King of America

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RICHARD CORLISSHe has battled many a superhuman villain, jumped off mountain tops and skyscraper roofs, taken beatings that would have left Muhammad Ali on the canvas--and emerged a winner in scores of movies that have entranced viewers around the world. But the one foe Jackie Chan could never conquer was that tawdry patch of real estate, that font of fantasy and violence, that beckoning, forbidding state of mind called Hollywood. He made U.S. films in 1980, '81, '83, '85; he sidekicked the famous (Burt Reynolds in The Cannonball Run and its sequel), was directed by the anonymous (James Glickenhaus in The Protector), played the preposterous (a '30s Chicago gangster in The Big Brawl). And each time he would return to Hong Kong to make juicier action movies than the studio guys could dream of. Still, ambition gnawed at Jackie like a pack of piranha. Why couldn't Asia's biggest star become America's?Logic offers a thousand excuses. Because no Asian actor had been a star in the States since the Japanese heartthrob Sessue Hayakawa--80 years ago. Because moviegoers supposedly like their action heroes on the mean and bulky side. Because slapstick and melodrama don't mix. Because this little guy who does his own stunts could get himself slightly killed, thus spoiling a multimillion investment in him. No mogul would gamble on creating a franchise when he might have to attend his star's funeral instead.Even in the mid-'90s, when Chan's American fame escalated from the cult darling of video-store moles to a guy who, in industry parlance, could open a movie--Rumble in the Bronx was No. 1 at the North American box office, with a $10 million take, when it was released in early 1996--the stardom was evanescent. Subsequent Chan films like First Strike, Mr. Nice Guy and Who Am I?, made with his Hong Kong team but aimed at the English-speaking international market, earned less than half of Rumble's final tally in the U.S., and the returns kept diminishing. Jackie shot his films in South Africa, the Netherlands, Australia, in search of steeper slopes (in First Strike he skis off a snow-covered mountain onto the runner of a hovering helicopter) and taller edifices (in Who Am I? he jumps off a 21-story building and tumbles down its 45 incline).Though Jackie was vigorous as ever, the films had tired blood. His leading ladies lacked the snap of Michelle Yeoh, the grace of Maggie Cheung; and the occidental villains were often too slow of foot to give the fight scenes much kick. His recent cameo in the lame An Allen Smithee Film: Burn Hollywood Burn didn't help. Americans seemed less interested in following Chan's career. He might have been some exotic cuisine that the Western masses were willing to sample once, for the novelty, not as part of their entertainment diet.But we know a few things about our hero. He can be bruised and even broken but he never gives up; his damned doggedness makes him the movies' most ornery, adorable masochist. And at the close of every adventure, he is rewarded with a happy ending. Well, now, at 44, Jackie has something better: a happy beginning.PAGE 1||||
Rush Hour, a buddy picture that marks Chan's first starring role in a big American production, earned $33 million in its first week--as much as Rumble did in its entire theatrical release. And unlike most action films, which grab gaudy box office numbers the first weekend but quickly exhaust their young-male audience base, this one has kept finding new fans. In its first 17 days it amassed a fat $84 million; that's a bigger take than the latest film of Robert Redford or Harrison Ford or John Travolta. By the time you read this, Rush Hour should have hit the $100 million mark in North America alone.The film's success astonishes and embarrasses Hollywood executives, many of whom said no thanks to an action film pairing Chan with Chris Tucker, an agreeably yelping black actor-comedian. Disney could have had Rush Hour; that's the studio that Roger Birnbaum, the film's executive producer, calls home. He had to go to New Line Cinema, which had distributed most of Chan's recent films. It's one of those happy Hollywood tales: the picture no one wanted to make, with the Asian star Hollywood had nearly discarded, strikes a chord and strikes it rich. Jackie, says New Line chief Robert Shaye, was a class act waiting to happen. There's always been a market for charming, ingenuous action stars. From the first time I saw his movies, I knew he could succeed here if he were cast appropriately in a film that was really designed for an English-speaking action audience.To give Western audiences a fuller view of their new hero, Chan has just issued his autobiography, I Am Jackie Chan: My Life in Action (Ballantine Books). Written with verve and narrative skill by Jeff Yang, the Los Angeles-based publisher of A., an Asian-American life-style magazine, the book is as funny, brisk and exciting as any Jackie movie, with the surprise of poignancy. Here he talks for the first time about his father's turbulent life in old Shanghai, about the cruel but inspiring martial-arts master whose school Jackie attended as a boy, about his bittersweet love affair with pop star Teresa Teng Lai-kwan and his secret, 15-year marriage to Taiwan actress Lin Feng-jiao. The book manages to be brutally revealing and consistently