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JACKIE CHAN RESEARCH PROJECT


The Happy Warrior
Meet 'Shanghai Noon's' Jackie Chan, a perpetual-motion picture star

By LEWIS BEALE
Daily News Staff Writer

New York Daily News article

Jackie Chan is his own live-action comic strip.

Up close, Chan has the kinetic energy of a particularly manic superhero. He speaks in a rapid-fire manner — punctuated with the occasional sound effect — and loves to illustrate what he's talking about with cartoon-like movements.

 
The Duke of Hazards: Jackie Chan
Chan, whose latest film, "Shanghai Noon," opens on Friday, is a personality-filled, cute-as-a-button action star. He's so full of energy, dialogue balloons practically form above his head containing words like THWACK! BLAT! KA-POW!!!

For example, asked why he never uses a gun in his films, Chan flails his arms and blurts:

"I don't like guns, they're too violent. There are so many kids who learn from me. After I did 'Drunken Master' [in 1978], I would notice kids on the street [imitating me]."

He gets up, wiggles his arms around and demonstrates the woozy, drunken kung-fu moves he made famous.

"I knew then how many children went to see my movies."

So he made sure that, despite all the mayhem in his movies, there would be no guns in them.

"Action films. There's a dilemma," he admits. "A lot of people think they're violent. But you look at my films, it's like dancing — boom boom, bum, boom boom bum bum."

The live Jackie Chan seems a lot like the character he has played in more than 70 films — a slightly bemused Everyman who gets into all sorts of strange situations, fights off a host of evildoers, yet emerges from every encounter with the clean-cut demeanor of a choir boy.

"Jackie's got a big heart," says "Shanghai Noon" director Tom Dey. "He's very generous. He's got a very open face, you see his emotions, and he's accessible. He's one of the last silent-film stars, and I think that's why he appeals to so many people. He's an incredible physical comedian, and makes you think of Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd."

Leaping the Ocean

The 46-year-old Chan has been a star for so long, it seems he's been around forever. But his celebrity was mostly an Asian phenomenon for many years. And even though Chan had been trying to break into the American market since the early '80s, he never really connected with Stateside audiences until his 1996 hit, "Rumble in the Bronx." Chan then solidified his superstar status with "Rush Hour," the buddy comedy he made with motor-mouthed comic Chris Tucker, which grossed more than $140 million in this country.

Still, Chan's fame in the U.S. was confined to Chinatown video rentals and cult status for much too long. His small core of fans raved about Chan's balletic moves, awesome stunts and comedic timing — he was the anti-Bruce Lee, a star who created a genre by combining martial arts and yuks.

Along the way, Chan's life and career — more interesting than any of his films — attained the status of legend. And the many stories that sprouted up around him (some true, some not) say a lot about Jackie Chan, the person and the artist.

Legend No. 1: Chan's parents were so poor, his father tried to sell him to the doctor who delivered him.

True. Chan was born in Hong Kong, where his father worked as a cook in the French Embassy, earning $45 a month. Chan was born by Caesarean section, and his parents couldn't afford the surgery bill, so they offered to give the infant to the doctor as payment.

"It was 200-something [dollars] U.S.," says Chan, "but a friend of my father said, 'No, it's your only son, don't sell him.' So they borrowed the money, paid the hospital bill, and my father promised within two years he'd pay it back. He ate dog food for two years [to raise the cash]."

Legend No. 2: Chan is illiterate.

True until surprisingly recently. Chan's parents emigrated to Australia when he was small; when he was 7, they sent him to the Chinese Opera Institute in Hong Kong, where he trained for 10 years in the techniques of Peking opera — dancing, mime, acrobatics, martial arts. The regimen proved invaluable for his film career, but because it did not include academic subjects, Chan emerged from the school at age 17 unable to read or write.

In the 1980s, when he began directing his own films, Chan finally learned to read. But he can still barely write, and composes screenplays by dictating them.

"Now I can write a little bit, and I read a lot," says Chan. "There was always a writer with me in the old days. Even when I came to America, I would say, 'Write this, write this.' I just [points to his brain] got by."

Legends No. 3 and 4: Chan once had eye surgery to make him more acceptable to Western audiences. He is also partially deaf in one ear.

