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Jackie Chan - Man of Action

Written by Alison Jobling Tell a Friend

Jackie Chan is probably Hong Kong's most famous son. Asian film fans often started their journey with some of his films, while even those who've never considered watching subtitled films know him from Hollywood blockbusters like Rush-Hour, Shanghai Noon and Around The World In 80 Days. It's the first question an Asian film fan faces when they confess their obsession: "Like Jackie Chan, yeah?" A Jackie Chan film is a guarantee that, whatever else the film has to offer, you'll see Jackie doing stunts that are jaw-droppingly dangerous. And in making those films, you know that Jackie has broken, bruised, or otherwise damaged parts of himself that you never knew existed.

Jackie Chan's action films are different to many Western action films. There are fewer guns and explosions, for one thing. They get in the way of the action: anyone can blow things up, but only Jackie can do what he does. Like sliding down the slanted windows of a twenty-one storey building in Rotterdam. Hanging from a helicopter as it flies over Kuala Lumpur. Falling backwards into a bed of hot coals in a steel foundry. And only Jackie can improvise a weapon out of just about anything. A bicycle. A basket of chillies. A wind tunnel. Even a fridge. No-one else can find the offensive potential of items ranging from wind to whitegoods.

Chan the Man

Jackie Chan was born April 7th, 1954, named Chan Kong Sang ("born in Hong Kong"). He spent his earliest years in the Victoria Peak mansion of the French ambassador, where his father was cook and handyman and his mother the housekeeper. He began his action career early: his father began his training, with morning workouts in the northern kung fu style, when he was four.

But even this did not manage to subdue the boy's irrepressible energy and high spirits. So, at the age of seven, the young Jackie entered the Chinese Opera school of master Yu Jim Yuen. The students trained in all manner of acrobatics and martial arts, working long hours every day. The training was extremely painful, and the discipline harsh, but it gave the students a good grounding in all the techniques and skills required in their demanding profession. And it was here that he formed lasting friendships with many who also went ont to work in the film industry, including Yuen Biao, Sammo Hung, Yuen Wah, and Yuen Kwai.

Wacky Jackie

Jackie's career in the film industry began while he was still at the opera school. As the popularity of films increased, while that of opera decreased, many of the students were given occasional jobs as junior stuntmen. When he left the opera school, at the expiry of his ten-year contract, many opera schools were closing, and many trained performers heading for the movies. This made work as a stuntman hard to get, as well as dangerous and painful. Luckily, Sammo Hung, the Biggest Brother (senior student) of the opera school, was now a stunt co-ordinator, and he found work for his younger brothers.

Jackie's determination and talent soon brought him some fame in the dangerous world of stuntmen, and he had his first stunt coordinator job at the tender age of nineteen. It took some time before Jackie was offered a leading role, after long years of much work and little money. He'd already decided what his contribution to the industry would be: he would become famous, but not in the style of Bruce Lee. Lee's clench-jawed angry young man seeking revenge was incredibly popular, but Jackie reckoned that his talents lay in a different style.

But unfortunately he was not given the chance for some years. In signing an eight-year contract with Lo Wei, he had committed himself to making Lo's films, and Lo wanted 'the new Bruce Lee', not the untested Jackie Chan. It took some years, and the assistance of Willie Chan (who later became Jackie's manager and close friend), before he had his chance. This came in the form of of the 1978 film Snake In Eagle's Shadow, directed by another alumnus of the opera school, Yuen Woo Ping (who later became famous in the West at the stunt co-ordinator on The Matrix). The film was a huge success, breaking box office records, and Jackie's fame was firmly established.

Movie Pirates

Once he was free of obligation, and a star in his own right, he was able to make the sort of films he wanted to make. Jackie thought that audiences had grown tired of the traditional set-piece style of martial arts films, and knew that no-one else could be Bruce Lee. He decided that what he would portray was not the martial arts superhero, but the ordinary man in extraordinary circumstances.