charming--Jackie is beating himself up, just to entertain you.The author is a movie star first; he must be thrilled by Rush Hour's popularity, right? You would think that. But listen. All those years in Asia, all my life, every movie I made, the one moment I waited for was the opening, he says, punctuating his thoughts and acting out his feelings as if every sentence were the climactic fight scene from Drunken Master II. Bang! Yeah! Success! O.K.! Then, go on to something else. I waited 15 years to become a success in America. Now Rush Hour is a hit, and there's a lot of happy news. People keep calling up and congratulating me. But I say what I always say: 'Wow! Finished. What's next?'Why is the chronically energetic, typically optimistic Chan speaking with skepticism? Perhaps he is hedging. It's possible that Rush Hour is a fluke, albeit a gloriously profitable one, and that Jackie could soon be back where he was: movie king of the Pacific Rim. Perhaps also he is reluctant to give lavish credit to a film that he did not totally control. In America there is no way I can make the kind of movie I like to make, Chan says. In Hollywood, even now, the king is only an ambassador.|2|||
But an ambassador for a zesty form of popular filmmaking--the Hong Kong action movie--which Rush Hour imitates and approximates with plenty of dash. In the script by Ross LaManna and Jim Kouf, Chan plays Lee, a Hong Kong detective fighting corruption and drug dealing in the colony at the time of its handover to China. One of his friends, a diplomat, is leaving for Los Angeles and taking his young daughter Soo Yung (Julia Hsu), who is studying martial arts under Lee's supervision. He already misses them both. Will you practice your kicks and eye gouges? he fondly asks the cute kid. (You know those moves will be useful in the U.S.) Soon after her arrival, the child is kidnapped, and Lee comes to America to help with the investigation. The FBI, deeming Lee a nuisance, teams him with James Carter (Tucker), a mouthy L.A. cop who gets on everyone's nerves. They hate each other and are totally opposite. In other words, they are the typical odd-couple.Brett Ratner, who directed Tucker in the 1997 comedy Money Talks, mounts the caper smartly; the kidnapping scene is a model mix of suspense, comedy (the kid puts up a good fight) and technical facility. Ratner also stirs a good rapport between the stars: Chris all flailing sass, Jackie the image of stalwart exasperation--when he's not talking down and dirty to Tucker's black friends, or grunting along with the old Edwin Starr anthem War: Huh! Yeah! Does the film stoop to racial stereotype? Yes, as many Hong Kong action films do: broadly and without malice. He's he and I'm me, says Tucker of Chan. He's a real cool person, and he trusted me, so it all worked out, the comedy and the karate together.The stars also worked out together. I did like 300 sit-ups, Tucker insists, with a roguish laugh, and I think Jackie stopped at about 50. Chan thinks that Tucker's rapid street banter, a key to Rush Hour's U.S. success, is a reason the film confounds some Asian audiences. At the premiere in Taiwan, he says, they just sit like--and he puts on the stone face of incomprehension and displeasure. They cannot catch the American jokes. Even the translators can't keep up. After 10 minutes, they just put a subtitle: 'How are you?'What lifts Rush Hour above Chan's earlier stabs at American assimilation is that it lets Jackie do his uniquely nimble stunt magic with minimum interference. Ratner knows that, for Jackie, there's no building ledge too high, no comedy too low. In one funny fight, he must kick beaucoup butt while keeping precious vases from toppling and breaking. Some of the stunt gags are filched from Jackie's own 1985 Police Story (he jumps onto a double-decker bus, he dangles from the top of a mall space), but, if you're going to steal, why not from the best? In the most graceful piece, Jackie hangs from a Hollywood Boulevard street sign, then drops onto a truck, rolls off and slips into and out of a jitney, slides across the top of a taxi and in through the back seat window--all in 15 seconds.Chan not only choreographed the stunt, he chose the street sign. The director had me hanging off a Sunset Boulevard sign, he recalls, and I asked him if I could change it to a Hollywood sign. That sign has meaning to the Chinese. It's like I grab Hollywood. If the movie opened at only $1 million in the U.S., I would have let go. But now I'm happy. It says: Hollywood, I've come back.||3||
He has come back to America, in triumph, at the same time his autobiography traces a painful trip back to his youth--to birth and before. Because he legendarily spent nearly a year in his mother's womb, Charles and Lee-lee Chan's only child, Kong-sang, was nicknamed Pao-pao--Cantonese for cannonball, but also a sound effect from any Jackie Chan movie fight. Charles was a cook for a French diplomat in Hong Kong, and the family lived in a mansion on Victoria Peak. Not until Jackie was an adult did he learn that Charles had been married previously, had sired three sons and had lost his first family during the Japanese occupation of China. In Shandong he met Lee-lee, who had lost her spouse, and smuggled her out of the country to Hong Kong.Lee-lee gave her son unconditional love; Charles pounded physical discipline into the