Watching Jackie Chan in HD

Growing up, I was always of aware of Jackie Chan. I was in kindergarten when Rush Hour hit theaters, though my parents were prudent enough to keep me from seeing it. Chan’s “Hollywood” films were, nonetheless, on my radar. VHS rentals during grade school would air trailers for Shanghai Noon and The Medallion; one tape previewed The Tuxedo a dozen years before that film became an inside joke among my hip friends. Though I distinctly recall seeing Around the World in 80 Days at United Artists Cinema 6 (recently shut down) with my grandmother, I remember nothing of that outing save the Galaga machine in the lobby.

By the time Rush Hour 3 was released, I had begun constructing a taste in movies, though my understanding was still shallow, my values mundane. I appreciated the wit with which Chan performed his intricate fight scenes, often dispatching foes with such comedic effect that an upturned-bench to the face landed like a punchline. The Guinness Book of World Records had informed my youth of Chan’s insistence on performing his own stunts, how his many injuries left him blacklisted by insurance companies, and that a scene from his early film Dragon Lord was shot 2900 times before Chan approved the take. Such was the stuff of legend, but this myth was still being written.

The Forbidden Kingdom came out in April 2008 following a protracted advertising campaign touting the first-ever collaboration between Chan and fellow martial artist Jet Li. Though that movie met a more subdued reception than anticipated, it provided publicity for Kung Fu Panda, released that summer. Here it was, the big easy: this Dreamworks animated blockbuster, in which Chan voiced Master Monkey of The Furious Five, grossed over 600 million dollars, ensuring that Jack Black would never need to make a good movie again. Chan also signed on for the sequels and spin-offs, with the trilogy eventually generating over 1.8 billion dollars at box office.

Entering ninth grade in the fallout of Kung Fu Panda’s success, my exposure to Jackie Chan was at an all-time high, and I had developed a genuine interest in the man’s films and career. Yet I derived little satisfaction from his English-language oeuvre, facile and crassly commercial, starkly at odds with his Cantonese canon. These American movies were hollow contrivances, incomplete simulacra, Chan’s abilities abused and taken for granted. I wanted the Jackie Chan who meticulously choreographed his fights, who jumped through windows onto motorcycles, who broke his bones to deliver a compelling product.

That winter, I gained access to a private collection of Jackie Chan movies spanning his entire career, a near-complete catalog starting with Cub Tiger from Kwang Tung and ending at the present day. These DVDs and VHS tapes were playable, though the condition and quality varied greatly, both with the medium and the material’s lineage. Many of the older tapes had what we today refer to as hardcoded subtitles, the English text indelibly part of the film, while the DVDs often contained optional subtitles or even English dubbed audio tracks. Those details didn’t matter much to me. I watched as much as I could.

Over the years, it would come up in conversation that one of my friends had also seen Who Am I or Project A , or that I would inform someone wearing a 36 Crazyfists t-shirt of that band name’s origin. Jackie Chan’s body of work impressed me, and I kept up with his career; Shinjuku Incident came out in 2009, and was gritty for him at the time, much darker and more violent than his then recent output. I observed this with interest, but his subsequent movies were a step back. The Spy Next Door, co-starring Billy Ray Cyrus and George Lopez, couldn’t help but fail (despite being filmed in beautiful New Mexico). Then, The Karate Kid was released, garnering big wins on the teen choice awards circuit, and setting up Jaden Smith to become the insufferably vapid joke we know and love. When 1911, Chan’s hundredth film, released to coincide with the hundredth anniversary of the Xinhai Revolution, and which Chan co-directed and starred in, sucked, it was time to jump ship.

Jackie Chan became an actor that I had “finished,” having viewed all their principal and secondary works: another Frankie Muniz, Andy Kaufman, Danny Masterson (the latter’s sexual assault investigation is currently generating as much buzz as his new “comeback” sitcom). My knowledge of Chan’s life and career were relegated to cocktail party boilerplate, a topic on which to banter if another party should inadvertently broach the subject. In times of ill temper, I veered toward condescension (“I just ADORE him in The Medallion“), but rarely to the point of implacability (“anyone who considers Drunken Master superior to Drunken Master 2 is a buffoon”). The average American viewer’s Jackie Chan bore no resemblance to the artist I so enjoyed. Cloaked in a protective sheath of self-aware irony, I alienated myself from the general populace. Their world wasn’t meant for people like me.

Time passed; Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter, and Spring. As the wounds of disappointment with society slowly scabbed over, so too did my embittered cynicism gradually yield to demilitarized complaisance. I got a job, and, later, a girlfriend. We were going to go back to school together, we told ourselves. Watching movies contented us, and for a time, things seemed as though they could go on like this forever. When, in the course of our recreational consumption of film, the topic of Jackie Chan naturally (if not inevitably) arose, I decided it was time to revisit the old classics. My girlfriend, whose knowledge of Chan exceeds that of her peers, agreed; together we returned to the hallowed era from 1976 to 1996, when men were men, and Jackie Chan beat the crap out of them.

