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PROFILE : The Master of Mayhem : Jackie Chan, Hong Kong’s premiere action star, hopes to extend his reach to the U.S., demonstrating his propensity for poetic pummelings in ‘Rumble in the Bronx.’

David Kronke is a frequent contributor to Calendar

Jackie Chan is plotting his escape from this interview. The room is essentially empty, save for two chairs, one lined up behind the other; Chan sits backward in his chair, facing his inquisitor in the other chair. He sizes up the situation.

“I’m handcuffed, and you’re the bad guy, just sitting there,” Chan says--hypothetically, of course. “I’m sitting here,” he continues, rocking his chair playfully, an impish expression on his face. “And you’re reading a newspaper, and then I get up.” He gets up, and starts innocently dancing around the room, humming a deceptively happy tune.

“And you say, ‘Shut up! Sit down!’ and I sit back down in the chair facing you. And then suddenly I’ll--" And here Chan makes a dramatic sound effect (his conversations are routinely peppered with percussive sound effects) of something getting smashed--in this case, his captor’s feet. He slams his chair down, the chair’s back actually just missing said feet, and rolls over the chair back with a somersault.

“And you’re going, ‘Aauuugh!’ Then comes one kick, and then another kick!” From the ground, Chan feigns kicking the jaw of his interviewer with one foot snapping near his foe’s face, quickly followed by the other.

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He rises from the floor and mimes removing his handcuffs. Satisfied with the imaginary carnage he has wrought, he smiles and says, “That’s reasonable.”

This is simply the way Jackie Chan thinks. Average people would walk into a room or through a shopping mall or down a city street and ignore most everything around them. Chan scans the same area and asks himself, how can I use this stuff to create mayhem?

Chan, Hong Kong’s premiere action star, is touted as the most popular star in the world--his movies may make less than, say, Schwarzenegger’s, but thanks to the way they blanket Asia and other areas, they’re seen by more people. He’s so revered by fans in Asia that he tries to keep his private life extremely private (he’s married with a 12-year-old son).

He has a cult following in the United States that he hopes will broaden significantly with this weekend’s release of “Rumble in the Bronx,” a breathlessly frenetic action comedy (with Vancouver standing in unconvincingly, but gorgeously, for the New York borough) which finds Chan scrapping with a gang of largely ineffectual thugs, then uniting with them to battle a crime lord.

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Chan, 42, exudes an easygoing boyish charm in his movies, but the chief reason for his appeal is the fact that he choreographs and performs all his stunts, frequently outlandish and even foolhardy exploits of acrobatic derring-do. Fans cherish and respect his meticulous attention to action sequences as well as his sheer bravura when it comes to putting his life in danger to capture an exciting cinematic moment. Put it this way: Chan is probably the only person on the planet who has been smashed into by a land-bound Hovercraft and an airborne helicopter.

“Maybe I’ll get hurt, but we’ll say, ‘But it’s a good shot!’ and we’ll continue from there,” he says in occasionally halting English.

“When other filmmakers do stunts, they’ll cheat a little,” he says. “In my films, there’s an explosion, and then we’ll jump, but others will have them jump before the explosion. It’s safer, but not as exciting. Now, we have a reputation--we’re the Jackie Chan Stunt Team. It’s not easy, but we don’t do anything to ruin our image after all these years.”

Likewise, Chan has no use for actors who won’t do at least a little stunt work. And is appalled that directors leave some action sequences to second-unit directors. He disdainfully dismisses the opening sequence from “GoldenEye,” the latest James Bond movie: “From the first shot until the actor [Pierce Brosnan] opens the door, it’s all a [stunt] double,” Chan says. “Even the shot of him running is doubled--he wouldn’t go to the location. The shots are of the back of his head or from overhead. This is 007, he should at least run or jump or do something.

“Why, in Hollywood, don’t they have this kind of style anymore?” he asks. “It’s all special effects nowadays. They don’t try to improve the stunt work. Nowadays, all they improve is the computer.

“When I was younger, I learned a lot from American movies--action, reactions, everything. Now, everyone learns from me.” He smiles broadly. “I’m so happy.”

Chan became the heir to Bruce Lee’s throne back in the ‘70s, but only after failing with a series of chop-socky movies that wanly aped the martial-arts legend. Success wasn’t ensured until he melded his balletic battle choreography with healthy dollops of humor in 1978’s “Drunken Master” (about a young kung fu fighter who is only at full power when he’s inebriated; a recent sequel went the responsible route and decried alcohol consumption).

Since then, Chan has labored mightily to top himself. Perhaps his most outrageous stunt involved jumping from a building to a rope ladder hanging beneath a hovering helicopter and then riding it around a city as part of an astonishing 30-minute action sequence in 1992’s “Police Story III: Supercop.” (Miramax tentatively plans to release “Supercop” and “Drunken Master II” later this year.)

