Jackie Chan’s Hard Road to Hollywood

Jackie Chan's journey to success in American movies wasn't an easy one. We chart his story...

On paper, Jackie Chan’s long and varied career may seem like a fairly obvious trajectory. He started acting at five years old and trained under prestigious masters in drama, acrobatics, and martial arts. By seventeen, he was working as a stuntman on major Hong Kong productions and, although his early films as a lead actor weren’t successful, he hit national stardom in 1978 with Snake In Eagle’s Shadow and Drunken Master.

At the dawn of the 1980s, Jackie Chan was one of the most popular stars in Hong Kong but found himself anxious to get away from the corruption in the film industry there at the time. He decided to try his luck replicating his Eastern success in the West and, of course, the rest is history. Or so you might think. Although he would eventually become a worldwide household name, his route was, by no means, plain sailing. There were three concerted attempts to break Jackie Chan into the mainstream American market but finding the right way to present him proved trickier than it looked…

Strike One : The Big Brawl

The Big Brawl (aka Battle Creek Brawl) (1980) was Jackie’s first American adventure and its reception, both critically and commercially, was disappointing. It seemed like a wonderful idea to put writer/director Robert Clouse at the helm (the man previously responsible for breaking Bruce Lee in America with Enter The Dragon) but he just didn’t seem to know what to do with Jackie, who was – of course – a very different kind of performer.

The premise is fine. It’s 1930s Chicago and Jackie plays Jerry Kwan, a regular Joe who squares off against the local mob when his father’s restaurant is extorted. Sadly, almost every stylistic or narrative choice made in telling this simple story is the wrong one. The pacing is leaden, the dialogue and photography make everything look like a bad TV movie and nothing really progresses in a logical fashion.

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A blink-and-you’ll-miss-it Larry Drake cameo acts almost everyone else off the screen. Some scenes, like the interminable roller relay sequence, made me want to scream, they were such missed opportunities (I saw ’em rollin’, I was hatin’). When Jackie first strapped on the skates, I thought ‘YES! Now we’re gonna see some stunts!’ but instead it’s just 15 minutes of turgid, pedestrian skating footage (mostly not even by Jackie) that goes nowhere. 

The action is all stilted like that. The fights are just punches and kicks that connect badly, with little of Jackie’s trademarked acrobatics. As a martial arts film, this barely even registers – it’s more like Saturday afternoon wrestling. When the fighting moves (inexplicably and illogically) to Texas for the title brawl (a Royal Rumble style streetfight where everyone wears dungarees and hoots a lot), it plays like a bad episode of The Dukes Of Hazzard without a director to keep things under control.

In Enter The Dragon, Clouse had his finger firmly on the pulse of what action audiences liked but seemed to forget what was delivering and to whom when it came to The Big Brawl. The ingredients feel exotic and spicy – a former Playboy model (Kristine DeBell – charming, talented, utterly miscast), a major martial artist, some Chicago gangsters and dirty southern streetfighting – but the final dish is bland and tame. Far too much so for a hardcore action crowd. Yet it’s not entertaining nor goofy enough to be a family-friendly romp either. Jackie’s humour – usually such an all-round delight – is kept in check by the sterile atmosphere and it’s way too boring for kids.

I really wanted to find some love for The Big Brawl on a rewatch but it’s still not working for me. However, if we can thank it for one thing it’s that, after such a bad experience in the USA, Jackie went back to Hong Kong to write and direct some five years’ worth of his finest material…

Watch The Big Brawl on Amazon

Strike Two : The Protector

By 1985, Jackie was bigger than ever in the east and it seemed like a perfect time to have another crack at the States. This time, the audience was going to be unequivocally an adult one and the writer/director was set as James Glickenhaus, the grindhouse hero responsible for one of the true classics of New York sleazoid cinema: The Exterminator. Unfortunately, his loud, gritty, provocative style jarred badly with what made Jackie Chan’s films so effective and the end result was, again, not a hit.

Jackie plays Billy Wong, supposedly an NYPD officer, but we rarely see him do any actual police work. Instead, he’s a cop on the edge of the law, driven by an almost vigilante-esque sense of rough justice. He’ll stop at nothing to reduce crime, even if it means mass slaughter of New York’s perps and hoods. It’s not explored in the film but – unlike Jackie’s usual characters – Billy Wong is kind of a psychopath. He leaves a trail of expensive destruction wherever he goes and his monosyllabic partner Danny (played by Danny Aiello), whose primary interests are prostitutes and the Vietnam war, does nothing to stop him. Together they take on a drug kingpin known as Mr Ko (Roy Chiao) and their relentless pursuit takes them from the mean (almost post-apocalyptic) New York streets to the sweaty neon maelstrom of Hong Kong…

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Jackie has called The Protector his least favorite of the films he acted in. While it’s easy to see why he’d feel this way, it’s actually kind of awesome at times and easier to sit through than The Big Brawl. The problem is just two good filmmakers with opposing creative visions. Glickenhaus has his eye on a super-violent action/exploitation film – all gratuitous full frontal nudity and wall-to-wall bloodshed – and the ‘hero’ of the piece is a moot point. You could’ve swapped Robert Ginty in for Jackie Chan without too much impact on the end result.

