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Digesting the lowest rung of pop culture so you don't have to!
Ever since middle school, I’ve been fascinated and impressed by the martial arts and physical comedy of the great Jackie Chan. I was lucky enough to grow up in a Chan boom era, brought on by 1995’s Rumble in the Bronx (a surprise box office hit). Chan hit the mainstream with Rush Hour in 1998, which grossed an absolute fortune and spawned knock-offs and imitators as well as Chan’s relatively brief Hollywood fling in the early 00s. My favorite Chan movies are from widely varying times in his filmography, some coming as early at the 1970s, most scattered throughout the 80s, and then a few more into the 90s (his 00s movies are fairly unwatchable with a few exceptions). The movies I’m going to write about today are not necessarily my favorites over all, or even what might be considered to be “the best,” but I feel that they are either important in Chan’s career, somewhat unknown and should see a wider audience, or worthy of critical re-evaluation.
5. Twin Dragons
This 1992 Hong Kong-set movie stars Chan in duel roles as twins separated at birth. Featuring a supporting performance from popular actress Maggie Cheung, Dragons is the story of celebrated pianist John Ma, who returns to Hong Kong as an adult to perform in a highly touted concert, and Boomer, a street mechanic and local ne’er do well who realize that they are long lost brothers. Twin Dragons has relatively more special effects and silly comedy than the usual Chan production, and was directed by Tsui Hark with an assist from Ringo Lam on the action scenes. Though a big hit in Hong Kong and China, Twin Dragons was financially unsuccessful and critically panned when it reached American shores in 1999. It was released primarily due to Chan’s success in Rush Hour and Rumble in the Bronx by Miramax imprint Dimenson, who dumped it in as few theaters as possible and probably hoped it would become a cult hit. Definitely not Chan’s best work, Dragons still features some excellent kung fu and stunt work and some genuinely funny and romantic moments as well. The climactic showdown in a car factory is worth the price of admission alone, as Chan (portraying tough guy Boomer and the softer John Ma simultaneously) takes on an army of mafia men in a wonderfully choreographed extended sequence.
4. Twinkle Twinkle Lucky Stars
One of my favorite aspects of 1980s Hong Kong cinema was its tendency to cast well-known actors in supporting roles throughout the decade. The series of films known as the Lucky Stars movies often cast Chan in supporting roles as a Hong Kong police officer. In the 1985 martial arts comedy classic Twinkle Twinkle Lucky Stars (available via instant watch on Netflix streaming), Chan co-stars as Muscles, a young but tough cop on the heels of an international assassination plot. Chan works with his partner, played by the awesome Yuen Biao, in conjunction with the Lucky Stars group, headed by the also awesome Sammo Hung, to take down the assassins and save an innocent woman’s life. Played almost strictly as a comedy, Twinkle nonetheless features some pretty breath-taking action scenes. Chan’s showdown towards the beginning in a cola factory is a definite highlight, as are his one-on-one battles with Richard Norton throughout the film. Chan’s role in this film is primarily supporting, and could arguably be considered an extended cameo, but seeing a young Jackie Chan battle on-screen so fiercely in his scenes is a real treat. Previously fairly difficult to see, I am hoping that this film will find a larger audience now that it is streaming on Netflix.
3. Jackie Chan’s Project A
Project A is a 1983 movie that features a blend of excellent physical comedy with tremendously entertaining martial arts, which would obvoiusly come to be a specialty of the then-young Chan, who also wrote and directed the film. Project A is the story of a naval cadet (Chan), a military cadet (Yuen Biao), and a thief (Sammo Hung) teaming up to save Hong Kong from the threat of malevolent pirates, who now rule the surrounding seas, terrorizing innocent people. Project A was also Chan’s homage to the films of great physical comedians like Buster Keaton, as it features Chan hanging from a clock tower and also sitting atop a flag pole, obvious homages to those silent era-films. Perhaps the most notable and best-choreographed scene in Project A is the climactic battle against the marauding pirates, which features some fantastic stunt work and some pretty great pyrotechnics as well. Though never released into American theaters, Project A was an immense hit in Hong Kong and most of East Asia.
2. Jackie Chan’s First Strike
Police Story 4: First Strike (known in America as Jackie Chan’s First Strike) is a 1996 Hong Kong action film primarily set in Australia. Upon release in America, it was touted as the first time Jackie teamed up with Americans, but this largely happens in the first 20 minutes or so of the film and is then forgotten about. For most of the running time, Chan faces off against Russian mobsters while trying to clear his name after he is set up for the murder of an important man in an Australian Chinatown. First Strike was one of the first Chan films released after the financial success of Rumble in the Bronx, and was well-received in America despite not matching the box office numbers of that movie (it should be noted however that First Strike is one of Chan’s highest-grossing films in Hong Kong ever). First Strike will always have an important place in my life as well because it is a film I have watched and re-watched approximately five thousand times. Breezy, entertaining, and featuring amazing stunt work and brilliant set-pieces (one scene wherein Chan falls from a helicopter is particularly impressive – – and it was achieved without the use of computers!), First Strike is one of Chan’s best movies for pure action spectacle. This is also the movie that features the famous “Chan fights using a ladder as a weapon” movie, so it has that going for it too.
1. Drunken Master II
Critically praised mega-hit Drunken Master II (known in America as Legend of Drunken Master), originally released in 1994, is perhaps Chan’s best-loved and best-known Hong Kong film worldwide. Chan plays Chinese folk hero Wong Fei Hung, who runs afoul of an international plot to steal artifacts from China and send them out to museums and private dealers worldwide. Not wanting to lose his cultural history and identity, Chan decides to strike against the corrupt smugglers. Utilizing the frowned-upon tactic of “drunken boxing,” Chan finds he can more easily subdue and defeat his enemies, especially multiple enemies all at once. Featuring martial arts and stunt work that can only be described as “insane,” Drunken Master II is a hands down kung fu classic. A few classic scenes involve hundreds and hundreds of men attacking Chan with axes, Chan battling against a man while walking on hot coals, and Chan facing off against a group of baddies while totally drunk off his ass, and winning handily! Supporting turns from Anita Mui and celebrated Chinese actor Ti Lung only enhance the excellence of the film. The production was not without its troubles, however. Director Lau Kar-Leung and star Chan reportedly battled behinds the scenes, and apocryphal stories say Kar-Leung even exited the production, leaving Chan to finish up the film. The American release by Dimension in 2000 was not a box office success, perhaps due the fact that it had been released theatrically after several poorly received Chan movies (Mr. Nice Guy, the aforementioned Twin Dragons). The film, however, was hugely successful in Hong Kong and China and is considered a cult classic in America.
The famous ladder fight scene from First Strike: