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Jackie Chan: Caught between East and West

Jackie Chan: Caught between East and West
Jackie Chan is shown in Beijing in 2015. His action-comedy "Railroad Tigers" topped China's box office last week. (Ng Han Guan / Associated Press)

On a sultry afternoon, in his basement office lair tucked beneath a sportscar dealership and private jet showroom, Jackie Chan is flipping gleefully through photos on his MacBook. The martial arts master and multimillionaire is eager to show off not his latest stunts, exotic automobiles or private plane , but his prized stuffed animals.

About five years ago, he explains like giddy girl, he went to a Build-a-Bear Workshop in London and put together two pandas, placing hearts inside them and creating their "birth certificates" as they were sewn together. Since then, he's taken thousands of snapshots of his famous friends and acquaintances posing with the toys, named Chan La and Chan Zy, and even flown them around the world to visit his fans.

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"Oh, here's the pandas with Stallone! Ang Lee! Jet Li! All famous people!" Chan exclaims, peeling with laughter. "Now where's the one with Bill Clinton?"

Soon one of his entourage suggests it's time to adjourn for some hot pot. Chan jumps up and there's a whooshing sound, almost like a balloon popping. Hiking up his shirt he reveals a wraparound back brace featuring an inflatable lumbar support contraption.

"Getting old," the 61-year-old says. "I can't sit too long."

Chan has just published an autobiography in Chinese, "Never Grow Up, Only Get Older," and the title is more than apropos. Even with more than 100 films under his belt, it's clear the Hong Kong-born action star and comedian has yet to lose the childlike wonder that has endeared him to fans around the world. Nor is he sitting still.

Though he hasn't had a Hollywood live-action hit since 2010's "The Karate Kid" remake with Jaden Smith — and clearly pines for continued U.S. popularity — his star is shining perhaps more brightly than ever before, particularly in Asia.

Chan has earned $50 million over the last 12 months, according to Forbes — not just from his films but also his myriad other businesses, which include everything from designer apparel and eyeglasses to movie theaters to Segway scooter dealerships (Chan is known to ride the two-wheeled contraptions around his sets). That's more than any actor worldwide aside from Robert Downey Jr., putting him at No. 38 on the magazine's 2015 list of 100 top-paid celebrities, ahead of Kobe Bryant, Tom Cruise and Dr. Dre.

A global survey this year by the British polling firm YouGov named Chan the fourth-most-admired man in the world, after Bill Gates, President Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Last spring, Chan found himself at the center of a pop culture meme — "Duang!" — a made-up, onomatopoeic word that originated in a cheesy 2004 shampoo commercial he filmed. (The word is written in Chinese by smooshing together the two characters that make up Chan's name: "Becoming" and "Dragon.")

With such cachet, Chan should be ideally positioned to capitalize on the accelerating convergence between the Hollywood and Chinese entertainment industries. Yet somehow his career seems caught up in an intractable bifurcation: His American comedies rarely play well on his home turf, while his homegrown smashes like "Chinese Zodiac" and "Police Story" tend to be duds or at best cult hits stateside.

"In America they don't like to see Jackie doing a drama. They only like Jackie doing 'Rush Hour 1, 2, 3.' 'Shanghai Noon.' These kinds of things," says Chan, who says he's trying to improve his English by watching CNN.

"I have to do two movies for Chinese, [then] one movie for Americans, or two movies for Americans, [then] one for Chinese. Poor me!" says Chan, only half-kidding. "Will Smith, Tom Cruise, Tom Hanks — so lucky! Whenever their movies come out … the whole world" goes to see them.

His latest action drama, "Dragon Blade" — a swords-and-sandals, East-meets-West period epic that features him fighting bloody battles with Roman soldiers played by John Cusack and Adrien Brody — became a major blockbuster this year on the mainland, earning more than $120 million.

The picture, set in the wild deserts of western China, is being released stateside by Lionsgate Premiere on Sept. 4. But asked if he thinks "Dragon Blade," with its serious tone and savage fight scenes, will fly in the U.S., Chan is downbeat.

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"Probably not," he says. "But I got to try."

Chan may have better luck satisfying Americans with "Skiptrace," a China-set action caper in which he plays a detective who must apprehend a gambler portrayed by Johnny Knoxville. The film, directed by Renny Harlin ("Die Hard 2"), is due to arrive in theaters around Christmas.

The "Jackass" star, who like Chan draws inspiration from the physical comedy of Buster Keaton, says he was struck both by Chan's outsize presence and his down-to-earth generosity during their months of filming.

"I saw him on the first day ... Jackie Chan riding up onto set on his Segway, larger than life," Knoxville recalls. "He had on this Chinese military jacket, with a beautiful collar on it. I say, 'God, that's such a beautiful coat.' And he's like, 'You like it? You can have it.' He just gave me the coat off his back.

"He's a very kind and generous man who's like an 8-year-old kid who cannot sit still. I can't imagine what he was like in school. He must have driven all the teachers crazy because he's doing five things at once all the time."

