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Digesting the lowest rung of pop culture so you don't have to!
Jackie Chan has been a household name for so long that it’s hard to imagine a time when the 61-year-old martial arts superstar wasn’t Hong Kong’s most famous export. For years and years, though, Chan was unable to breakthrough to American audiences. In the early 90s, Chan starred in and choreographed (and occasionally directed) several big Hong Kong hits that garnered him cult status in America. Films like Supercop, Legend of Drunken Master, and Operation Condor grossed buckets of money overseas and cemented Chan’s status as the king of Hong Kong action films. Finally, it seemed Hollywood was ready to give him a real chance, and thus Rumble in the Bronx was born.
Rumble in the Bronx, a Golden Harvest production, was primarily a product for the Hong Kong market, but New Line Cinema execs saw potential so with participation from the cast and crew, they fashioned a version of the film (with various edits, additions, and cuts) for American audiences. The film was marketed as Chan’s first foray into America, which was not technically true. The Bronx-set film was actually shot in Vancouver (where mountains in the background are noticeable), and Chan had shown up in American-produced films in the past as well. But New Line’s gamble and ensuing marketing campaign paid off, however, when Rumble in the Bronx opened strong and eventually grossed over thirty million dollars in the American box office, almost unheard of for a Chinese film production.
Rumble in the Bronx became a breakout film for star Jackie Chan for many reasons. First and foremost, the film wisely positioned Chan’s acrobatics and martial arts prowess at its centerpiece. When you’ve got a magnetic star like Chan, this is always the best course of action to take. Secondly, the film, set in America, was marketed as Chan’s first foray into American cinemas. While not technically true, the marketing campaign worked. New Line took a somewhat exotic (and definitely foreign) element and turned it into a buzzworthy news event. Remember, this was the time of no Internet viral marketing, so New Line obviously had to put a lot of faith in the project. Lastly, the film looked good for its time — its 7.5 million dollar budget was much bigger than the average Hong Kong production of the era. The extra time, care, and budget put into the film once again contributed to it being something of an event.
The film opened to decent reviews, with Roger Ebert championing Chan as the second coming of stars like Buster Keaton. Chan, nearly forty years old at the time of release, was a budding star in America but Hong Kong’s biggest draw, and his performance was met with rave reviews. Some aspects of the film drew criticism, however, with the story and some of the acting being noted as amateurish overall. Co-star Francoise Yip, the Canadian-born model and actress, appears obviously uncomfortable in some scenes (perhaps with good reason – it was reported at the time that many people were injured on set during filming). I like the performances of Anita Mui, an underrated actress who didn’t get nearly enough credit for her work in these types of movies during her short lifetime, and Bill Tung, who often appears as “Uncle Bill” in Chan’s movies. Tung has a screen presence not unlike a warm, friendly grandfather and is always a welcome addition.
Critics were right to slam the story. Rumble in the Bronx has a paper-thin plot that isn’t really set in motion until about an hour into the film. Chan plays Keung (this pre-dates him basically just being “Jackie” in almost every subsequent movie), a recent immigrant to New York City. His job is to help his uncle (Tung) transition ownership of an international grocery store to a new owner, the mousy and shy Elaine (Mui). The first quarter of the film seemingly sets Chan up to fall in love with Mui and defend her store from the Hokuto No Ken thugs that seemingly populate New York City. The film takes a somewhat bizarre turn, however, when Chan meets and falls for Nancy (Yip), after her differently-abled brother takes a liking to Chan. Eventually, there’s a diamond heist, and Chan comes into possession of stolen diamonds. He must forge an alliance with the neighborhood toughs and fight off the mafia, who want their diamonds back. Rumble in the Bronx is a weird movie.
If I had to offer my own criticisms of Rumble in the Bronx, I would lay some of the film’s failures at the feet of director Stanley Tong. Tong can direct a decent action sequence, but a sense of weird silliness permeates the film, and not in a good way like in Supercop (another Tong film) or Legend of Drunken Master. Even Tong’s next film, First Strike (one of my favorite Chan films of the 90s), lacks the silliness that dominates some of Bronx. Tong was very young when making these films. He directed Rumble in the Bronx at the age of 24, for example. This is both impressive and also somewhat hard to believe. I can let some of the shortcomings of the film go because of his young status, but I feel like this film in particular could have easily been tightened up. The film is both self-serious and incredibly silly, creating a somewhat jarring tone. I can’t necessarily let this criticism completely go; I just wanted to note it.
One of the most fascinating aspects of Rumble in the Bronx is seeing Jackie being Jackie. I remember first watching the film as a seventh grader and being mesmerized that a human being could do what Chan does in the film. Seeing Chan leap across a building onto the balcony of an adjacent building remains a jaw-dropping stunt. Chan’s charming acrobatics and willingness to do anything for the shot are what drew me to him then and still draw me to him two decades later. I wish that I could watch this film with fresh eyes so that I could be mesmerized once again. At this point, I’m so familiar with Chan’s work that it’s not as special as it once was. I would love to go back to a time when Chan was a cult star and be exposed to his work for the first time all over again. That’s the kind of star-making role this is, and Chan nails it.
It’s easy to see why Rumble in the Bronx made Chan a star in America. It directly led to a glut of Chan’s Hong Kong film oeuvre being released into American theaters. After the success of Bronx, films like Mr. Nice Guy, First Strike, Twin Dragons, and Legend of Drunken Master all saw theatrical release, most by New Line Cinema or Dimension Films. None of these films received the same buzz as Bronx, but each left its own impact and each is special in its own way. Bronx also directly led to the Jackie Chan/Chris Tucker/Brett Ratner Rush Hour franchise, a hugely successful film franchise that has generated hundreds of millions of dollars (and made Chan wealthy multiple times over). None of that happens without the success of Rumble in the Bronx. It’s a pretty silly film overall, but Chan is magnetic and uses the film as a showcase for his impressive talents. Check it out while it’s still available on Netflix. Or, if you’ve already seen it, go ahead and revisit it.