Welcome to Misleading Men, a regular feature where we look back at the actors who ruled Hollywood for one brief shining moment.
On November 12, Jackie Chan will receive an Honorary Award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. It’s the same folks in charge of the Oscars, but this award (often called an “Honorary Oscar”) recognizes artists with an influential body of work — think of it as the Academy’s career-achievement award. Normally, this honor — which in past years has gone to everyone from Spike Lee to Steve Martin — focuses on talents working within the Hollywood industry. But what’s remarkable about Chan is that his greatness comes primarily from his work outside the United States. Forget Rush Hour; there’s a whole other Chan to be discovered.
Born in 1954 in Hong Kong, Chan was the child of working-class parents who did menial jobs at the French embassy. At least, he thought so: Later in life, Chan would learn that his mother had been an opium smuggler and his father a spy — both had also, according to a 2014 Guardian profile, “abandoned previous families, his father leaving two sons, his mother two daughters, in mainland China when they moved to Hong Kong in 1949.” Around the time Chan was 7, his father moved to Australia — ostensibly employed by the American embassy — and sent his son to the China Drama Academy, where he developed an interest in performing and, more importantly, martial arts. After being unhappy at traditional schools, he had found his calling: “I couldn’t resist laying my hands on the weapons in this corner, nor could I take my eyes off the group of youngsters happily somersaulting over in the other corner,” he once wrote, according to Dying for Action: The Life and Films of Jackie Chan. “What I felt then must be what kids feel now going to Disneyland — a perfect place for a tough kid like me.”
China Drama Academy was incredibly strict, run by teachers who weren’t afraid to hit the students, but it instilled in Chan an appreciation for discipline and perfectionism. By the early 1970s, he was landing small parts in movies, as well as performing stunts that drew on his acrobatics training. After hooking up with Willie Chan, a producer who worked in the Hong Kong film industry and became the actor’s manager, Jackie started getting starring roles.
Groomed to be the next Bruce Lee, Chan struggled for years in action movies that failed to make a dent commercially. Finally, 1978’s double shot of Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow and Drunken Master changed his fortunes, helping to establish the signature Jackie Chan persona. The trick was, ironically, deciding not to emulate Lee, who had died in 1973. Instead, Chan came up with his own kung fu style that emphasized a comedic touch.
Chan’s action scenes were athletic but also playful and balletic. You reveled at the lighthearted, ingenious choreography as if you were watching a musical or a silent comedy. No wonder that those movies’ stars were his inspiration. As Chan once explained, “Every time you see [Buster] Keaton, it’s ‘How can he do that?’ Every time you see Gene Kelly dancing — ‘How can he do that?’ I believe a hundred years later people still won’t know how they did it. That’s why I do my own stunts.”
Which is how we end up with funny fight scenes like this one from Drunken Master…
….or this terrific mano-a-mano battle from 1984’s Wheels on Meals.
Because Chan eagerly put himself in danger for the good of an action sequence, he sustained plenty of injuries, and his litany of on-set calamities is almost as famous as his movies. He’s broken just about every bone, suffered hearing loss and undergone brain surgery — plus, he walks around with a metal plate in his head. That’s only added to Chan’s legend, with the star wisely adding blooper reels at the end of his films to highlight all the miscues and near-disasters that have befallen him during shooting. If Hollywood action heroes are beloved because they seem indestructible, Chan is all the more amazing because of how profoundly human he seems — the kung fu master next door with the big, happy grin.
Still, Chan dreamed of Hollywood success. In the early 1980s, he struck out with Warner Bros.’ The Big Brawl, although he was part of The Cannonball Run and its sequel, which were popular but hardly adequate vehicles to highlight Chan’s talent. He did his best to promote himself in the States, but he quickly became disillusioned by the American entertainment press. As he told Important Magazine, “All the same questions … ‘Man, what’s your name again? Are you [the] new Bruce Lee?’ It makes me very tired.”
After 1985’s The Protector, another box-office dud, Chan gave up and returned to Hong Kong, enjoying some of his biggest hits with Police Story and Armour of God 2. Chan may have “only” been doing action movies, but because he enjoyed far more creative freedom in his homeland than in the U.S. — getting to write, direct and choreograph his films — they had a freewheeling artistry that’s rare in the genre. In fact, if that had been the final destination for his career, it would have produced an oeuvre any action filmmaker would be proud to lay claim to.