Chan has some classic attributes of a diva; for example, he has a 10-point list of bathroom manners for his staff and sports his own "JC" label pants, socks, shoes and sunglasses (today's JC shirt is emblazoned with the mantra "I can because I think I can").

Yet actors and directors he's worked with describe him as almost obsessively thoughtful and considerate. Rob Minkoff, who directed him in 2008's "Forbidden Kingdom," recalls Chan taking it upon himself to haul back video gear from Hong Kong to make their desert shoot easier.

Philanthrophy is part of the JC brand. Back in his subterranean lair, an assistant interrupts Chan's panda-picture sharing for a meeting with a woman who oversees the work of his charitable foundations, which have built 27 schools in impoverished Chinese communities and support causes including youth sports activities in Hong Kong. In addition to those projects, he's been a goodwill ambassador for UNICEF, funded a self-help center for the elderly in San Francisco and obsessively purchased, dismantled, and restored historic Chinese homes that otherwise would have fallen victim to wrecking balls; four of the structures now sit on a college campus in Singapore.

Chan says he's been thinking more and more about his legacy in the last two years, following a momentous car ride with David Foster. The Canadian composer and producer asked Chan, who himself has a successful singing career in Chinese, how old he was. Fifty-nine, Chan said. Foster replied matter-of-factly that Chan had 21 summers left — anything past 80 years would be a bonus.

Foster's admonition, he says, got him ruminating about being "buried in the ground. Worms are eating me. I'm gone. … I said, 'How am I going to spend the 21 summers?'"

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"I could retire, spend every day fooling around, but I want to do good things for 21 years. Help people, spend my money, just do good things. That's the most important thing. ... I tell my son, when I die, my bank — zero. Whatever I have, I donate."

One role Chan now finds himself reprising, somewhat unexpectedly, is fatherhood. His 32-year-old son, Jaycee, an actor and singer, was arrested last year in Beijing on marijuana charges and served six months behind bars — an awkward predicament for Chan, who was an official anti-drug ambassador for the Chinese government and a member of a political advisory committee.

Jaycee was released just as "Dragon Blade" was hitting theaters. Chan says he didn't try to pull any strings for his son and says the punishment was a "good thing" for him. Busy pursuing his acting career, Chan acknowledges he was often away from home for long stretches during his son's upbringing, leaving the parenting largely to his wife of 33 years, retired Taiwanese actress Lin Feng-jiao.

These days, he says, "we're becoming more close because these things happened." His son, he acknowledges, is still "very ashamed" to see people, and wears a mask when he goes out in public. "I said, 'Don't do that. Be yourself. … Everybody do wrong things. As long as he does not do it again. I forgive you once; not the second time."

Soon, Chan says, he hopes he and Jaycee can collaborate on musical recordings, maybe even appear in a film together. Jail, he said, has made has son more productive. Such a break from everyday life, he tells an Associated Press reporter, might be good for today's overstressed multitudes. "I think sometimes I should set up a 'jail holiday,' force some rich people, even myself, to go to jail," he says, apparently in jest.

Over time and given his ties to the government, Chan has learned to temper his words and is clearly proud of China's recent growth.

"These days China can do everything … nothing is impossible in China. China has more than 5,000 years of history, the last 15 years have been the best — no wars," he says when someone brings up Beijing's successful bid for the 2022 Olympics despite receiving little snow. "We had the Summer Olympics, the [Shanghai] Expo, now the Winter Olympics. Everything is booming. Of course we are learning. We are getting rid of the bad things — give us a chance to do something."

In a few days, Chan will start production on a film called "Kung Fu Yoga." That will be followed by a World War II-era movie titled "Railroad Tigers" that centers on ordinary Chinese trying to sabotage Japan's shipments of materiel to Southeast Asia.

But the upcoming project he sounds most enthused about is "The Foreigner," an English-language drama to be directed by Martin Campbell ("Casino Royale") and based on the Stephen Leather novel "The Chinaman," about an ex-Vietnamese guerrilla fighter turned London restaurateur who gets caught up in an IRA bombing and seeks revenge.

"That's a serious thing. It's suitable for my character and age," says Chan, citing the roles taken on by Robert De Niro, Clint Eastwood and Liam Neeson as examples of the kind of parts he now wants in Hollywood.

Jeff Yang, co-author of Chan's 1998 biography, "I Am Jackie Chan: My Life in Action," says Chan was "born too early" for the new chapter of cinema "with Chinese actors and Chinese money playing a lot larger role in Hollywood."

"It catches Jackie on the back foot of his career, but who knows? Jackie is still the only Chinese actor, aside from maybe Jet Li, who's a top-of-mind, household name Chinese actor in the U.S."

Minkoff said he doesn't think Chan is done in Hollywood. "People said that about John Travolta before 'Pulp Fiction' — 'He'll never work in this town again.' Then suddenly he was in everything," Minkoff said. "Audiences still love Jackie."

Nicole Liu in The Times' Beijing bureau contributed to this report.

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