The films of Jackie Chan have a far greater fascination for me than those of his Western counterparts in the martial arts genre, such as Jean-Claude Van Damme. I find ninety minutes of sadistic nastiness of limited interest and greatly prefer Jackie’s brand of spectacularly enjoyable violence where no-one, not even the bad guys, ‘really’ seems to get hurt. I use quotes deliberately because he has probably suffered more injuries while doing his own stunts (still the case, even though he’s now a star) than most Western stunt-men (never mind actors!), most notably a fractured skull during filming in Yugoslavia on ‘Armour of God’. When Jackie limps, it’s probably for real.
Jackie Chan, real name Chan Kong-Sang, was born on April 7th, 1954 in Hong Kong. When he was seven, his parents sent him to the Peking Opera -perhaps the best way to describe this venerable institution, responsible for producing some of the best Oriental martial artists, is to call it a cross between a stage school, a circus and an SAS training camp. There, under his master Yu Chan Yuan, he spent ten years learning acting, gymnastics, singing and, naturally, martial arts – his teachers remember him as not outstanding, but he always gave 100%.
Just like Bruce Lee, Jackie started his career as a child actor and he then worked as a stuntman for several years before getting any major breaks. His first film, ‘Master with Cracked Fingers’ shows a very different JC to the one we know today, not least because he’s since had cosmetic surgery to Westernise his eyes. It has to be said that a lot of his early movies, which he merely acted in rather than directing, were low-budget hack-jobs, churned out under tight budgets and schedules. His later fame also meant that any film in which he’d appeared suddenly became ‘starring Jackie Chan’ – not that this means they are automatically worthless of course (‘Half a Loaf of Kung Fu’ has it’s moments) but you’re advised to view with some caution.
The first turning point in Jackie’s career came with ‘Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow’ (below), made in 1978 under director Yuen Wo Ping, later responsible for ‘In the Line of Duty 4’, one of my all-time favourites. The same duo virtually remade this movie as ‘Drunk Monkey in the Tiger’s Eyes’ -different fighting style (this one roughly translates as ‘Eight Drunken Fairies’, and requires the participant to drink a lot of alcohol!), almost the same plot.
Shortly afterwards, Jackie took over directing his films, and has done so on most of his appearances since, though after a couple of movies, he made a brief excursion to America for ‘The Big Brawl’ directed by Robert “China O’Brien” Clouse. This was followed shortly afterwards by a small part in ‘The Cannonball Run’: Jackie also appeared in the sequel, but that’s not his fault.
Opportunity knocked, and Jackie left from a first floor window to meet it. The result, and the second turning point, was ‘Project A’. The rest, as they say, is history. Big box-office followed and Jackie was firmly established as the biggest star in Hong Kong, although his fame here has been mostly limited to video, with cinema releases of his films being distressingly few and far between,
Humour plays a vital role in Jackie’s films, a pleasing contrast to the unremitting seriousness that affects most of the Western output (‘Blind Fury’ being a notable and worthy exception). Learning much from masters of physical slapstick such as Buster Keaton, Jackie Chan has become adept at using humour to provide an outlet for the energy his movies generate, without detracting in any way from the tension. Credit for this must also be given to Samo Hung, acknowledged as the master of “funny kung-fu”, and with whom Jackie has worked on many movies. These two are master craftsmen and if either of them are directing a film, you’re virtually guaranteed a good time. And ‘a good time’ is what sums up Jackie Chan’s films more than anything else – here are my personal favourite five, all directed by him except where noted:
5. Snake and Crane Arts of Shaolin (Chen Chi-Hua) – This one’s my favourite early Jackie Chan, perhaps because while it’s less spectacular than his later efforts, it’s 96 minute running-time seems to be almost entirely fight sequences! Jackie plays the only surviving master of the titular fighting technique who’s carrying the manual describing the style and who thus becomes a target for virtually every clan in existence. All is not quite what it seems, however. This is a ‘classical’ kung-fu movie, and so may not appeal to everyone, but I like the feel of it and the ease with which it slotted a relatively complex plot into the small gaps between the battles.
