(Second viewing, On DVD, September 2017) It’s funny what we remember from our childhood. Watching The Cannonball Run, which I last saw as a young boy in the early eighties, I had regular flashes of recognition or anticipation as I suspected what was about to happen. Of course, I’m not an eight-year-old boy any more, and my current liking of the film’s stunts and cultural references is somewhat tempered by its juvenile tone and wildly uneven script. Legendary action director Hal Needham knew how to direct stunts (there’s a pointed reference to his Smokey and the Bandit that reminds me that I should re-watch that one soon), and so the best moments of the film are the chases, fights and other action hijinks. A young-looking Jackie Chan brings a bit of his patented style to a desert brawl, and the film also features such legends as Burt Reynolds, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Roger Moore (hilariously riffing on his James Bond turn), Peter Fonda, Farrah Fawcett and Adrienne Barbeau (I did remember their outfits) in various roles. I can still recognize some of those references by dint of having been born in the 1970s, but I wonder what younger viewers will make of them. Some of the comedy still works—I’m specifically thinking about the monologue explaining the rules of the transcontinental Cannonball Run, delivered with practised confidence by Brock Yates, the creator of the real-life Cannonball Run. Alas, this action/comedy charge is seriously hampered by the puerile humour (much of it sexist or racist) and uneven scripting. I strongly disliked Dom Deluise’s character(s), for instance, and gritted my teeth at the stereotypes passing off as jokes: seeing notorious Hong Kong native Jackie Chan cast as a Japanese makes no sense, and let’s really not talk about the middle-eastern Sheikh character. That’s not even getting close to the heavily sexist tone of the film—this is a film by boys for boys, and while I’d argue that there’s a place for cleavage-revealing spandex outfits in racing movies, much of the rest of the film (which plays off drug-facilitated kidnapping for laughs and sexiness, among many other things) is more off-putting than anything else. Add to that some primitive anti-government sentiments (as party-poopers) and you get the picture. For all that I like about the stunts in the film, The Cannonball Run is one of those intriguing but flawed movies that should be prime candidates for a polished remake. I promise I won’t complain too much as long as the worst issues with the original are corrected.
(On TV, May 2017) The 1984 version of The Karate Kid is such a cultural fixture that any attempt to remake it was doomed to irrelevancy. This being said, this 2010 remake does try its best, most notably but relocating the action in China where our hero involuntarily immigrates when his mom gets a new job. The change of scenery does much to renew a movie that largely recycles the original film’s structure: The look inside modern China can be interesting at times, as well as highlighting the fish-out-of-water nature of the protagonist. Unfortunately, that same basic decision does have its drawbacks: it removes the quasi-universal nature of the backdrop for American audiences (although, and this is significant, it does open it up to Chinese audiences), making it much harder to empathize with the high-school trials of the (significantly younger) protagonist. It also weakens the impact of Mister Miyagi’s teachings and makes a mush out of the protagonist’s attempts to fit in. Essentially, it transforms the universality of the first film into a very specific situation, and sabotages itself along the way. It doesn’t help that at eleven or twelve, lead actor Jaden Smith looks far too young for an archetypically teenage role. While it’s nice to see Jackie Chan in a decent American movie role, he doesn’t have much to do—far more judicious is seeing Taraji P. Henson in the “mom” role, greatly expanding the original character. To be fair, this Karate Kid remake is decently executed: anyone who hasn’t seen the 1984 film is likely to be moderately satisfied by the result. But for those pesky viewers with fresh memories of the original, this remake has too many small issues to enjoy.
(On Cable TV, February 2012) Ever since Schwarzenegger’s Kindergarden Cop, the family-friendly comedy pitting muscleman against kids seems to be a mandatory step in the career of aging action actors. From Dwayne Johnson’s The Tooth Fairy to Vin Diesel’s The Pacifier, the results usually aren’t very good, falling short of delivering bone-crunching action while not bringing anything new to the family film genre. Jackie Chan’s The Spy Next Door is much of the same. While Chan fans will occasionally get a reminder about his considerable physical skills (starting from the opening archive footage taken from other movies), the film itself isn’t particularly interesting. The unthreatening kid-spy plot beats are all obvious, the jokes are weak, the action sequences are tepid and the script is more dumb than compelling. Chan himself is far too old to play the pseudo-nebbish man courting an attractive mother-of-three, and parts of the villain’s dastardly plot could be flipped over to become a force for good without too much trouble. Still, The Spy Next Door isn’t a complete loss: Chan remains a charming presence and some of the action sequences show some of his usual flair. Still, there isn’t much to miss here…
(On cable TV, July 2011) Given Enter the Dragon’s importance within the martial arts film genre, it’s a bit surprising that I hadn’t seen the film until now. Well, that’s now done, and checking this film off my to-watch-some-day list wasn’t much of a chore. Bruce Lee’s performance is compelling, but the film has, in aging, become a brief period look at early-seventies Hong Kong, followed by a deliciously unconscious take on the James-Bondian “Megalomaniac Island” plot device. (Better yet is the period-inspired Black-Power character played by Jim Kelly, who definitely doesn’t get enough screen time.) Even though scripting isn’t high on the priorities of martial arts films, Enter the Dragon has a few interesting refinements: The introduction of the main character is handled through flashbacks, the final fight has thematic visual ambitions, and there are a few well-done moments in-between. It’s surprisingly coherent, but best of all it leads to a few well-shot fighting sequences that don’t chop the action in excessive cutting. It’s pleasant to watch, and doesn’t necessarily ask viewers to forgive its flaws. Lee is fantastic, both charismatic as an actor, and intense as a martial artist (there’s a sequence with nunchucks that will leave most viewers going “wow!”); too bad this ended up being his last film. This is still well-worth a look; keep your eyes open for a few surprises. If you think you spot a young Jackie Chan somewhere in the movie, well… you just may be right.
