Monday, February 18, 2008

Chan's (still) the man

The windows guys are here finishing their replacement work and I'm upstairs with the cats, taking refuge. And who better to spend our retreat from all the banging and hammering with on this holiday Monday than Jackie Chan, star of two of my Netflix rentals?

I've been a Chan fan since Hong Kong, where the release of his new films (timed around the holidays) was always an event. I recall seeing Mr. Canton and Lady Rose (AKA Miracles) and the odd-duck all-star Island of Fire, two of his lesser films, in cinemas, but I got his appeal instantly (Fire is a strange film in that he trades his fists for firepower, something he did more successfully in the dead-serious Crime Story in 1993). I rented the tapes and laserdiscs of earlier pictures like Dragons Forever, Police Story, and Project A: Part II, and reveled in the genius of his hard-driving, kung fu-meets-Buster Keaton physical comedy.

Back home I wondered if he'd ever hit it big here. I thought the dreadful Rumble in the Bronx, which I saw at a Chinese-language theater in LA, would bury his chance at Stateside stardom, but I was wrong: audiences found a new Everyman to embrace when he film was released in early 1996, and Chan was off and running, as films new and old got successful U.S. releases, usually in cut, poorly dubbed versions. With the East-meets-West Rush Hour (1998), Chan had his first Hollywood hit.

The three Rush Hour pictures, the last of which I watched this morning, pretty much define light entertainment. The director, Brett Ratner, is a hack and a media whore (and I say that in a sharing, loving way), but he's bottled the essence of Chan better than any other U.S. director has, and the movies are breezy, inconsequential fun. They're package deals for undemanding summer movie audiences but Chan and Chris Tucker work so smoothly together you don't feel the calculation, or that your pocket's been picked afterwards. (Chan and Owen Wilson got a similar groove going in the two Shanghai Western comedies) They deliver what's expected, with no fuss or pretension. The third film, which sends the cop characters to Paris on some flimsy excuse or another, wasn't the smash the other two were, maybe because it hasn't been written so much as transcribed: The same jokes and stunts are repeated, with minor variations. And damned if I didn't laugh again, and thrill at the climax, a set of neatly orchestrated trampoline and paragliding stunts at and around the Eiffel Tower. These guys play me like a fiddle, and know precisely where my resistance point is and how to skirt it. That my house was falling apart around me during its 90-minute running time (actually, 81, with nine minutes of funny end credits outtakes) seemed hardly to matter, and Max Von Sydow, Roman Polanski, and Yvan Attal are along for the ride.

The Rush Hour films, the boxoffice highpoints of Chan's U.S. adventure, are mitigated by sloppy, far less successful efforts like The Medallion, and his star has waned here. With age (almost 54 now) he's also taken a hit at home, with stuntmen and CGI standing by to assist gags he nearly killed himself doing when younger. (Note to Jackie: The lightened hairstyle isn't doing much to stem the passing of the years.) His latest, lesser HK movies have bypassed theaters here, for good reason. But The Weinstein Company, which has been undoing sins of the past by putting out unedited, original-language versions of Chan oldies on DVD via its Dragon Dynasty label, has released his newest local picture, Robin-B-Hood. Rather, it's escaped; the DVD has received next-to-nothing press, befitting a minor title. Essentially it's Three Thieves and a Baby, with Chan, heartthrob Louis Koo, and veteran comic Michael Hui (from one of my favorite HK films, the Used Cars-ish Chicken and Duck Talk) as ne'er-do-wells mixed up with a kidnapped infant and some bad guys. The anorexic premise (poop gags, etc.) is obliged to sustain a film that runs more than two hours (the scissors might have come out for this one), with the inspired bits few and far between. The hospital atrium-set opening is a nice setpiece, as the story takes baby steps toward a rollercoaster showdown at the Ocean Park amusement park and a grand finale in a cold storage unit, where in a typically perverse HK touch the little boy has been stashed in subzero temperatures. He warms up, but the movie never does.

Things may be going more Chan's way this year. (And ours, now that the windows ordeal has ended.) April's The Forbidden Kingdom teams him, for the first time, with Jet Li. He lends his voice, and I assume some of his moves, to the DreamWorks cartoon Kung Fu Panda, with Jack Black and Dustin Hoffman (who reminds me of Chan in some way). His career may have some kick left.

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