King of America
For Hong Kong action star Jackie Chan, his new hit Rush Hour is a real-life Hollywood success story
By RICHARD CORLISS
He 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 45º 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.
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October 19, 1998
MR. CHAN GOES TO HOLLYWOOD
Action idol Jackie Chan finally makes it big in Tinseltown with his new box-office smash, Rush Hour
"I'm crazy, but I won't risk my life"
American TV's most unlikely star
Which of Jackie Chan's previous movies is your favorite?
Which action hero do you think would win an on-screen battle: Jackie Chan or Jet Li?