friend

Jackie Chan really needs no introduction. As one of the biggest and most instantly recognizable stars not only from Asia, but arguably anywhere in the world, his career has spanned almost fifty years and has seen him starring in, directing, producing and writing well over a hundred films, not to mention providing some of the most breathtaking and daring stunts in cinema history. Immortalized on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and the Hong Kong Avenue of Stars, Chan has found success in the East and West in both critical and commercial terms, topping the box office on numerous occasions and winning a multitude of awards.

The reasons behind Chan's phenomenal success are obvious, with the actor having shown from the very start an amazing talent for martial arts, action choreography and stunt work, combined with an incredibly likeable and charismatic everyman type onscreen persona. This quickly became clear in breakthrough roles such as Snake in the Eagle's Shadow, Drunken Master, and The Young Master, which saw him offering audiences a more down to earth and human figure than Bruce Lee, projecting himself as a far from invulnerable man whose strength lay not only in kung fu skills, but in his determination and ability to take a beating and drag himself back to his feet. Chan's career in the late 1980s and early 1990s in particular saw him direct and star in some of the biggest and most spectacular hits from Hong Kong, most of which still compare favorably with modern genre efforts, with the likes of Police Story, Armour of God, Project A, and their sequels all featuring unforgettable daredevil stunts.

Chan also proved himself one of the few Asian stars whose domestic popularity translated into Hollywood success. Despite a few failed attempts to crack the West early on in his career, in 1998 the comedy thriller Rush Hour, which he headlined along with Chris Tucker was a massive hit, making the very best of his skills. More Hollywood action hits followed, with Chan making for a perfect sparring partner in buddy films such as Shanghai Noon and Shanghai Knights, as well as the inevitable Rush Hour sequels.

Dramatic Changes

Despite his massive popularity as an action star, Jackie Chan's career has recently undergone a dramatic change, with him moving away from the kind of crazy stunt-focused films he made his name in and taking on a variety of different, and at times more serious roles. The reasons for this can be traced back to around the early years of the new millennium. Although Chan was enjoying success in America, the limitations of the kinds of roles likely to be available to him was becoming clear, and he was finding himself more frustrated by the lack of control he was able to exert over productions, something which the perfectionist in him had always been able to take for granted back in Hong Kong.

At the same time, now nearing the age of fifty, he inevitably began to look at different methods of filmmaking, showing more of an interest in special effects than in the past. This was apparent in his 2002 and 2003 US outings The Tuxedo and The Medallion, both of which showed less of a reliance on his usual physical exertions. At the same time, many of the Hong Kong films he was involved with, either behind or in front of the cameras, were increasingly starting to explore the possibilities of computer effects, such as The Twins Effect, which he made with EMG (Emperor Multimedia Group) in 2003.

Although these developments did not necessarily see Chan relinquishing his crown as the king of crazy action, from this time period onwards, he definitely began to show a broader choice of film roles as an actor, and more of a willingness to experiment with techniques and technology. This was perhaps not quite a truly drastic reinvention, as Chan had shown open-mindedness earlier in his career, taking several stabs at serious or less action-oriented roles, such as the 1987 comedy drama Heart of Dragon, in which neither he nor Sammo Hung made much use of their martial arts skills, or Crime Story in 1993, which though an explosive thriller was markedly more gritty and violent than his other films of the period, requiring some actual acting from the star - and winning him Best Actor at the Golden Horse Awards and a nomination at the Hong Kong Film Awards. It's also worth remembering that he had on several occasions worked behind the camera to great success on very different affairs to his own usual films, for example in his collaborations with Stanley Kwan, producing the classic 1988 tragic ghost story Rouge, starring Leslie Cheung and Anita Mui, and presenting the acclaimed 1992 biopic Centre Stage.

JCE Movies and Crying Onscreen

2004 was a key year for Chan, in which he, perhaps spurred by the relative failure of several Hollywood outings including the lackluster Around the World in 80 Days, returned to Hong Kong and formed his own production and distribution company, JCE Movies (Jackie Chan Emperor Movies Limited), a division of EMG, whom he had worked with several times in the past. The company's first release was a big one, in the form of New Police Story, Chan returning to the hugely popular series eight years after Police Story IV: First Strike, backed by a cast of young talent including Daniel Wu, Nicholas Tse, Charlie Yeung, Charlene Choi, and Andy On. Directed by Benny Chan, who had worked with the star in the past on Who Am I and Gen-X Cops, the film departed from the usual characters and attempted to add a little more drama to the usual explosive action and stunts - which memorably translated to the rare sight of Chan crying on the big screen. The new approach worked reasonably well, and though the film still wisely played to its strengths and packed in plenty of over the top set pieces, it represented an important step for Chan into a new phase of his career. New Police Story certainly went down well with audiences around the world, as well as winning Best Film and Best Action Choreography at the Hong Kong Film Awards.

