Jackie invades America for the second time. Is America finally ready?
Jackie Chan’s “newest” film, Rumble in the Bronx, is only new to U.S. audiences. This film was released in 1994 with enormous success in Asia, rating no. 1 film ever in mainland China. This is not Jackie’s first attempt to move beyond cult status here. He was briefly groomed as the successor to Bruce Lee in the 1970s, but his films The Big Brawl and The Protector failed to impress. Jackie was not Bruce Lee. He was equally — some say more — skilled in martial arts, but he had a much broader, endearing comic persona that the films failed to exploit.
In the early 1990s, Hong Kong action, martial-arts, and supernatural dramas managed to gain a foothold on the U.S. repertory circuit. Jackie, along with Chow Yun-Fat and to a lesser extent Jet Li, became the darling of both the “fanboys” — that group of slobbering post-adolescents who responded to his meek yet powerful image — and curdled intellectuals seduced by HK’s exoticism, effortless genre- and gender-busting, and brilliantly kinesthetic action sequences. This dual audience included such worthies as Bruce Willis, Quentin Tarantino, and Sylvester Stallone (I’ll leave you to decide which category they belong in).
While the groundswell of interest in Hong Kong films provided a possible springboard for Jackie into the U.S. mainstream, there were still obstacles — lingering anti-Asian feelings in the culture, Jackie’s reputedly marble-mouthed English, and an audience used to grim, not comic, heroics. Still, his films routinely trounce their American counterparts in Asian markets, making him potentially bankable elsewhere. And there was one special aspect of Jackie that distinguished him from the pack and could provide his ticket into the West: he does his own stunts. Anyone who’s seen the trailer for Rumble in the Bronx can see that this is in fact the strategy being used; the film is being sold as the work of an endearing madman who literally risks his life to bring pleasure to his fans, an utterly human touch unthinkable with heavily protected, musclebound-creampuff “commodities” like Schwarzeneggar or Stallone.
Anyone who’s seen — and treasured — Jackie’s performances won’t be disappointed by Rumble in the Bronx. Jackie plays a typical role here, the sweet, naive, but principled bumpkin who is forced against his will into violent confrontations and life-threatening stunts. The film opens with Keung (Jackie), a Hong Kong cop who comes to New York for his Uncle Bill’s (Bill Tung) wedding. Jackie’s dislocation is more than physical, as he’s astounded to meet his new “aunty,” an overweight black woman. Uncle Bill sells his grocery store to the naive Elaine (HK superstar Anita Mui) without telling her it’s a constant target for a local psycho biker gang. Jackie agrees to help her with the store after the sale.
Things quickly go awry when Jackie attacks members of the gang for shoplifting. They avenge themselves by trapping him in an alley and batting empty beer bottles at him, leaving Jackie a bloody mess. However, the gang isn’t exactly cohesive, and they forget to kill Jackie when they start bickering. This prepares us for Jackie and the gang teaming up against the real villain, a suave mafioso and his big butch enforcers. Jackie’s absence causes Elaine’s store to get wrecked again and eventually destroyed. And he ends up with the mafioso’s stolen diamonds before the inevitable, and not unpredictable climax.
This cartoonish plot is, as we often see, simply a vehicle for the heavily choreographed and scored fight sequences. In an extraordinary scene that will shock novices and make even seasoned Jackie-watchers at least partly hide their eyes, Jackie jumps several stories across a wide, wide space from the top of one building onto a disturbingly small fire-escape landing on another. Other sequences are more familiar, with the trapped Jackie marshalling every object around him against his attackers. This includes everything from pool cues to garbage cans to pinball machines and even refrigerators. Jackie’s combination of muscular strength and pliability gives these scenes a hyperreal quality, reinforced by the fact that there’s no need for the cutaway shots necessitated by the use of stunt doubles. Every time he’s knocked against a wall or hit in the head with a bat, it’s Jackie — and the audience — feeling the pain.
For the extended finale, the filmmakers featured an object not hitherto seen even in the excesses of Hong Kong action films: an enormous hovercraft that lumbers out of the water and onto the streets of New York City (actually Vancouver). This monstrous vehicle flattens cars and people with equal force, but, in a perfect metaphor for Jackie’s career, the star grabs a tiny sports car and races alongside the rubber-bumpered beast ripping holes in it.
It’s not clear if Rumble in the Bronx will carry Jackie into the U.S. stardom he deserves. Some of the details seem slapdash, and the female characters are flat. The great Anita Mui particularly is wasted in a plain Jane role. But Jackie’s comic persona — a combination of Buster Keaton and Buster Crabbe — is intact, and in a daring move sure to generate controversy here, he post-scripts the film with outtakes of failed stunts, including injuries. Some viewers will complain about this as cruel, but most will see it as a critical part of Jackie’s legend, thrilling proof that he’s the only action hero — but so much more! — who puts his body where his mouth is.