In Chinese Zodiac, Jackie Chan finds himself strapped into a skate suit – essentially a padded outfit covered in the tiny wheels you’d find on a pair of in-line skates – and hurtling down a winding mountain road. Even in the context of a fanciful action comedy, it looks insanely dangerous, but this is par for the course for Jackie Chan, who’s spent the best part of his five-decade-long career performing outrageous stunts in a string of action classics, among them Drunken Master, Project A, Police Story, Armor Of God and Rumble In The Bronx to name just a few.
Chinese Zodiac is his latest film, and if recent reports are anything to go by, possibly his last – at least in terms of big, outlandish stunts. Having enjoyed a long and astonishingly successful career despite his habit of throwing himself off high places and insisting on performing his own action set-pieces, Mr Chan is finally planning to tone down the stunts and concentrate on his other prodigous talents: acting, writing, directing, producing, singing – the list goes on.
But wait: when we sat down to speak to a sparkly-eyed, incredibly animated Jackie Chan (complete with natty hat), he seemed less certain about his impending retirement than we’d expected. Expressive and exciteable whenever he starts talking about stunts – his chatter is peppered with sound effects, like someone reading out a comic book – he suddenly becomes solemn and thoughtful when our conversation turns to putting his stunt work aside. Chan insists that he can’t stop working because the new projects keep lining up at his desk, but just from the enthusiasm in his voice, we get the impression that part of him doesn’t really want to stop at all.
So as Chinese Zodiac arrives on disc in the UK, here’s the action icon himself, talking about that breathtaking downhill set-piece, his huge line-up of forthcoming films, and a brief reflection on the film that made his name all over the world – the action classic, Police Story.
Congratulations on the film, first of all. The downhill sequence at the beginning was amazing. I was wondering if you could talk a bit about how you devised and executed that.
Two years ago, a colleague showed me a video of the guy from Paris [Jean-Yves Blondeau, inventor of the skate suit] demonstrating in Korea. As soon as I saw it, I went, “Ah! That would be good for my movie.” But I kept it a secret. In my notebook, there are so many things that I keep a secret, then when Rush Hour starts, or Shanghai Noon starts, I think, “What’s suitable for my movie?”
So this one, Chinese Zodiac, I thought [the skate suit] would be good for the opening scene. So I flew to Paris and met that guy, and trained for one month. Then, when I started shooting, I brought him up to help me choreograph it. But we did things he’d never done before, like going under cars. He was [makes reluctant face], but I said, “Yes. We need to do something [special].”
For the long shots, he stood in for me, but in every close-up, I’m doing it for myself. It was fun. I think I did the right thing.
It looks incredibly dangerous. Was it as dangerous as it looks on screen?
It was really dangerous. We had to block off the whole mountain, just to make sure there were no cars coming down. Because when we started, for me, it was very hard to stop. You’re just, “Whoosh!” Fast! Fast! Fast!
The funny thing is, whenever you turn to the side, you start sliding. You hear this sound [makes a staccatto “ka-ka-ka-kaaargh” noise]. If there’s a car coming, you’re just… [indicates that you’re in quite a lot of trouble if there’s a car coming]. So this is why we made sure there was no cars.
Every 20 minutes or half hour, you have to release [the traffic], because all these cars are coming. They’re all, “honk, honk, honk!” They want to know what happened. Why have we blocked the whole mountain?
Then suddenly, when they pass by, they see Jackie Chan filming, they say, “Aaah! Yeah, yeah!” I say, “No, no. Go away!”
“But we just want to take a photo!”
“No! Go away!” [Laughs]
I took to hiding. Hiding under an umbrella like this [curls up into a little huddle, indicating an invisible umbrella covering his face]. I try not to let people know I’m filming, otherwise nothing happens.
You’ve said that this is going to be your last big action film, with your own major stunts. Is that still true?
[Sighs] Uhh, yeah. Because I can tell I’m not young anymore. Because I got hurt in [Chinese Zodiac] – a painting fell down and almost crushed my back. Boom. Then of course, I pretend nothing’s wrong. I just sit to one side. Suddenly, something comes into my mind: “I don’t want to sit in a wheelchair for the rest of my life.”
When should I stop? I think now is a good time to stop. That this should be my last action movie. But when I was at the Cannes Film Festival, and people asked me about it, I started talking a little bit, and then said, “It’s my last BIG action movie”. Because I still love action. I keep testing myself. I believe that for the next five years I can still keep going, I can still move. I’m just counting to see how far I can go.