The move into new dramatic territory continued with The Myth, directed by Police Story 3 helmer Stanley Tong, much hyped as a pan-Asian production due to the presence of top Korean actress Kim Hee Sun (who recently put her Mandarin skills to use in The Warring States) and Bollywood queen Mallika Sherawat. The film was also pushed as a more emotional outing for Chan, with the star playing two roles in a somewhat confusing plot that saw him as a modern-day Indiana Jones style archaeologist who turns out to be the reincarnation of a powerful Qing Dynasty general, past and present colliding through romance and the search for magical rocks. The Myth was certainly a very ambitious affair, combining Hollywood style special effects and computer work with Chan's dual role, which effectively saw him playing a traditionally wacky type in the present and a more serious, tortured figure in the past, effectively splitting the film into two quite different halves. Although the film was perhaps surprisingly uneven and prone to strange tangents, Chan's work as the tragic general proved to be its greatest strength and showed that he was making real steps towards being taken more seriously as an actor.

Something more contemporary and straightforward came next for the star and JCE with Rob-B-Hood in 2006, again directed by Benny Chan. Also featuring fellow Hong Kong veterans Michael Hui and Yuen Biao, along with Louis Koo and Charlene Choi, the film saw Chan taking on more of a morally ambiguous role as a thief with a gambling problem whose gang gets involved in a baby kidnapping scheme, only to end up having to babysit the infant themselves, resulting in all manner of high jinks. Despite taking a stab at some emotional and edgier content, mainly during the earlier stages, the film was more of a knockabout affair in his classical style, with some creative stunt work, proving that he could still cut it alongside his younger co-stars. The result was an enjoyably unpretentious comedy that also benefited from an extremely cute baby co-star in Matthew Medvedev, whose frequent endangerment during the film was thankfully quite obviously CGI enhanced.

These were a busy few years for Chan in general. JCE released a number of films which saw him staying behind the camera in an executive producer role, including gay gangster action comedy Enter the Phoenix, which marked Stephen Fung's directorial debut, as well as his follow up effort, wacky martial arts ensemble piece House of Fury, plus Kenneth Bi's Sylvia Chang starring Rice Rhapsody. In 2005 he also worked on the much talked about Everlasting Regret, Stanley Kwan's biopic follow up to Centre Stage, which featured pop singer and actress Sammi Cheng in the lead. Screening in competition at the Venice Festival, although it divided critics, the film was an ambitious and artistic effort and a major release for JCE.

Back to Hollywood and Battling Jet Li

After returning to the US for Rush Hour 3 in 2007, a film which failed to repeat the popularity of its predecessors, fans were understandably excited at the announcement that the martial arts dream team of Jackie Chan and Jet Li would finally be facing off on screen against each other. The film in question was The Forbidden Kingdom, a Hollywood produced East-West fantasy directed by Rob Minkoff and with action choreography by the legendary Yuen Woo Ping. Although there was some disappointment when it became clear that Minkoff, mostly known for talking animal comedies, was taking the film in a markedly family-friendly direction, it still had a lot to offer, using Journey to the West themes and showing an obvious love for kung fu cinema and the Shaw Brothers classics. With Chan and Li playing off well against each other and certainly seeming to have a great deal of fun as a Drunken Master style monk and the Monkey King respectively, the film had an impressive Chinese cast that included Li Bing Bing (here playing an obvious Bride with White Hair tribute character), Collin Chou, and up and coming actress Liu Yifei (recently in the A Chinese Ghost Story remake). Mixing high calibre computer effects and Chan and Li's considerable physical talents, the film turned out much better than many had expected, and was a fun, well meaning romp.

Another Chinese themed Hollywood hit followed with the animation Kung Fu Panda in the same year, with Chan providing voice talent alongside big names such as Jack Black, Dustin Hoffman, and Angelia Jolie. Like The Forbidden Kingdom, the film surprised many critics by paying a great deal of loving attention to getting its Chinese look and feel right, successfully combining art and mythology in its animation with comedy and adventure, and was a box office at hit in both the East and West as a result. Back in Hong Kong, in 2008 Chan also served as executive producer for the JCE released Run Papa Run for director Sylvia Chang, an unexpectedly entertaining and moving triad comedy drama starring Louis Koo, and, possibly due to the presence of Sammo Hung, the non-JCE Wushu: The Young Generation, a generic martial arts drama with a righteous and upbeat, not to mention Mainland China-friendly message.