4. Project A – Jackie’s first big directorial hit is set at the turn of the century, when pirates ruled the waves because the police and coastguard were too busy bickering with each other to fight crime. An impressive opening bar-brawl and the best bicycle chase since the days of silent movies are capped by perhaps JC’s most amazing stunt ever, when he falls fifty feet or so from a clock tower onto solid ground – admittedly, there are a couple of awnings in the way, but all they seem to do is ensure he falls on his head. If after this, the film’s pace does slacken a little, it’s understandable! [If the sequel is less spectacular, it’s higher in humour and still decent viewing]
3. Dragon Lord – This provides a great example of the indeterminate time in which many Oriental films are set – it looks like turn-of-the-century China, yet at one of the sporting events there are cheerleaders, complete with pom-poms. Hell, it’s good fun, even though it’s more humourous than martial for the first hour as Jackie and his cousin vie for the affection of a girl and play some amazing pastimes – I especially liked the football -badminton cross. When the kung fu comes, it’s a bonus but is easily up to standard as he takes on a bad guy trying to illegally export antiques. I guess it’s a variation on the old drug smuggler theme!
2. My Lucky Stars (Samo Hung) – Great mix of comedy and action, as might be expected given the director. Jackie appears mainly at the start and end as a cop sent to Japan, who has his partner kidnapped and sends for help from his old orphanage buddies. These include Samo Hung and Yuen Biao, and the party is accompanied by the delectable Sibelle Hu, to whom everyone gets tied during a sequence that’s among the funniest in any film I’ve seen (especially if watched after a couple of pints of Guinness!). The mass brawl at the end is incredible, even if on the small screen you get the feeling you’re missing half the action out the edges.
1. Police Story – Any movie that starts off by destroying an entire village clearly has a severe disregard for property. And when two people plunge head-first onto concrete from the top deck of a bus shortly afterwards, it’s clear this attitude extends to human life. Jackie’s a cop protecting a reluctant drugs witness but this is nearly irrelevant, especially in the UK version which loses 20 minutes of plot, and things move inexorably towards the best end sequence in any martial arts movie. Easily the most violent ’15’ rated movie I’ve seen, you wonder how the stuntmen and Jackie can walk off the set. Then, under the end credits there is a sequence of out-takes and you realise that quite often, they don’t. [The sequel, disappointingly, takes about 70 minutes to get going -an oddly deviant section where three cuties engage in nasty interrogation techniques is a highlight of an otherwise dull movie, though the final battle just about recovers things]
Deep-breath time again. The following contains ‘significant’ roles only, excluding films in which he acted as a child or was “only” a stuntman. For an exhaustive rundown, see ‘Eastern Heroes’ No.12 (details in 3-Pin Plugs).
- 1971 – Master With Cracked Fingers (very, very, barely starred!)
- 1976 – New Fist of Fury
- 1977 – To Kill with Intrigue
Snake & Crane Arts of Shaolin
Eagle Shadow Fist
Hand of Death
36 Crazy Fists (dir)
36 Wooden Men aka Shaolin Chamber of Death
- 1978 – Drunken Master aka Drunk Monkey in the Tiger’s Eye
Half a Loaf of Kung Fu
Snake in Eagle aka Eagle Shadow Fist
Spiritual Kung Fu aka Karate Ghost Busters
- 1979 – Fantasy Mission Force
Fearless Hyena (+ co-dir)
Fearless Hyena II (see Master with Cracked Fingers!)
- 1980 – The Young Master aka Young Tiger
The Big Brawl
- 1981 – Cannonball Run
- 1982 – Dragon Lord (+ dir)
- 1983 – Cannonball Run 2
Project A (+ dir)
Winners and Sinners
Kung Fu Girls
- 1984 – Meals on Wheels
- 1985 – My Lucky Stars
The First Mission aka Heart of the Dragon
- 1986 Police Story (+ dir)
Armour of God (+ dir)
- 1987 Dragons Forever
Project A Part II (+ dir)
- 1988 Police Story II (+ dir)
- 1989 Miracles (+ dir) aka Mr.Canton and Lady Rose
- 1991 Project Condor (+ co-dir) aka Armour of God II
Island on Fire