Happy Birthday, Jackie Chan: A Look at His Career

It’s #AsianApril and Jackie Chan’s 65th birthday! I actually wrote out a whole giant Twitter thread about this to celebrate it all as an alternative to writing this article. But just as I clicked “Send,” it all disappeared. So, here I am. Back on my blog. Trying to not feel frustrated and just keep moving forward. Here goes. Let’s take a trip through Chan’s insanely prolific career!

First things first, full disclosure: I wrote my MA thesis on the career of Jackie Chan. It’s true! You can download it by clicking here . It’s called Neutered Dragon, because I compare and contrast some of the ways Chan’s masculinity is portrayed in his Chinese-language films vs his American-made productions. I haven’t looked at it in a while, but I assume it’s not very well written compared to how I write now. If you happen to read it, please be kind. I was nearly 10 years younger. I wanted to take his birthday as an opportunity to revisit my thesis and share some of what I wrote in a more succinct manner, and hopefully with pictures, trailers, and maybe even GIFs. We’ll see how things go.

It’s the early 1970s, and the biggest kung fu star to grace the screens, Bruce Lee, came to a horrifyingly early death. Numerous aspiring martial artists tried to fill the cinematic chasm left in his absence by doing their best to replicate what made Lee so completely unique. And none of them succeeded. Then Jackie Chan comes along and decides that instead of trying to be exactly like Bruce Lee, he’ll do the opposite. He would be everything that Bruce Lee wasn’t. In his  words: “When he kick high, I kick low. When he not smiling, I always smiling. He can one-punch break the wall; after I break the wall, I hurt. I do the funny face.” And that’s exactly what he did.

With 1978’s Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow and Drunken Master, Chan and director Yuen Woo-Ping revolutionized the martial arts genre as we knew it at that point in time. Instead of the invincible hard body of Bruce Lee, Chan’s character was the mischievous boy next door who had bounds of energy, was kinda cocky, but also capable of sensitivity.

From that awesome debut, I like to see Chan’s as existing in three separate stages, two of which run parallel to each other: The first stage begins with his double debut in 1978 and ends with 1998’s Who Am I?, his last Asia-produced film before breaking into Hollywood. From here, his career takes two distinct paths: the path in Hollywood, beginning with Rush Hour, and the path in Asia, which begins with 1999’s Gorgeous. Each of these stages are defined by certain characteristics in film style, in his character’s traits, sexuality, and morality, as well as tendencies towards comedy and drama. Generally speaking, Chan has been slowly inching towards drama for decades, and that’s the pull across all 3 stages.

Stage 1: 1978-1998 in Asia
In these 2 decades of movies, Chan comes to firmly establish everything that long-time fans of his know as the “Jackie Chan Formula.” His characters possess the qualities typical of leading men: they are charming, commanding, appealing, and desired by women. They also often exhibit an unwavering sense of morality and justice. The humor in these films, meanwhile, is most often derived from the action scenes and situations around them. If they involve Chan’s character, the audience is encouraged to laugh withhim as he deals with new situations in humorous and innovative ways.

On one end of the comedy-drama spectrum, we get the absolute absurdity that is 1993’s City Hunter, directed by Wong Jing. One of the highlights of this film is the Street Fighter fight in which, after being electrocuted from being slammed into a Street Fighter kiosk, Chan and his opponent turn into characters from the game. It’s pretty amazing:

Next on that spectrum, we have a film like Drunken Master II (renamed Legend of Drunken Master for its US release), a period set kung comedy action movie which I think is one of Chan’s best films. We pretty much get everything that seems important to Chan: amazing choreography, hilarious comedy, the importance of honor, moral lessons, and understanding the importance of respect for China’s historic culture. This teahouse fight against the axe gang is still one of my favorites from any martial arts movie:


Then we have the awesomeness of the Police Story trilogy, which still includes a lot of comedy – like fart jokes and a lengthy mistaken double-entendre sequence – but includes some pretty dark dramatic content like drug lords, corrupt cops, kidnapping, etc. They also feature some pretty amazing choreography and stuntwork: 

Finally, the rarity in this stage of his career: Crime Story, a straight up police drama with no humor, few fight scenes, and a few other firsts for Chan, like graphic scenes of spewing blood, a sex scene between a corrupt cop and a prostitute in an elevator, and – this may not seem like a big deal but trust me, it was – Chan rocking a new hair cut. This movie is no joke. Just watch this trailer and look at this screenshots to get a sense of what a different vibe it rocks from different Chan productions:

This stage ends with Who Am I? in 1998, his last Asia-made film before his big Hollywood breakout hit Rush Hour.