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“Everything is crazy,” Chan says. “I decide all the stunts, so if I think I can do it, I’ll try it. Everything fits into the movie. A long time ago, the movies didn’t have much flow, there was just fighting. Now, the story has some logic.

“If I’m not doing a certain stunt in this movie, I don’t know when I’ll be able to do it. The helicopter was in that one, so I must jump. I’m thinking, I might not have a helicopter stunt in the next movie, so if I don’t do it here, I don’t know when I will.

“Of course, I’m scared. Before a practice, you tell the helicopter how far you can jump, put them in the right place. But the helicopter pilot couldn’t see exactly where I was telling him to be. If anything happened--the helicopter pilot told me, if I had jumped onto the ladder and something went wrong with the ‘copter, he would have pushed a button releasing the ladder and down I’d go. That’s scary. He said, ‘I’ll have to let go, otherwise, my copter would go down.’ Of course, there’s a mat down there, but I’m 10 stories high, so a mat would be like putting a sponge down there.”

It was during “Supercop” that Chan actually got thumped by the helicopter. He was hanging on a pole that was supposed to swing out over a passing train, and jump onto the train while the helicopter passed. The crew members, alas, didn’t secure their rope to the pole and when they tried to pull the pole out over the train, the rope fell free and the pole stayed put. “And the helicopter comes along and booom!” Chan says.

“I was out. Totally out,” he continues. “It always happens, this kind of thing. It makes me very angry. What an experience. I had nowhere to go.” Incredibly, Chan broke nothing, but did sport a huge bruise that took up most of his back.

That mishap was nothing compared to the failed stunt in 1986’s “Armour of God,” which nearly cost him his life. A routine jump went awry when the tree Chan was leaping to snapped; he fell 40 feet onto a rock and smashed his skull.

“I had just jumped a seven-story fall--this was only 15 feet, it was nothing,” he recalls. “I arrived in Yugoslavia after a publicity tour in Japan and I was jet-lagged, I hadn’t had enough sleep. I went to the set right away. While they prepared that shot, we quickly shot the next shot, where I drink a beer. We did a lot of takes of that shot.” And, just as Chan refuses a stunt double, he declined that day to drink a stunt beer, instead downing real brew.

“I did the first jump, it’s OK, but I don’t think it looked good enough,” he says. “I did it again, and the tree broke.”

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“Rumble in the Bronx” produced a major injury, as well: Chan broke his foot jumping from a bridge onto the Hovercraft (as with all Chan movies, the resulting botched takes and injuries are shown during the closing credits). He also was run over by the Hovercraft--he was supposed to hide in a hole dug in the ground, but the Hovercraft hit him with such force he landed beyond the hole--but, again incredibly, sustained no injuries from that misadventure.

To put us in the scene, Chan mimics the high buzzing sound of the Hovercraft’s turbo. “I pushed myself as deeply as I can into the sand,” he says. “It rolled over me, and all these plastic things, I don’t know what they are, are slapping at me as it’s going over me. Sand is blowing in my face, my nose, my ears. Then there’s a huge sound [again he imitates the noise], I can’t breathe, then it’s gone. Then it passes over me and I sigh, I survived. Everyone clapped, even the captain. I still don’t know what was under it. Oh, what an experience.”

Chan is sitting in front of a TV, watching videotape of his choreographing a fight sequence conducted with ladders for his latest Asian release, “Police Story IV: CIA,” one of two films he’s completed since “Rumble.” He’s trying to explain how he creates his inventive battle scenes.

First, though, he laughs as he watches himself double over in pain on the television. “This guy hit me [with a stick],” he says.

“The ladder always hurt my hands,” he says. “Everything hurts. The catches pinch my fingers.” The ladder’s unwieldy nature made it an unlikely weapon and therefore a perfect one for his purposes, Chan explains.

On TV, Chan swings his ladder, disarming one attacker and tripping another, then spins it back to block a blow from a stick, and spins again to rebut a different blow. One joke in the sequence involves Chan thrusting the ladder out at an assailant. The foe steps back, but the other half of the ladder snaps further forward, smacking him in the face.

Chan throws the ladder in the air, spins, catches it in its open position and brings it down around an attacker. The guy is trapped under the ladder, so Chan gives him a couple of quick cheap jabs between the rungs. None of this is played out in the manic fashion familiar from his movies, but is done purposefully, even hesitantly. Jackie Unplugged, as it were.

A sequence such as this takes a couple of days to choreograph and about 20 days to shoot, Chan explains. Action in his films is created entirely on the set without regard to the script--a clever routine with some refrigerators was expanded from what the script simply called a warehouse fight, and when Chan broke his ankle during “Rumble,” a stunt involving his smashing up a Lamborghini, which didn’t require any running or jumping, was added at the last second.

