Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases, premieres, current events, or occasionally just our own inscrutable whims. This week: Jackie Chan has two new movies, Vanguard and Iron Mask, headed for release. To honor the occasion, we’re recommending a few of his best vehicles.
In the ’80s, martial arts sensation Jackie Chan made several attempts to win over the American movie market to no avail. The Big Brawl (1980), a joint U.S. and Hong Kong production that pitted Chan against the Italian mafia in 1930s Chicago, failed to click. So, too, did buddy cop flick The Protector (1985). A decade later, however, Hollywood began to take interest in the bold stunts and hyper-stylized bloodshed of Hong Kong action cinema, recruiting top-shelf talent to reinvigorate the American action genre with a chaotic sensibility. This allowed Jackie to finally make his breakthrough in the States with Stanley Tong’s Rumble In The Bronx, a dubbed action-comedy caper that introduced Americans to his signature combination of anarchic acrobatics and screwball antics.
At 41 and with decades under his belt dedicated to honing his craft and shaping his star image, Chan refused to settle for a Hollywood-generated persona; Rumble In The Bronx, for all its low-budget quirks and inconsistencies, is a triumphant debut that planted the seeds for a new kind of Hollywood icon, one who would stick around well past the initial hype. Before the film, Chan’s friends and advisors recommended he ease himself into America’s heart through supporting roles that showed off his moves. Sylvester Stallone even offered him Wesley Snipes’ villain part in Demolition Man, but Chan turned it down, perhaps remembering that foreigners such as himself were often pigeonholed as gimmicky, one-note characters, especially when placed beside already established heroes. His forgettable turn in the 1981 Burt Reynolds and Roger Moore-starring ensemble film, The Cannonball Run, taught him as much. This time Chan wasn’t going to play a ruthless, intimidating badass. Instead, he’d be the nice guy and good samaritan with tricks up his sleeve.
Jackie stars as Keung, a Hong Kong cop visiting the Bronx to attend his uncle’s wedding. (Tong throws in stray shots of the Manhattan skyline, but distant mountain ranges and various Vancouver landmarks indicate that we’re very obviously not in the borough.) Trouble crops up in the form of a biker gang that terrorizes Uncle Bill’s grocery store, which gets sold to a young woman, Elaine (Anita Mui), even less equipped to handle all the brutes and shoplifters. Keung steps in to fend off the intruders in a number of colorful—and progressively more disastrous—confrontations that see foodstuff flung around like confetti. It’s an impressive showcase for Chan’s tightrope maneuvering of small spaces and crafty manipulation of surrounding tools and props. (He does wonders with a grocery cart.) In one scene, Keung evades his enemies by making a 28-foot jump off a building and onto a balcony—a stunt Jackie performed without wires or a harness. The film generally avoids blood and brutality in exchange for destruction of property in the vein of Hollywood slapstick comedies.
Keung also gets mixed up in a diamond heist gone wrong, which brings mobsters and hitmen into the picture. It’s a wild mishmash of distinctly American bad-guy clichés, and Chan, with his goofy grin and joyous energy, is thrilled to jump in, flip, and somersault his way past his cartoonish opponents. The convoluted plot and clunky performances leave much to be desired, yet these failings feed into the shamelessly campy and carnivalesque mood that makes the movie so damn fun. A treacly subplot involving Keung befriending a disabled boy, the little brother of an ambivalent female gang member (and Keung’s eventual love interest), might seem like a throwaway. But the element elevates Chan’s stunts to superhero status at a time when Asian men in American movies hardly ever got the last laugh. With Rumble In The Bronx, Jackie not only proved to American audiences his preternatural abilities as a stuntman and comedian; he proved he was easy to love, too.