Stage 2: 1998 to the present in Hollywood
I have to admit that I’m not a big fan of most of his Hollywood movies. In fact, it was my realization of their major differences that drew me to focusing on it for my thesis to begin with. These movies are characterized by Chan having much less creative control behind the scenes. In front of the camera, his characters are most often denied any romantic appeal and the humor stems from his broken English and blatant “foreignness.” In other words, audiences are most often laughing at him as opposed to with him. For some reason, a lot of his characters are also kinda creepy pervs. 

First up, let’s talk about the Rush Hour trilogy. Here’s what Chan thought about the first installment after he wrapped production: “After I finished Rush Hour 1 I said, ‘My career is finished.’ A second time I try to get in American market and now I’m finished.” Instead, the film was a racisthuge hit. I’m not a fan. Partly because they basically tried to make a Jackie Chan movie by making Jackie Chan the sidekick. He is denied sex appeal, he is consistently insulted in overtly racist ways, and he doesn’t even get the action hero satisfaction of beating the bad guys. In all three Rush Hour movies, the big bad villain is killed by FALLING. Meanwhile Tucker’s character gets to kill bad guys and deliver one-liners. Here’s a sampling of some of the racist lines targeted at Chan’s character:

  • “Assume I kick your little Beijing ass right here.”
  • “Want anything? Like a cup o’ noodles?”
  • “I’m gonna knock the yellow — [line gets interrupted by a kick to the face]
  • “You sound like a karate movie.”
  • “My daddy can kick your daddy’s ass all the way from here to China or Japan or wherever the hell you from. All up that Great Wall too.”
  • “I’ll slap you so hard you’ll end up in the Ming dynasty.” 
  • “I’ll bitch-slap you back to Bangkok.”
  • “All y’all look alike.”
  • “When was the last time you had a date? The year of the rat?”
  • “I’m tall, dark, and handsome. You third-world ugly.”
  • “Snoopy is six inches taller than you.”
  • “Get my partner something from the kids’ department.”
  • “You can’t be black. There’s a height requirement.”

But I digress.

Then you’ve got The Tuxedo, which quite literally strips Chan of all his physical prowess. His character knows no martial arts and is constantly failing to “score” with “the ladies.” But, again, it’s the fact that he pronounces things funny, and can’t seem to do anything the “right way” (as in, the “American” way) that’s supposed to be the source of the humor. This screenshot duo is all you need to know about the film’s sense of humor:

To me, the brightest spot in Chan’s English-language films is Shanghai Noon which, surprise surprise, was written by Al Gough and Miles Millar of Into the Badlands fame. Here, he’s paired with a buddy character with whom they share a friendly camaraderie. The jokes they exchange are more situationally based than racially based, and Chan’s character even gets to have a romantic relationship! Unfortunately, a lot of the things Shanghai Noon does right gets undone in the sequel, particularly in the inclusion of MULTIPLE racist “jokes.” But anyway, no need to linger here! 

One final note about Stage 2: the clearest evidence of the different sources of humor in his Chinese-language films and his English-language films are found in his end-of-film outtakes reel. In his Chinese films, the outtakes always emphasize his stunts going wrong. In fact, it’s in watching the outtakes that the myth of Jackie Chan is allowed to exist. Because we see him really trying – and often repeatedly failing with serious consequences – to perform a mighty feat. By contrast, the outtakes in his American films are almost always Chan flubbing his lines, mispronouncing English words, or saying something that “sounds funny.”

On to STAGE 3!