But Chan got a second chance with America when New Line Cinema picked up his 1995 action comedy Rumble in the Bronx, tapping into an audience of college students and film buffs who worshipped his little-seen-in-the-States Hong Kong movies. (Indicative of his cult appeal in the U.S., Rumble in the Bronx’s end credits featured a song by the punk group Ash, “Kung Fu,” which contained the admiring lines, “Last night Jackie Chan came around / I played pool with him and we hung out.”)
But American superstardom didn’t come until 1998’s Rush Hour, a buddy-cop comedy that was a wackier version of Lethal Weapon, pairing the buttoned-down Chan with a motor-mouthed rising star named Chris Tucker. Tucker had worked with director Brett Ratner on his previous film, Money Talks, which helped launch the stand-up comic. Rush Hour made Tucker’s name, but Ratner had to sell Chan, flying to South Africa to convince the venerable star that he was a fan and wouldn’t interfere the way past American filmmakers had. Chan agreed, playing the straight man constantly confused by and annoyed with Tucker’s hotshot cop.
The first Rush Hour got plenty of comic mileage out of the duo’s racial and cultural tensions, proving to be a mammoth hit — it was the seventh-highest-grossing movie of 1998. Its 2001 sequel did even better, pulling in $347 million worldwide. But the films treated Tucker like the main character, reducing Chan to the role of the chop-socky foreigner who spoke funny English. You couldn’t help feeling slightly bad for the icon — even though it was fun to watch Chan do his kung-fu-ballet thing so gracefully in major American movies.
From there, Chan worked alongside Owen Wilson in Shanghai Noon and Shanghai Knights. In 2007, there was a third Rush Hour, a franchise about which he seemed less and less enthused. During a 2012 interview, Chan had little good to say about the Rush Hour films, admitting, “I have reasons to do each film, I have something to say. Unlike Rush Hour — there was no reason [in making it], you just give me the money and I’m fine. I dislike Rush Hour the most, but ironically it sold really well in the U.S. and Europe.”
Perhaps that response was a byproduct of the fact that Tucker was given more and more of the spotlight in the sequels. Plus, before Rush Hour 3 got made, Chan commented that the sequel’s holdup was because of Tucker, saying, “He wants too much power. The movie company hasn’t obliged. He wants final editing rights and the final look at the movie and so on … How many movies has he made? Two movies have already made him very famous and made him a lot of money … He needs to learn slowly.” As an actor who had grown up poor and had to fight his way first into the Hong Kong film industry and then Hollywood, Chan had reason to be annoyed by Tucker’s behavior.
That impression probably wasn’t helped by Chan’s experience working on the first Rush Hour, where his young costar initially showed up to the set late. In 2013, Chan recalled that on Rush Hour, “Seven o’clock call, I was there 6:30 … He’d come at 11 o’clock. … One day he comes to my hotel room. ‘Jackie, can you come later? You make me look bad.’ I said, ‘No, that’s my job.’”
Chan’s dedication to doing the work — treating his craft with the utmost seriousness — never undercut what an absolute, effortless blast his best films are to watch. The Academy’s recognition of Chan speaks to his decades of dedication to delivering trailblazing action choreography, making kung fu films not just visceral but joyful. His influence is everywhere — from the action stars who emerged in his wake to the rap artists who have written songs in his honor. He risked his life for our entertainment, and he has no regrets — no matter the bruises he accrued along the way.
A few years ago, he made Chinese Zodiac, an action film that he also directed and co-wrote. In an interview, he gave no indication that he was ready to slow down, even though, now in his 60s, his body had other ideas. “I want to do it, but my body tells me to stop,” he said. “And after I had an accident, my back really hurt. Then I sat down on the side, thinking to myself, ‘How long can I keep doing this?’” He expressed envy for modern action stars, who benefit from the use of CG to limit their chances for injury. But Chan wasn’t about to change. “I just don’t have that kind of talent,” he said. “I don’t know special effects. I don’t know computers. I don’t even know how to type. I only know the stupid way, the traditional way, using film. I really jump from the window. That’s all … I know what I do.”