Ballantine, 1998, 398 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-345-42913-3
As I write this, it looks as if Jackie Chan’s reputation in Hollywood has been wrung out: Despite a pair of successes with the Rush Hour and Shanghai Noon series and the promise of a third Rush Hour, Chan’s other western films have not impressed anyone: The leaden and faintly creepy The Tuxedo was followed by the pointless The Medallion, which was trashed by critics and went unseen by audiences. Seeing this almost-criminal waste of talent, one can’t really fault Chan for heading back to Hong-Kong and more favourable projects.
And yet, if you ask around, you will see that Jackie Chan remains, if not a household name, at least a well-known action cinema icon. There’s a good reason for that: From 1985 (POLICE STORY) to 1994 (DRUNKEN MASTER II), Chan starred in a handful of films that can justifiably be called action classics. What’s more, Chan mastered a unique screen personae based on a mixture of goofy charm and jaw-dropping stunt prowesses. Chan reliably became his own brand, uncopyable by anyone else.
But this success was a long time in the making. Born in 1954 Hong Kong, Chan was enrolled at a very young age in a small academy with rough living conditions, an apprenticeship that taught him the skills and will to succeed in latter projects. Many years of further struggles within the Hong-Kong film industry eventually led to a number of lucky breaks, and then to the global super-stardom that we know even today.
It’s no surprise if most of his autobiography I am Jackie Chan (as told to Jeff Yang), is spent describing those early hungry years: While Chan’s latter success-story is known to most, his apprenticeship is more mysterious, and here well-described in evocative anecdotes. As Chan acknowledges, his tutelage would easily be classified as child-abuse in the West, but he’s visibly proud of his training and the skills he developed during this period. As a reader, it makes for fascinating and cringe-inducing reading. On one hand, the atmosphere of Hong Kong during the sixties and seventies is well-pictured; on the other, his memories don’t seem fun at all. (Neither do most of his American adventures, but that story isn’t new.)
Anyone who has heard Chan in interviews know that his English is hardly perfect (late in the book, he even allows himself a crack at how, with the upcoming rise of China, everyone will have to learn Chinese; whether he means Cantonese or Mandarin is not specified); in this context Jeff Yang’s work in translating not just the words and stories, but feel and context of Chan’s life becomes even more admirable. The book reads breezily as if it was a monologue by Chang, enlivened by reconstructed conversations. It flows well, and provides just enough background information to tie everything together, from Chan’s family story (an incredible adventure in its own right) to the particular context of Hong-Kong movie-making.
As this is an autobiography, what’s missing is Chan’s darker side, even though he does acknowledge a number of mistakes and youthful indiscretions. One supposes that Chan’s rumoured womanizing and early-year excesses will be more evenly described in unauthorized biographies. At least Chan clears up the various organized-crime rumours concerning his departure to Golden Harvest. (Hmm… also missing is an index for the book.) A complete list of his injuries and films (those he can remember, anyway: Hong-Kong produced films by the truckload in his early years) completes the book.
Obviously, this book is for Jackie Chan fans, especially those who already have a rough idea of his career and movies. There is often a sense that Chan is working himself up to the story that fans really want to hear, and the looser focus on his successful years makes it a bit difficult for non-fans to figure out why Chan is such a legend. Reading the book alongside a DVD player and a stack of his greatest hits is not a bad idea.
As for Chan himself, I’m willing to bet that his eclipse is temporary: In addition to the long-rumoured RUSH HOUR 3 project, you can bet that despite his advancing years, Chan will not be refused much in Hong Kong studios. If Americans don’t know what to do with him, let’s just enjoy what he does on his home court.
(In theaters, July 1997) The first Jackie Chan movie I’ve seen… and I’m impressed. It’s not as polished as Hollywood productions, but it’s got tons more of energy: I saw it in a near-deserted theatre (about 40 patrons) and yet, there was a lot more crowd reactions than when I saw The Fifth Element in a packed theatre. Jackie Chan is Erroll Flynn, Charlie Chaplin and Steven Seagal all rolled in one: His goofy good-boy manners make him one of the most charismatic screen personas in recent memory. Forget the sometime incoherent plot: Operation Condor is frequently funny when it counts, and the action is so impressive that it shines and amazes. Not great stuff, but definitely worth the video rental.