Two of his finest films from the early period are Project A and Project A II . Here the young athletic Chan and his companions, including opera school brothers Yuen Biao, Yuen Wah, and Sammo Hung, set a frantic pace of action that doesn't let up. Project A was also the first film where Jackie demonstrated a 'superstunt': something more dangerous, more reckless, more likely to break important parts. Although stuntmen in general, and Jackie in particular, had for decades done fight scenes and acrobatics that left many disabled or dead, the superstunt was in a whole new league.

Project A contained fight scenes that left audiences open-mouthed with awe. Part of the reason was that Jackie was working with his opera school brothers Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao: these three had worked together for so many years that they co-ordinated their fights almost by telepathy. The resulting scenes look lighting fast and definitely dangerous.

The other reason was that Jackie was stunt coordinator, and used his own style and ideas to create action scenes that were completely fresh and exhilarating. Instead of using traditional martial arts, which may result in a stilted 'by the numbers' scene, Jackie fights were often a melange of different styles, lending a bar-brawl urgency. Instead of villains taking it in turns to attack the hero, they all attacked at once, giving a frantic pace as the hero whirled to deal with several at once. And instead of fights where the combatants stood in one spot, frequently on open ground, Jackie made his fighters travel through cramped urban settings, which required more complex choreography to make creative use of doors, windows, staircases, and furniture.

Jackie Gets Serious

The film often cited as his best, though, contains less humour than these earlier action films, and returned to the more traditional kung fu setting. Drunken Master II, in which he plays the hero Wong Fei Hung as a young man, is a fine example of martial arts, and shows the extent to which Chan is willing to go for his art. This, the sequel to the first Drunken Master, sees Jackie reprising his role as a young and irresponsible Wong Fei Hung, although with a more serious storyline than the first.

The film is special for many reasons. The cast includes the well-respected Ti Lung, who became a star in the Shaw Brothers era. There's also the talented actress/singer Anita Mui, who lights up in the comic scenes, and the martial artist/director Lau Kar Leung, who provides extra martial arts credibility.

The fight scenes are also special. The fluidity of Jackie's displays of drunken boxing is amazing: the man moves like he has an internal gyroscope and rubber bones. And the pace of the action, as in Project A, is frenetic: villains attack him, throwing punches and kicks, and like a cat he undulates away and strikes from an unexpected side. Grappled by one, he kicks out at another before flipping backwards to deal with a third.

The final fight scene is, of course, outstanding. His main opponent, Ken Lo, is a kickboxer with legs that go on forever, and it's hard not to respect a man who can hold his leg over his head. The fight takes place inside a steel foundry, and that means that there will inevitably be huge drums full of sand, red-hot metal, and of course the furnace: in this case, a bed of coals above an eye-watering fire. When Jackie falls backwards, full length, into the coals, it's hard not to gasp. Even harder not to whimper as he scrambles backwards, on palms and feet, right across the coals to the staircase on the other side.

Cop This

The film which has been called 'the greatest action film of all time' was Police Story. This came out in 1985, and was also a huge success. Although the Police Story series (four films, with New Police Story recently released in HK cinemas) don't show his comic talents, they do provide a fine forum for his action work. The stuntwork in these films is full-on: Jackie sliding down a pole wrapped in tiny lights; Jackie fighting off half a dozen villains using only playground equipment; Jackie hanging from a helicopter flying over Kuala Lumpur. There are also many excellent fight scenes, all with the characteristic fluidity and breathtaking speed for which Jackie has become famous.

The Action Never Stops

Jackie has now made dozens of films, and is famous across Asia and in the West. He's made huge box office successes, and produced fine arthouse drama such as Stanley Kwan's beautiful period piece Rouge. Does he want to give it up and rest on his laurels? Hell, no. You just can't keep a good Chan down.

All biographical details taken from I Am Jackie Chan - My Life In Action by Jackie Chan with Jeff Yang, Allen and Unwin, 1998.

Published October 4, 2004

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  • Region & Language: Hong Kong United States - English
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