His Career Is No Stunt

Jackie Chan has dangled from a Hollywood street sign, slid through pools of fire, leaped off buildings and tangled with an out-of-control helicopter, earning nearly a billion dollars in worldwide box office for his troubles. But this fall represents a first for the 48-year-old action star.

In "The Tuxedo," Chan's stunts are augmented with special effects. Up until now, Chan himself was the special effect, and he's a tad nervous about the results. "I don't know. It makes me worry," Chan says.

Why? "I try to do special effects a long time but I don't know how, so I always stayed with my style, Jackie Chan style."

But Chan listened when DreamWorks pitched him a special-effects spy spoof, if only because it meant he'd get to meet his hero, Steven Spielberg.

"When Spielberg see me, I said, 'I just want to know how you do that, with the dinosaurs jumping around,' and he say, 'It's so easy, just push button, button, button, button.' I say, 'Oh, button. OK.'

"Then Spielberg say, 'Jackie, let me ask you something: How do you go flying from the roof to the building?' I say, 'Easy. You roll and jump.' "

The masters always make it look easy. Like Gene Kelly or Charlie Chaplin or Muhammad Ali, Chan has channeled prodigious physical gifts into remaking a traditional performance style in his own image. Since his 1998 international hit "Rush Hour," Jackie Chan has become known to moviegoers around the world as that funny martial arts guy who speaks broken English and whirls around at warp speed beating villains to a pulp.

Jet-lagged after a flight from Hong Kong, Chan didn't fall asleep until 10 in the morning during a recent visit to Los Angeles. But three hours later, showing no sign of fatigue, he waltzed into his manager's Beverly Hills office for an early-afternoon interview.

Dressed head to toe in white, Chan sat down, jumped up, slumped in his chair, made faces and provided his own sound effects. Tireless? Evidently.

"The Tuxedo," aimed at 11-to 16-year-olds, will likely fortify Chan's popularity among young viewers. But how the film plays to his longtime fan base is of equal importance to Chan. Acutely sensitive to audience feedback, the actor can rattle off grosses, territory by territory, for each of his films.

He once experimented with a dramatic role. The film only did so-so at the Asian box office. Chan hasn't made what he calls a "crying movie" since. Not that he needs to fret about losing his Asian filmgoers. For more than two decades, his action flicks have dominated the Far East box office. "In Hong Kong, I'm like king on the set," he says. "Director, writer, producer, star--it's one-man show."

But his reach has always extended beyond Asia. Chan wants to stay hot in the Western world, and he's shrewd enough to realize that continued success in the English-speaking world depends on good chemistry with contrary co-stars.

"Without Chris Tucker, 'Rush Hour' would not be so successful," he says. "And without me, not as successful. But together, boom!" Chan also mentions "Shanghai Knights," the sequel (due in 2003) to his movie "Shanghai Noon," co-starring Owen Wilson. "Then, almost like a formula, the second one with Owen Wilson, same thing. I will continue to find different partners, maybe children or even with a dog or a monkey, because in the American market, I need somebody's help." In "The Tuxedo," which opens Sept. 27, that somebody is Jennifer Love Hewitt. In the film, Chan plays a chauffeur who suddenly acquires the ability to dance, sing and do kung fu when he dons a high-tech dinner jacket. Hewitt plays a rookie agent who teams up with Chan.

Chan may be content to share the billing in American-made pictures, but not if it means playing a villain. Smarting after the failure of two Hollywood features, "The Big Brawl" (1980) and "The Protector" (1985), Chan was invited in 1988 to appear opposite Michael Douglas in "Black Rain." Only one problem: He'd have to play a drug dealer. Chan turned it down.

"I don't mind being a co-star, but bad guy?" he says, sipping a cup of warm water. "I tell them, I just cannot do it. I'd been creating my image so many years. I believe the Asian audience would have killed me. So, no."

The role model business is something Chan takes seriously. "Being an actor, you should do many things, not only one thing. But I think my case is different because I receive so many letters from all the young children and the parents who write me. I get letter from the young mother: 'I don't like the one shot where you grab somebody's crotch.' For me, it's funny but it's dirty funny. So, I go, 'OK, I'm not going to do that anymore.' Year by year, no more breaking fingers, poking eyes, we take that out. Now, I can almost say, my action is clean action."

Parents no doubt appreciate Chan's clean-living message, but action aficionados idolize the star because he has always insisted on doing his own stunts. And accidents happen. Chan cheerfully reenacts his run-in with a helicopter rotor blade that left him with fractured ribs, cheekbones and shoulder blades. Matter-of-factly, he offers a tour of injuries: broken eye socket, broken nose, broken jaw, sprained neck, damaged vertebrae, dislocated pelvic girdle, split skull, dislocated sternum, dislocated neck, broken toe, cracked hipbone, split upper lip, burned hands and torn neck ligaments.

How does he stand the pain? Chan's resilience might be traced to a childhood that reads like the adventures of Barnum & Bailey as told by Charles Dickens. When he was 6, Chan's parents indentured him to the Peking Opera School, a Hong Kong arts center that trained gifted children. In the custody of teachers there, Chan endured beatings without complaint.

Gesturing at the conference table where he's sitting, Chan demonstrates: "You're 7 years old and the teacher says, 'Jump across the table.' 'But I cannot' ... whaap!" He mimes being slapped. "And then you jump!"