Shinjuku Incident and Little Big Soldier

Chan's next outing and JCE production Shinjuku Incident caused quite a stir in 2009, as it saw the star moving into darker and more violent territory with director Derek Yee, who had scored a couple of the best Hong Kong gang dramas of the decade with One Nite in Mongkok in 2004 and Protege in 2007. The film was a similarly gritty affair, set in Japan and revolving around an immigrant theme, Chan playing an illegal Chinese migrant who arrives in Tokyo in search of his missing love, though finds her married to a yakuza boss. Bringing together the Chinese gangs and helping them to carve out their own turf, tragic and violent consequences ensue. With an impressive pan-Asian cast that also included Daniel Wu, Xu Jinglei, Fan Bing Bing, Takenaka Naoto, and Kato Masaya, the film delivered on its premise as a tough thriller which also tackled some searching contemporary issues. Chan performed well in a role pretty far removed from his bumbling nice guys of the past, and though action packed, the film saw him involved in stunts and brawls of a far more grounded and realistic kind.

Interestingly, the same year also saw Chan in a couple of far less controversial films, both of which were Mainland productions, representing the star, like many others from Hong Kong, starting to recognize the growing power and influence of its market. This involved a cameo appearance (along with pretty much every other Chinese star on the planet) in The Founding of a Republic, produced to coincide with the celebrations marking the 60th anniversary of the People's Republic of China, and Looking for Jackie, an amusing, if rather blatant inspirational drama which was released in other regions under the misleading title Jackie Chan and the Kung Fu Kid.

2010 was a real banner year for Chan, notching him up another couple of Hollywood hits with The Spy Next Door and The Karate Kid. The latter in particular was an interesting role, the film a remake of the 1984 classic, which reversed the action from the US to China, Chan taking on the iconic Mr. Miyagi teacher role made famous by Pat Morita, here renamed Mr. Han. With Jaden Smith, son of megastar Will Smith, as the titular youngster who learns martial arts to overcome bullies, the film won points for its genuine effort to engage with its Chinese setting as well as including some well-handled fight and training scenes, enough so to appease genre fans and admirers of the somewhat sillier original.

Chan also continued to work in China, providing one of the voices for the 2010 animation The Legend of Silk Boy, as well as starring in Little Big Soldier for director Ding Sheng and JCE, which turned out to be arguably his best film for years. With some having found his turn in Shinjuku Incident a little too dark, Little Big Soldier offered a chance to combine his drama ambitions with a little more of his trademark everyman persona, seeing him as a lowly soldier during the Warring States period, who inadvertently captures a wounded enemy general (Leehom Wang) and drags him along as a means of either getting a reward or himself out of the fighting. Also starring his new disciples the New Seven Little Fortunes, the film was entertaining mixture of old and new Jackie Chan, with some surprisingly affecting acting along with martial arts and creative slapstick stunts. Well directed by Ding Sheng, with impressive production values, epic visuals and some exciting action scenes, choreographed by Chan himself, the film was a deserved Lunar New Year blockbuster as well as enjoying a successful release overseas, many critics hailing it as a real return to form for the star.

Shaolin and 1911

Chan's next film saw him featuring in another Chinese blockbuster in Shaolin, directed by Benny Chan. The film boasted an amazing cast of top talent, also starring megastar Andy Lau, Nicholas Tse, Fan Bingbing, Yu Shaoqun, and Michelle Bai, along with various martial arts stars such as Wu Jing, Shi Yanneng and Xiong Xin Xin. Set in the 1920s, the film follows Lau as a cruel warlord whose betrayal by his ambitious right hand man (Tse) costs him his position and the lives of his family. The broken man ends up at Shaolin temple, where he receives training from the monks and philosophical teachings from Chan's friendly cook. Eventually becoming a monk himself, he is forced to defend the temple when his past comes back to haunt him. The film saw Chan taking more of a supporting rather than starring role, providing some fun and playful moments amongst its more serious backdrop. Despite suffering slightly from odd shifts in tone and an overly generic story, the film was certainly every inch the big budget prestige production, with some stunning visuals, epic staged battles and good use of computer effects. Although now clearly not as spritely as he once was, Chan was given several chances to show off his skills, Corey Yuen's solid action choreography playing to his creative strengths.

After providing one of the lead voices for hit sequel Kung Fu Panda 2, Chan reached a landmark with 1911, which marked his 100th film, not to mention his first as director since Who Am I? back in 1998. The film was an unashamedly patriotic affair following in the footsteps of Founding of a Republic and Beginning of the Great Revival, that charted the tumultuous and far-reaching events of the titular year and the Xinhai Revolution, such as the the Huanghuagang Uprising and the involvement of Sun Yat-sen. With Chan in a fully dramatic role, the film packed in a cast of top Chinese talent, including Li Bing Bing, Winston Chao, his son Jaycee Chan, Hu Ge, Joan Chen, and many more. With a grand historical sweep, epic battle scenes and top production values, the film was a prestigious outing for Chan as both director and star, underlining again the success of his ongoing transformation from daredevil stuntman to respected actor and filmmaker, and one with many interesting years still ahead of him in his career.

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Published November 28, 2011

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