Stage 3: 1999 to the present in Asia
Stage 3 is pretty exciting. It’s the stage in which Chan has been most able to experiment with his well-established persona and try more and more dramatic roles, which he has always claimed to prefer over comedic ones. Apologies for including this link, but here’s Chan with Charlie Rose, where he talks about his dream to be known as a “serious” actor.

https://charlierose.com/video/player/6791

In 1998, while Chan was filming Rush Hour he received word that his godfather and legendary Chinese producer Leonard Ho had passed away. While this news was devastating for Chan, it also opened the door to new opportunities because Ho had held MAJOR influence over Chan’s career.

It was Ho who said no to Chan starring in Chen Kai Ge’s Farewell, My Concubine. It was Ho who said no to Chan killing off his own character in Police Story 3. It was Ho who said no to Chan’s characters ever losing at the end of a movie. And it was Ho who said no to Chan pursuing more dramatic fare. After mourning the death of his godfather, Chan began pursuing more dramatic projects, particularly in his Chinese language productions. Beginning with 1999’s Gorgeous, whimsical fairy tale love story that features a girl talking to a dolphin…yes. A dolphin. Here’s the Cantonese trailer for Gorgeous. Chan plays a selfish womanizing wealthy playboy who has to get knocked down a few pegs and meet that special someone to turn things around:

FUN FACT for Into the Badlands fans! The film features a brief cameo from a young Daniel Wu, pictured below:

It also features the incredible Tony Leung Chiu-Wai as the girl’s gay best friend. Yes. You read that part right also. The gay. best. friend.

Anyway, from here on out in his Chinese language films, Chan takes more and more serious turns while his American-made movies continue the generally same trend of comedy: that is, comedy where the audience is most often laughing AT him instead of WITH him.

Just look at some of his other Chinese-language movies after Ho’s death: there’s 2004’s New Police Story in which his character becomes an utterly humiliated, emotionally defeated drunkard. This movie is pretty brutal to Chan’s character. These screenshots will give you a peek at how grim things get for Chan in this movie. On the left, a shot of Chan’s fellow police officers hung off the ceiling as part of a cruel “game.” On the right, Chan carrying a cart-full of their dead corpses out of an exploding building.

And a trailer for the movie, which ALSO features Daniel Wu as the leader of the gang of young punk troublemakers!

Moving quickly now, because I need to get this published before it stops being his birthday! 

Then there’s The Myth, in which he plays two characters across thousands of years – one of whom actually dies on screen. Again, doesn’t seem like a big deal, but it’s HUGE for a Jackie Chan movie. Trailer here:

And Shinjuku Incident, a graphically violent gangster movie (also featuring Daniel Wu) and another significant sign of changing times for Chan. Besides the graphic violence, the movie also features a controversial first: a sex scene between Chan’s character and a prostitute. Trailer here:

With over 100 credits to his name, Chan is STILL finding ways to give the audience what they expect from a Jackie Chan movie as well as ways to subvert it all. He continues to make movies in China, Hong Kong, Europe, and the United States, seemingly happy to jump from expectation to expectation, from trope to trope, from character trait to character trait. And I am here for all of it.

So that’s that. If you want to read more, check out my thesis here: https://scholarlyrepository.miami.edu/oa_theses/22/

I’ll end this with two quotes from Jackie Chan about his own career:

From a DVD extra in The Myth, circa 2005:

“I used to have too much say in my movies, imprinting them with the Jackie Chan formula. But now I let the professionals decide on the costume and everything. Being innovative is hard, really. Doing a love story with no action would be innovative enough for me. But the market doesn’t allow me to do so. At the same time, I am bored with pure action movies. So I have to strike a balance. The solution is to look for a script I like, so that I can do something exciting with being a cop again. That is not easy at all. I am now trying to do that.”

And

From an interview in 2008: 

“I think the last six or five years that you can tell I have changed my style. Right after, Around the World in 80 Days, then I go back to make New Police Story, The Myth, Rob B Hood, Rush Hour 3 and Forbidden Kingdom. Right after Forbidden Kingdom, I just finished a movie called Shinjuku Incident. It’s just totally, one percent action, heavy, heavy drama. The next one will be big action! Then coming [up] maybe a love story. I want to change. I want to be a real actor, not just action star”

大哥生日快乐!

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