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Airbags

Shanghai Knights is the most important movie that Jackie Chan has made in English. I know that sounds weird, but it's true. It's taken him a while -- Shanghai Knights is the tenth or so film Jackie has made primarily for the American market -- but it was, luckily, worth the wait. Its precursor, Shanghai Noon, was a by-the-numbers fish-out-of-water number saved only by Owen Wilson's anachronistic slacker ad-libs. Wilson falls flat in Shanghai Knights, but it just doesn't matter -- Jackie's stunning choreography and a puissant, virtuosic performance by Donny Yen make this film not just a splendid romp, but a key example of what does -- and doesn't -- make Jackie Chan such an important filmmaker.

While there are numerous excellent fight scenes in the film, the fight in the streets of London in the first third of the film simply takes your breath away. Meticulous, brilliant, inventive, and hilarious, this scene turns Jackie's bag of tricks inside out. Jackie Chan, ladies and gentlemen, is one of the few people working in martial arts today who can work a renvoi into a fight scene (in this case, Gene Kelly's famous routine from Singing in the Rain). The blending of martial arts, vaudevillian physical humor, and the stylization of everyday movement that so characterizes Jackie's choreography reaches its most sublime. It's kind of like Alvin Ailey, but with more clever umbrella work.

But Shanghai Knights reminds us of Jackie Chan's shortcomings as well. Few, if any, of Jackie's American films have risen above being mere genre flicks, and when they have, it's usually been thanks to a co-star who saves the day (Chris Tucker, Owen Wilson). To a certain extent, this shouldn't be surprising. Jackie turns 50 in April -- old for a man in his line of work -- and his lifetime of accidents and injuries has worn away his youthful vigor. The only major name in showbiz who is more injured is legendary professional wrestler Dusty Rhodes, who has been hurt so many times in the ring that his forehead is now composed entirely of scar tissue.

But it's not just that Jackie is past his prime. His batting average is way under .500. Folks, Jackie Chan has made a lot of bad movies. For every Fearless Hyena II there is a City Hunter (or, for that matter, a Fearless Hyena I). Often a decent fight scene occurs in the middle of an otherwise unwatchable film. Fantastic stunts and humorous side-scenes appear in the middle of 50 minutes of dreck.

Jackie's three decades of non-stop filmmaking are less a Proustian stream of consciousness than an endless series of hastily presented first drafts. It's always at least a little fun to watch -- he is Jackie Chan, after all. And of course, at his evanescent best, we get the spontaneous improvisation of a fantastic choreographer blocking fight after fight after fight, livened up with his proto-reality TV stunt work, complete with outtakes of him being taken away for emergency medical care that play over the credits.

This isn't the way that Jackie Chan was originally sold to the public. In the media blitz surrounding Rumble in the Bronx (Jackie's first successful attempt to break into Hollywood), Jackie was portrayed as an incredible physical talent -- the man who merged vaudeville and martial arts, and in doing so made martial arts appropriate for a "serious" audience. I still vividly remember's Jackie's appearence at the first Chicago showing of Rumble in the Bronx in -- I think it was -- 1996. It was at the Art Institute. It was extremely weird. Teenybopper Asian girls and geekoid Sinophiles like me jostled with blue-haired octogenarian patrons of the arts who had been assured that Jackie was "the next Buster Keaton" -- a sort of Middle Kingdom reincarnation of Charlie Chaplin.

First, I knew it wasn't true. Don't get me wrong -- I love Jackie Chan. And back then he was at the height of his power. Police Stories III-V were available in America, and Drunken Master II -- a stunning and important film -- was available if you were willing to work with the original Chinese. The mid-'90s were Jackie Chan at his best. But all the same, the bubble had to break. I don't know -- and don't care -- what it means for something to be "art," but I know that Jackie Chan isn't it. Jackie Chan makes films that kids who are six can enjoy as much as kids that are 60 -- all you have to do is be willing to enjoy it. And in general if a six-year-old can enjoy something, it's a sign to Serious Patrons Of The Arts that what they're watching isn't art.

Second, as talented as Jackie Chan is, he's simply not a great physical talent. He's not head-and-shoulders above Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao in the "Chinese Opera" tradition. And he's not a great martial artist -- if by martial arts you mean wushu, the stylized mixture of fighting and dance that is China's national sport. Back in 1996 when I was watching Rumble in the Bronx, this couldn't have been made more clear. Jackie Chan was at his height, but Jet Li's amazing physical performance in the Once Upon a Time in China series -- or anything else, for that matter (playing the same character as Jackie did in Drunken Master, no less!) -- made it clear that it would be well into the next century before someone could match him. And even the underappreciated Donnie Yen's fierce precision in Shanghai Knights makes Jackie seem a bit the bumpkin.

This is why the extra features on the Shanghai Knights DVD are so interesting. War, pronounced Clausewitz, is diplomacy by other means. Editing a fight scene is choreography by other means. Putting together a ten-minute fight scene out of one hundred three-second shots is an art form in itself. This is what Jackie makes clear in the interview. Anyone can punch -- there are a million great martial artists out there. But who can block an incredible fight scene and then bring it to life on film? And, as the director of the film makes clear in the interview, he had nothing to do with the fight scenes. The ironic thing about Shanghai Noon is not that Jackie has changed the way he is selling himself, it's that it's taken him so long to realize what we knew all along.