Chan pulls from his wallet some worn sheets of paper that contain descriptions of ideas for stunts. “This may be just one line, but I can make a 10-minute action sequence out of it,” he says. “I just keep writing. This is more than 20 years of ideas.” When he commits one to film, he scratches it off on his sheet.

And Chan’s not picky: He’ll borrow ideas from the least likely places, including “America’s Funniest Home Videos.” “Most people watch these shows for laughs, but I’m watching them to see things I might be able to use in my movies,” he says, adding that a gag from “Drunken Master II” is cribbed from something he saw on the show. “I drink some factory alcohol, and at the end of a fight, a bubble comes from my mouth. Maybe it doesn’t make any sense, but the audience roars. That came from ‘America’s Funniest Home Videos.’ ”

Chan--who says he will retire in three years, but then, he has threatened to retire several times in the past--believes “Rumble in the Bronx” represents his last, best chance to penetrate the elusive American market, and even then, he’s not sure. He had it dubbed, somewhat artlessly, into English, and cut a whole bunch of stuff from the Asian version to ensure that it fairly speeds along.

He has also subjected himself to a grueling, crisscross-country promotional tour, something he jokes is more daunting than jumping to helicopters or plummeting several stories to the hard earth below. It begins in Utah, at the Sundance Film Festival, where “Rumble” was a midnight movie. He introduces the film by brandishing a wallet retrieved from the theater’s women’s room and asking, “Who left their wallet in the toilet?”

America’s treacherous winter of ’96 bedevils him at every turn--the record snows in Utah are an astonishment (Hong Kong is in a far more temperate zone), but it gets worse when he arrives in Chicago to find the temperature at 27 below zero and then in New York during its blizzards.

By the time Chan reaches L.A., he’s dressed for the worst, wearing a bright peach corduroy suit and a print turtleneck sweater. But L.A. is in the midst of its hot spell, with temperatures in the mid-80s.

Chan’s publicists have arranged a meeting with Mayor Richard Riordan. Riordan asks him, “Where can I get a suit like that?” Someone asks Riordan if he’s a Chan fan, and the mayor says oh, yes, definitely, but admits he’s only seen a few clips of the star’s work, not an entire movie.

Chan, meanwhile, is imagining swinging from one of the office’s chandeliers to the other, with a huge explosion between them as he’s jumping.

Later on his whirlwind tour of America, a retrospective of his work in Dallas is a raging success: Alonso Duralde, artistic director of the USA Film Festival which sponsored the evening, said the fan response was so rabid, “I felt like Ed Sullivan introducing the Beatles.” Alas, the L.A. premiere of “Rumble” isn’t nearly as overwhelming: Virtually none of the A-list celebrities announced to attend show up.

Throughout his travels, Chan has been in negotiations with David Letterman’s people as to what kind of splashy entrance he would make on the show. Letterman’s folks suggest he come in riding on top of a taxi. Too boring, Chan shrugs, suggesting he come in via helicopter, hop from the helicopter onto the top of the Ed Sullivan Theater and then climb down the side of the building. Letterman’s people can’t get a city permit for that kind of thing, so they counter with a suggestion which is far more elaborate than they realize, something that would take Chan a couple of days to choreograph properly.

“The problem is they think I can do everything,” he laments. “Jump to the moving bus, jump to the marquee! Jump onto the car! Fight with the stunt guy! I said, ‘How long will all this take?’ They said, ‘Oh, one day!’ ” This for a guy whose stunt sequences can take a month to shoot.

Hence, the appearance is a little anti-climactic: Chan clambers on top of Letterman’s desk and acrobatically kicks bottles all over the studio.

Clearly, Chan is ambivalent about coming to America. He tried it once, in the early ‘80s, and found himself frustrated by the fact that Hollywood refused to let him perform at his optimal level (remember “Cannonball Run II?” Chan hopes not). The fear exists that that would simply happen all over again.

Still, the idea of working on a splashy, Hollywood-style mega-blockbuster (“Rumble” cost $20 million, about half the budget of the most modestly priced Hollywood action flick) has its appeals, he admits.

“I really hope to work in America,” he says. “When I hear about ‘Terminator 2' or about Stallone’s movies costing $70 million, I think, ‘Wow!’ James Cameron, Steven Spielberg, Quentin Tarantino--if they used their technique with my brand of action, that would be something special.”

And yet, a breath or two later, Chan changes his tune: “I always tell myself, I cannot get into Hollywood. I know, I know. It’s very hard to break into the American market. Don’t put too much hope in it.” How “Rumble” does in theaters this weekend could well decide whether the world’s most popular star joins Van Damme and Schwarzenegger as a foreign-born Hollywood mega-hero or is consigned to mere cult status in the world’s biggest movie market.


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