During a similar Burt Reynolds phase a couple months earlier, The Cannonball Run had come across my desk, a movie which called to mind memories of childhood, when my step-mother’s apprehension of “T ‘n’ A” failed to penetrate my naïveté. Upon viewing it anew, my girlfriend and I begrudgingly noted that the film is rife with sexism. Unlike the garden variety machismo of White Lightning or Smokey and the Bandit, Cannonball Run is jarringly misogynistic; Farrah Fawcett’s character, Pamela Glover, is kidnapped at the start of the race and held captive in a moving vehicle until she eventually succumbs to Stockholm Syndrome. Wikipedia’s plot description for the movie currently reads “the very spooky Dr. Van Helsing (Jack Elam) and his huge hypodermic needle are also in the ambulance to “help” keep Glover quiet.” The quotation marks around the word “help” are the least questionable part of that sentence.

But Chan’s screen time in Cannonball Run is so limited and utterly irrelevant, that was all far out of mind when we sat down to view Armour of God earlier this week. This movie is best known for having almost been Chan’s last, when a stunt did not go as planned and the actor fell five meters and cracked his skull on a rock, requiring surgery to remove bone fragments from his brain. Since then, a plastic plug has sealed the permanent hole in Chan’s skull. This was much on our minds as the Indiana Jones inspired adventure trawled through tropes and triteness, never as exciting as the film’s hazardous backstory. The female characters serve mostly as objects to be kidnapped and rescued, fought over, or brainwashed to execute a hidden agendum. Just like Jackie Chan before they loaded him on the stretcher, this movie couldn’t get off the ground.

Our next selection was Dragons Forever, another late-eighties Hong Kong production, directed by and co-starring Sammo Hung. Yuen Wah plays a cigar-puffing crime boss,  stealing each scene in which he appears, while Chan is “Jackie,” a womanizing lawyer defending the criminal organization in their case against the owner of a fishery. Jackie coerces the cousin of the plaintiff into dating him, and the climax of the film occurs when the judge forces that woman, under oath, to answer whether or not she loves Jackie (this comes after the judge explains that he would not allow that question if asked between two men, as that would be unnatural). Going in, my girlfriend and I were looking forward to the final fight sequence, which is notorious for the amount of broken glass, number of camera angles, and intensity of action, as well as its duration. Sure enough, the fighting was cool, but served only to distract from the dubious plot devices.

On Blu-ray, I had expected to see things I hadn’t before, and so far these discoveries had been striking. How had I never before realized that Mr. Nice Guy takes place in Melbourne? The campy costumes and disposable scenery are so garish in 1080p, the Australian accents so crisp. I liked the part where Jackie Chan rolls over the blade of a circular saw, but I got most worked up over the tokenism of Lakisha, portrayed by the unskilled Karen McLymon (whose next most recent IMDB credit is as a production assistant on the TV series Basketball Wife in 2013). What are otherwise fantastic stunts from Chan are undermined by the movie’s overwhelming cheesiness and the supporting cast’s stunning incompetence.

Another revelation came from Rumble in the Bronx, which I was excited to watch in its uncut form, with the original audio track. Turns out, the movie was filmed in Canada. Somehow during earlier viewings I had missed the occasional glimpses of mountains that have no place in the New York skyline. My fondness for this movie stemmed from the scene where Jackie Chan jumps onto a moving boat, breaking his ankle in the process. He completed the film with his cast decorated to resemble a shoe. Sadly, that same dedication wasn’t employed creating the female characters in this movie. The love interest happens to be a defenseless woman, one of the “damsels in distress” of yore, ballast whose inconvenience is outweighed by her sex appeal. Hold on, didn’t we see this before?

One doesn’t always realize when their perspective shifts, but watching Jackie Chan in HD was an eye-opening experience. I had always criticized his American movies for being cash grabs and lacking substance, a position which, for the most part, remains unchanged. His older films held symbolic significance in my eyes; Police Story, a classic of the action genre, testament to Chan’s ambition; The Young Master, renowned for bringing Chan to a new height of celebrity; Project A Part II, which won in the category of Best Action Choreography at the 1988 Hong Kong Film Awards. Now, I can’t help but concede that none of these movies are perfect.

Perhaps this has led me to reflect on the meaning of the word “appreciate.” I had always thought of it as a verb to use when describing something I like, but it means much more than that. To truly appreciate requires acknowledging inherent flaws, reconciling the good with the bad, making peace and coming to terms. It’s about acceptance, and is guided by our current frame of mind, which evolves even though the object does not. Jackie Chan’s movies will always contain the exciting action and fighting I enjoyed in my youth, just as they’ll always be endowed with social politics from a different time and culture, which I recognize only now. I am a different viewer each time I watch a movie.

As my girlfriend and I rewatch more movies together, I will be keen to pick up on the nuance and subtlety heretofore unnoticed. We’ve acquired quite the appetite for film, and our postprandial conversations are enlightening. Last night we watched an anime adaptation of Han Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid from 1975, following the original storyline more closely than the later Disney version in that the princess dies at the end. It’s interesting what’s considered acceptable for American audiences; the taming down, the editing out, the debasing. Movies are complex, and understanding them requires work. At some age I started to see the bigger picture, though it took me a long time to appreciate it.

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