Jackie, understandably, looks uncomfortable with all this. I think I nearly winced the first time he said ‘fuck’ just because I’d never heard him say it before. It’s strange seeing him so far from type, talking dirty and mowing down bad dudes with machine guns. Besides a couple of daredevil leaps and an incredible boat chase, little of Jackie’s unique stuntwork remains in the US cut (Jackie himself added a bit more kung fu for the Hong Kong market although even that’s not great), but I will admit the film’s violence has a certain blunt force appeal.

It’s an overblown ’80s Heaven – explosions galore, brutal fist fights, circular saws as weapons, blood and bullets everywhere – and Glickenhaus knows how to shoot, uh, shootings. It’s hard not to love something so unashamedly trashy and brutal, especially when it’s shot on a studio budget with superb production values. The Protectoris the kind of movie that could only ever have been made in the 1980s. As a relic of those bizarre, brash VHS halcyon days, it’s worth a look but, as a means of showing the west what Jackie Chan was capable of, it was – of course – an abject failure.

Still, once again, Jackie took away some lessons and went back to Hong Kong where he shot his own cop movie and, arguably, his masterpiece: Police Story. In fact, he went – creatively and commercially – from strength to strength and then, in 1995, revisited his American Dream…

Watch The Protector on Amazon

HOME RUN! : Rumble In The Bronx

His final chop at it didn’t just crack the American audience; it smashed them into pieces. Rumble In The Bronx finally brought – at full pelt – the colorful, high-energy style of Hong Kong action cinema into an American setting (well, technically Canadian as the whole thing is shot in ‘The Bronx’, Vancouver). At last, it was a film that was accessible to the west without losing Jackie’s unique and proudly eastern appeal.

The plot is nothing new. Jackie plays Keung, a Chinese everyman who comes to visit his uncle in New York. Uncle owns a shop in the Bronx but has decided to sell it off to a plucky young businesswoman named Elaine (Anita Mui). Keung – being a decent sort – decides to stay on and help Elaine make a go of the shop but, sadly, it falls victim to local gangs (most of whom dress like they’ve just watched The Warriors for the first time). After being beaten up and robbed, Keung decides to teach them a lesson in being better people… and, more importantly, in Chinese Kung Fu.

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Although it takes a similar vigilante-themed approach to The Big Brawl and The Protector, the focus here is on the important stuff: action. It is absolutely off the scale. The mass brawls here are fabulously choreographed. There’s something cool happening in every shot, unlike in The Big Brawl where it was just random dudes going at each other in a slap free-for-all.

These fights are some of the most acrobatic you’ll see, the car/bike stunts are ferociously dangerous (keep hold of your jaw or you’ll be searching for it under the sofa for weeks) and Jackie’s superhuman, death-defying leaps between buildings beggar belief. Of course, what’s most impressive is how he does all this with such tremendous charisma and easy humour – traits that, until now, had been kept out of his American films. There’s so much joy in this film, it’s contagious.

People have criticised the characters and the acting but I disagree with this stance. The three leads are great. Jackie, as always, flies high on charisma but the late Anita Mui was one of Hong Kong’s finest actresses (see her enormously moving performance in Rouge if you don’t believe me). She gives a charming and goofy comic turn as Elaine and hits all the right beats. Likewise, Francoise Yip’s turn as the dangerous sexpot with a heart of gold is so good, it lead to a career of being typecast as a dangerous sexpot (albeit not always one with a heart of gold). Sure, the Western actors all overact horrendously but I think it just adds to the insanity of what’s already a very heightened film. Everything feels so OTT, it’s wonderful and pitched exactly right.

As for the characters, the fact that they’re painted so broadly lends the film a strange but genuine emotional purity. Jackie plays Keung as a true hero, one whose resolve to do right is never shaken by the myriad temptations around him. There’s a risk that it could become schmaltzy (especially with Keung’s new best friend being a poor little orphan kid in a wheelchair) but instead it feels righteous. When Keung himself gets beaten up – a harrowing bottle attack early in the movie – it’s painful to watch because you want him to win so badly. This kind of pure heroic role may be almost extinct in today’s gritty action landscape, but when it’s done well it can be enormously cathartic and exhilarating to watch. For ninety minutes, you can believe someone like Keung exists, that there’s good in the world and that Jackie Chan is its agent.

Rumble In The Bronx showed a wider audience, at last, what fans of his HK stuff had known for years. That no one does action better. The outtakes at the end, showing Jackie breaking his leg and bashing his head and hanging off the backs of boats for dear life, are a reminder of just how much effort and passion went into making the film look as brilliant as it does (and it must’ve blown minds for anyone coming to him for the first time here). Even the US cut, which is missing some 17 minutes of fighting and includes a fourth-wall-trashing blast of Kung Fu by Ash on the end credits, is way ahead of almost any action stuff being made in the west at the time, and the film’s success – although moderate in the grand scheme of things – heralded the Hollywood Asian Invasion of the late 90s and early 2000s.

Watch Rumble in the Bronx on Amazon

It’s interesting to look back on these three films now. Inarguably, Jackie’s work in the east between 1978 and 1995 was of a consistently high quality and yet it took western studios two expensive attempts to figure out the reasons why. Jackie Chan was neither the next Bruce Lee (as they wanted him to be in The Big Brawl) nor the next Rambo (as they wanted him to be in The Protector). He was – and still is – a visionary artist with a unique style and, only once they stopped trying to pigeonhole him and let him show his true self to the world, did audiences pay attention. In an era where copycat culture and low-risk franchises still reign, Jackie Chan’s hard road to Hollywood is a lesson worth remembering.