For 10 years, Chan studied martial arts, acrobatics, tumbling and pantomime 18 hours a day, seven days a week. After graduation, he became a movie stunt coordinator and, in 1976, starred in a John Woo feature that flopped.

Disheartened, he moved in with his parents in Australia, where his father cooked for the U.S. Embassy. Chan soon returned to Hong Kong, promising his father he would give up show business if he didn't become a star within 24 months.

"At that time," Chan recalls, "everybody so serious. Director would say, 'Jackie, don't smile, don't make funny face. Be tough.' But that's not me. I always the most naughty in my class."

So with director Woo-Ping Yuan, who would later create the stunt sequences in "The Matrix," Chan devised a subversive approach to the status quo. "Everything at that time was Bruce Lee. So we decide, we'll do the opposite. We be more fancy, more pretty, more comedy." Chan springs to his toes, suddenly moving as light as a ballet dancer. "When Bruce Lee kick high, I kick low. Where he goes 'arrgh' "--Chan scowls fiercely--"I go 'whoosh!' " Chan bugs his eyes comically, feigning fright.

Asian audiences ate it up in 1978, when Chan starred in his first hit, "Snake in the Eagle's Shadow," followed by "Drunken Master." By the mid-'80s, Chan called the shots as director, producer, star and stunt choreographer of his films. Working 12-hour days, gulping down bits of rice in place of lunch breaks, Chan understood exactly what his fans wanted and knew how to deliver it.

But in America, nobody knew Jackie Chan. That changed in 1996, when New Line dubbed his Hong Kong film "Rumble in the Bronx" in English and released it domestically.

Paul Dergarabedian of Exhibitor Relations Inc., which tracks box office trends, remembers a screening of that movie at a 1995 exhibitors convention. "People were just overwhelmed. The movie itself was kind of cheesy, but Jackie was undeniable." "Rumble" was No. 1 in its opening weekend, earning $10 million. Hollywood came calling.

Chan remembers, "All the scripts come in and I say, 'I'm not going to do this, I'm not going to do that.' My manager tells me, 'If you never try, you never know. You should do this one.' That was 'Rush Hour,' then, boom, success, even though I didn't like the movie. I still don't like the movie."

He doesn't like the film that put him on the map outside of Asia and grossed $226 million worldwide? "I don't like the way I speak English, and I don't know what Chris Tucker is saying," Chan replies. "The movie exciting, the people smiling, and audiences like it, so it's OK, but it's American-style: more dialogue, more drama, a little bit fighting. If you see my Hong Kong movies, you know what happens: Bam bam bam, always Jackie Chan-style, me, 10 minutes of fighting."

Last year, Chan, Tucker and director Brett Rattner reunited for "Rush Hour 2." Rolf Mittweg, New Line's president of worldwide distribution and marketing, hopes to seal a deal for "Rush Hour 3," and no wonder. "Rush Hour" and its sequel grossed about $550 million worldwide. Roughly half the revenue came from foreign territories.

"The 'Rush Hour' movies are much the same as 'Lethal Weapon' because they don't take themselves so seriously," Mittweg says. "Sometimes action movies go overboard with the violence. Action comedies are much more digestible."

Since "Rush Hour," Chan has alternated between Hollywood projects and his own Hong Kong-based productions. "In Asia, they like the old way," Chan says.

Poshek Fu, author of "The Cinema of Hong Kong" and professor of cinema studies at the University of Illinois, says the Hollywood-ization of Jackie Chan has disappointed some purists. "The American movies show off more of Jackie's comic aspect, but it seems like he's sometimes upstaged by his co-stars, and there's less and less action. I hear from people in Hong Kong who are not too excited about his American films. What we miss now is the sheer brilliance of his stunts, because in his early films, the martial arts scenes were tremendous."

The numbers tell the story. Chan says, " 'Rush Hour' 1 in Hong Kong makes $12 million. Then my Hong Kong movie 'Accidental Spy,' $45 million. 'Shanghai Noon' in Asia, almost $18 million, but then I do 'Gorgeous' in Hong Kong--$35 million. So every year I do one or two American movies, and then I make Jackie Chan-style movie for my old fans."

For young fans, there's "Jackie Chan Adventures," which begins its third season Saturday on Kids WB (partly owned by Tribune Co., which also owns the Los Angeles Times). It's the top-rated TV series among boys 2 to 11 in the United States, and foreign distributor Columbia TriStar Television International reports "tremendous popularity" for the show in England, Germany, Italy, Spain, Israel, South America and the Far East.

Rich, famous and scandal-free, save for a 1999 admission that he may have fathered a daughter with Hong Kong actress Elaine Ng, Chan rarely takes a day off. After completing "The Tuxedo," Chan filmed "High Binders" in Ireland. It's set to open next year.

In winter 2003, "Shanghai Knights" will be released by Columbia. He's remaking "Around the World in 80 Days" and produces films in Hong Kong, where he lives with his wife, former Taiwan movie star Lin Feng-chiao, and their teenage son, Jackson.

With nearly 100 movies under his black belt, what makes Jackie run?

For the first time in more than an hour, Chan pauses.

Then: "I want people to remember me," he says. "One day, I hope the history book will read, 'So and so, John Wayne, so and so, Bruce Lee, oh, Jackie Chan, look, he do so many things.' Even now, the young kids still see Buster Keaton movies or Harold Lloyd. So I hope one day, they might go, 'There's Harold Lloyd, there's Jackie Chan.' Yes, that's why I'm here, in this life."

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Hugh Hart is a regular contributor to Calendar.

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