False and true. The eye surgery came about because of a failed stunt. Same for the deafness. This should come as no surprise to Chan's fans, who savor every outrageous on-camera feat the 5-foot-9 wizard performs.

The Duke of Hazards

Chan does all his own stunts. No doubles, no digital tricks and, in many cases, no safety net. This means that no company will insure his pictures (although, given his box-office clout, he has no trouble getting them financed) and has led to a series of accidents (including one that ended in brain surgery) no other major star has had to endure.

In "Police Story" (1985), Chan hitched a ride on a speeding bus by hooking an umbrella onto a window frame and hanging on while fighting off bad guys. In "Armour of God II" (1990), he drove a motorcycle off a pier, leaping off in midair to land in a net hanging from a passing crane.

Even in "Shanghai Noon," a cheerful period Western in which Chan plays an imperial Chinese soldier sent to Nevada to recover a kidnapped princess, he fights off Indians by performing Tarzan-like maneuvers through a forest, and battles bad guys in a saloon using an enormous set of moose antlers.

Chan says there is really no secret to his action sequences, most of which he choreographs himself (he started in the business as a martial-arts director and stunt coordinator).

"When the director asked me, 'What do you want to fight?' I say I don't know. 'What scene do you have?' 'Oh, we have a scene in a bar.' 'Okay, you dress [the set] first, then we go in.'

"Okay, there's a table. I've been fighting with tables for so many movies now, I'm not gonna use a table.

"Oh, there's a long bar! And moose antlers. That's something new — I try to make every movie different."

Chan is the first to admit that age, and multiple injuries, have slowed him down some, that he can't do the dangling-from-a-helicopter or falling-from-a-building tricks that made him famous.

"I still do big stunts," he says, "but when I do them now, I do something reasonable, not like before — jump, jump, jump, jump. Like in 'Shanghai Noon,' there's nothing you can do [because the film is set in the 1880s], there are no helicopters, so you just do the normal things. Like in the fight with the Indians, I just use the trees, the water. But in 'Rush Hour II' [which begins filming this summer] — there's a big stunt coming. Now I'm just more prepared."

Some Things Don't Translate

Chan is big enough in America that last week he was a guest on MTV's "Total Request Live," and hosted yesterday's edition of "Saturday Night Live." When he walks around in midtown, truck drivers call out to him as they pass by and pedestrians rush up asking for autographs. Yet he is even bigger in Asia — and loves to segue back and forth, making movies that appeal specifically to each market.

In fact, this is one of the big lessons Chan has learned since he became an international star — not everything he does travels well. Most Westerners remain turned off by the broadness and slapstick of Chan's Chinese films — "I had to filter out what was too broad for American audiences," says director Dey. And because of "Rush Hour," which didn't do that well overseas, Chan realizes that Asians don't get a lot of American humor. The ethnic dialogue in that movie, for example, was lost on them.

"They didn't get [Chris Tucker's] dialogue [in 'Rush Hour']: 'What's up, n-----?' In Asia, Chris Tucker, the director and I went to the premiere. The whole theater was quiet. When Chris Tucker was speaking, they were very quiet. Nobody was smiling."

Chan feels that "Shanghai Noon" may fall victim to the same syndrome.

"In Asia, they will not get this kind of 'How, kemo sabe ' " thing, says the actor.

But having been reared in extreme poverty and subjected to an ancient Chinese training regimen that makes boot camp look like a country club, Chan doesn't have too many complaints.

What's more, he has earned the film industry's respect.

"After 20 years [in the business]," he says, "the lighting man, cameraman, director — everybody watches my films. They've been my fans for a long time. The first day [on the set of 'Shanghai Noon,' people knocked] on my door and said, 'Jackie, so honored to work with you.' "

But Chan isn't the least bit self-satisfied. He has fought for almost everything he has achieved, and knows what it's like to be in for the long run. So when Chan says he still doesn't consider himself a movie star in America, you can understand why he feels that way.

"In America, I see so many ups and downs [among movie stars]," he says. "One movie, boom. Second movie, boom. Third movie, gone. I want to see how long I can stay on top."


Original Publication Date: 05/21/2000


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