boy's body. At seven he was placed in the China Drama Academy, a Peking Opera school run by Master Yu Jim-yuen. If one judges a school by its graduates, then this was Harvard, Oxford and the Sorbonne. In Jackie's class were at least a half-dozen future shapers of Hong Kong action cinema: Samo Hung, the tubby terror who starred with Jackie in 15 films, directed him in eight and is now the lead in Martial Law, a new hit series on American TV; cute, lithe Yuen Biao, another frequent Chan-Hung co-star; and comic villain extraordinaire Yuen Wah.Out of respect for their old master, many of his students took his name. Jackie, known in school as Yuen Lo, did no such thing. At 17 he left the Academy to work in movies, yet the master haunts him still. This is the man who introduced Jackie to that grand altar of communion between player and audience: center stage. This is the ghost he still needs to please and appease. Charles Chan was the father of Chan Kong-sang, he writes, but Yu Jim-yuen was the father of Jackie Chan. And at the end of the book, an invocation: I hated you. I feared you. I love you, Master.Kong-sang's parents had emigrated to Australia while he was at school. For a while, in his early 20s, he joined them, and picked up his English nickname on a construction site in Canberra; his Chinese screen name, Sing Lung (already a dragon, a reference to his ambition to succeed dead superstar Bruce Lee, of Enter the Dragon fame) came from his longtime manager, wily Willie Chan. Jackie served a frustrating film apprenticeship with Lo Wei, who had directed Lee in Fist of Fury and tried to make Jackie a sullen carbon copy of Lee. It was not until he teamed with Yuen Woo-ping on the 1978 hits Snake in Eagle's Shadow and Drunken Master that Jackie located his screen personality: the modest, smiling man of the people. He still is.The book displays a more complicated fellow: one who reacted to his first stardom with too much swagger and a retinue of burly parasites. That Jackie was no apt suitor for Teresa Teng. I loved her, he writes, but I loved myself more. And no heart can ever serve two masters. (Teng died of asthma, at 43, in 1995.) Even today, the older, wiser Jackie knows who's boss. I spent two-thirds of my time abroad, he says in the book, and even when I'm in Hong Kong, my schedule is so full that I can barely find time to be with my wife and child. The man is a workaholic; career comes first. I think each year: this will be the year I slow down to enjoy the important things in life. Some year. Sometime soon.|||4|
He can enjoy his new American eminence in the silly, thrilly Rush Hour--the movie to me is like a toy, he says--and start planning the inevitable follow-up. The last scene of Rush Hour has Chris Tucker and me on the airplane, headed for Asia, Chan notes. We said, 'If the movie opens at $30 million, we'll land in Hong Kong. If it opens at $1 million, then let's say there was a plane explosion. No more sequel.' So yes, there is a sequel.In this whirlwind, can he push the important things in life from his mind? That Rush Hour subplot of the kidnapped child must resonate in Chan. In the days when he denied he had a wife and son (with good cause: one Japanese fan threw herself in front of a subway train after reading a rumor of the marriage), Jackie's stuntman friends would take the boy out for a walk. One day he saw a poster with my face, Chan recalls, and started uttering, 'Dad!' And the stuntmen grabbed him away. Later they told me this, and I cried. And when the boy was 12 or 13, his father warned him about kidnappers. Then my son said, 'Don't worry, I'll never tell people that you are my father.' Wow! I just sighed. In public, Jackie just smiles. His still-boyish energy and relentless charm are a tonic in this glum, sordid age. He is unfailingly gracious to the press, fans and colleagues. Bob Shaye of New Line cites a dinner party Chan threw at a Los Angeles restaurant after the opening of Rush Hour. He invited 40 people--agents, friends of his, company executives--for a Chinese banquet. He helped serve the food, and got up to talk to people like a real host. He's a terrific guy--a Chinese mensch.He is considering other Hollywood projects, with titles like Strike Out, Escape, West West. All action, he says. New for American audiences. For me, I'm a bit bored already. Just like his stardom. After all, he has been Jackie Chan, superstar, for two decades; and smacking his head against the Hollywood wall all those years hardened him against emotional vertigo when he finally hit the heights there. So instead of moving to L.A., as Samo and Michelle and Chow Yun-fat have done, Chan wants to make his next film in Hong Kong. And describing this, he feels the excitement of the artist-salesman: A love story. First Jackie Chan movie love story! Everyone in Asia will say, 'Yes! We are going to see it!'Nice career move, Jackie. And who will be his co-star? Maybe Lin Feng-jiao? At least, then, Mrs. Jackie Chan could get to spend some time with her husband.There we go, trying to slap a Hollywood ending onto a very Asian marital arrangement. What Chan and his wife do is their business. But what Jackie has, at this moment in a spectacular career, is exactly what he wants: a happy middle. An American hit. The faithful adoration of his Asian fans. And his own renewed enthusiasm to keep fighting, loving, filming.||||5