I just finished a movie [Dragon Blade] in the desert with John Cusack and Adrien Brody. It’s about the ancient world, about how Roman soldiers got lost in China, and we do a lot of action. But it’s different. We don’t need big stunts, it’s just [indicates punching] “Pow, pow, pow!” And knife fighting.
The next movie, we start at the end of this month… I’m non-stop. [It’s called] Skiptrace [with Seann William-Scott]. I chase one of the thieves. The CIA are looking for him, the Hong Kong police, the Chinese police, the Russian mafia. I have to chase him from Russia, Macau, Hong Kong, Siberia. We can’t take the train, plane, car. We can only walk. So the whole thing is lots and lots of action.
Then I have Karate Kid II. Now we’re talking about Rush Hour 4, Shanghai Dawn...
So you’re not slowing down, then!
Well, I want to slow down, but the projects keep coming. And there are some projects I really like, like somebody mentioned China Man, and Civilian. Sooner or later you’ll hear the news. Those are two scripts that I really liked. They’re for me – they really wrote something for me. They’re different from Rush Hour.
Then this morning I did hear – the office called – Sly [Stallone] wants me for Expendables 4. I said, “Okay.” Because they already asked me to be in two and three, but I refused. Well, I didn’t refuse, but I said, “Sly, can’t we just do you and me? Not just a bunch of people and me only coming out for five minutes.” Because then the audience is, “Oh!” And then I’m gone.
So if I’m in Expendables 4, I want it to be me and him – then it might be interesting. Otherwise you just come out for five minutes.
It’s just a cameo.
Yeah. So I want to slow down, but the projects keep coming! Chinese Zodiac was so successful in Asia, and right now I’m writing the script for Zodiac II.
I think Zodiac II… [pauses for dramatic effect] will be my last big action movie! [Laughs]
Sometimes I just wonder when I should stop, and tell the world, “No more action.” I just don’t know when. When’s a good time? When’s a good moment? I don’t know.
Some day I should, but if Stallone can still do action, then I think I still can. Stallone’s how old? Sixty-five?
He’s slightly older than Arnold Schwarzenegger, isn’t he? Arnold’s 67, and I think Sly’s 68.
[Genuinely surprised] So he’s older than [Arnold]? He’s gonna be 68?
I believe so.
You’re fine! You have years left in you.
I’m fine! [Laughs]
No, my kind of action’s different. My kind of action’s different than Schwarzenegger or Stallone. Stallone’s more punching and gun fighting. My kind of action’s more physical.
Your screen persona’s quite different, too. You’re the everyman, the underdog everyone roots for.
My last physical action… [starts pummelling a fist into an open hand]… yeah, that sounds good… then I can do gun fights and punch. Good! [Another punch]
Looking back on your earlier films, what are your memories of making Police Story? That was the first film I saw you in, and I still remember being blown away by it. I was stunned by the stunts in that.
You should look back at my older movies.
Oh I did after that. Drunken Master, The Young Master…
Ah, right. When directors copied Bruce Lee, none of the films were a success. I realised, I have to be Jackie Chan. I can’t be Bruce Lee – there is only one Bruce Lee. So I learned. I watched Bruce Lee and what he did. He became a superhero, I became the opposite. He kicked high, I kicked low. He punched like this, I punched that way. He was serious, so I did more comedy.
Suddenly, boom! One movie – audiences turned up to see my movie, because it was different. So from that time, when I made Drunken Master, when it was a big success, within one month you saw Drunken Monkey, Drunken Cat…
Then I did something different again – The Young Master. The Young Master was a big success, broke all-time records. But because I made that film, within nine months, one year, someone made something similar. So by the time I tried to make The Young Master II, there was already Young Sister, Young Brother. I was just, [exasperated sigh].
So I thought, okay. The next time, I never mentioned what I was doing next. I made Police Story, and they weren’t expecting it. Not like Drunken Master, or Snake In The Eagle’ Shadow, where they could copy it right away. So Project A, Project A II, Police Story I, II and III, I never mention what kind of story they are. I always want to lead in action movies, so I try to think of something new each time.
Police Story was really my big breakthrough, where even Hollywood was shocked. “What kind of person would do this? Is he still alive?” I really risked my life to make that movie.
It was stunning. And scenes from it were copied quite a lot afterwards.
Yeah, Sly copied me. Bad Boys. Even Mel Gibson. Everyone copied it. I copied Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd. I don’t think it’s really copying…
Inspiration, that’s it!
Jackie Chan, it’s been a genuine pleasure.
Chinese Zodiac is out on Blu-ray and DVD now, from Universal Pictures (UK).