It seems inevitable that he will. Faced with an aging body, more talented competition, and an older-but-wiser mentality about suicide stunts, Jackie will have to learn to focus on his true strengths -- breathtaking, genre-defying physical set pieces. If we are lucky, we can only hope that he takes his own advice. Let's hope we don't have to sit through 13 more films before we get another Shanghai Knights.

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Comments

Naz / January 22, 2004 11:16 PM

Holy crap! I just saw this movie last weekend and I thought it was the most predictable piece of shite ever! I got real tired of the slapstick fighting quick. And there was hardly any Owen Wilson in this.

Not to mention every single trick in the book: revolving fireplace (Indiana Jones & the Last Crusade), pressing the breasts of a statue to open aforemtioned fireplace (Indiana Jones & The Temple of Doom) and then the wind blowing fire on torch (also Indy & The Temple of Doom!).

Sorry, but man I was bored during this. Give me some Once Upon a Time In China, or The Bride With White Hair. I agree though that Jackie's past his prime. Though, I don't think that Shanghai Knights redeemed him in any way. It's clever yes, but it's nothing that we haven't seen Jackie do before.

Naz / January 22, 2004 11:29 PM

PS. Good review. I just did not like this film...

Rex / January 23, 2004 10:00 AM

hmmm... do you watch a lot of kungfu or Jackie Chan films? Did you like Drunken Master II, for instance?

paul / January 25, 2004 12:04 PM

Can we talk about real cinematic masterpieces, like John Woo's 'Bullet in the Head' or "Hard Boiled' ? You just can't discuss action as art without including Woo.

Naz / January 25, 2004 6:20 PM

I've seen quite a few kungfu films, most of when I was living in Kuala Lumpur, you couldn't miss them. On the telly everyday. Bridgette Lin is great, if you ever get the chance to watch "The Bride with White Hair" parts 1 & 2 or "The East is Red" you should.

Drunken Master II and Chan's older work (non-US) is much better. I feel his stuff is cheapened over here, though I did enjoy Rush Hour (part 1 only). I though Chris Tucker was the perfect partner for Chan.

Alex / January 26, 2004 9:43 AM

Now you're just talking down to me Naz :) I've seen both Bride series as well as East is Red - 'tho I didn't think Bride w/White Hair II was particularly good (tho' really WIERD). BUt clearly, neither Bridgette Lin or Leslie Cheung are great /martial artists/ per se. There's no doubt that a film like Ashes of Time or BwWH are more ambituous, 'art like' films (same goes for some of Woo's movies) but none of the stars actuall /do/ martial arts. They're period pieces, yes, and they have fighting, yes. But they're not funamentally about getting real world physical virtuosity on the screen. Woo is about action, but not about this - CHow Yun Fat's kicking sequence in Once A Thief, for instance, is hardly about showing off his natural kung fu skills :)

Naz / January 26, 2004 5:23 PM

Sorry Alex! I didn't want to presume/assume.

I did want to like it, I had heard good things aboue Shanghai Noon and was surprised (or maybe not) that they had made a sequel. Plus Owen Wilson is funny! Granted, yes, the fight sequences are cool but it's not that new per se.

I was moreso offended by how damn predictable the movie was. Plus that last bit when they rip the British flag as they're falling down Big Ben - he ripped off his own movie - they did the same thing in Rush Hour!

Alex / January 27, 2004 12:48 AM

No Naz, I'm afraid there's no way we're going to be able to solve this dispute other than a good ol' fashioned Cage Match. We'll have a special GB event for it - they'll play bad arena rock and turn on the fog machines and pyrotechnics and we'll both walk into the arena in hard-core, sking tight outfiers "Nazarin Hamid (sp?) - you think you're the biggest and the best on this circuit. But I'M the one with the title belt, and when I get you in that squared circle, I'll show you a world of hurt, little man! Two will come in and only one will come out!"

Then one of us will get a Slim Jims endorsement and start making some REAL money for The Block :)

Naz / January 27, 2004 1:21 PM

Sounds like a plan. Let's so it in summer.

atomly / January 27, 2004 2:14 PM

All discussions of "Shanghai Noon" begin and end with the use of the phrase "ass soup," you can't mess with the movie that introduced that to my vernacular.

Anyway, as far as kung fu/Hong Kong movies go, essential viewings:

Once Upon a Time in China (1-3)
Once Upon a Time in China & America
The Master
A Better Tomorrow
Hard Boiled
The Legend II
Infernal Affairs I & II
Drunken Master I & II
The Killer
A Hero Never Dies
Hero
Contract Killer
Fist of Legend
High Risk
Hitman
The Legend of the Swordsman & Swordsman II
New Legend of Shaolin
Twin Warriors
Gorgeous
First Strike
Operation Condor I & II

Anyway, that's far too exhaustive, but I got on a bit of a run there. Those movies are all definitely worth viewing, so grab any of them if you see them.

Andrew / January 27, 2004 2:46 PM

Personally, I'm disappointed that Shaolin Soccer is no longer going to be released in the US. On the other hand, from what I've read the redubbed version (from Miramax) also underwent an unfortunate editing round that took more than half an hour out of the movie. So maybe we just need a captioned version with better translation.

 

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