Jackie Be Nimble

What makes this small, deferential action hero so great?

Jackie Chan’sFirst Strike
Directed by Stanley Tong
A New Line Cinema Release

What’s fishy about most action heroes these days is that their noses aren’t broken. In the real world, fights last a couple of punches: One guy gets his face busted, the other breaks his fist. You wouldn’t know this from looking at those regal tough guys Steven Seagal and Jean-Claude Van Damme, both of whom have suspiciously chiseled beaks. Not Jackie Chan. His mashed-potato nose looks as if it has been the first line of defense, pounded against a thousand walls and kissed by a thousand knuckles. It’s his emblem, that nose, his white plume. It’s not only proof that he doesn’t resort to stuntmen, it’s also endearing–it makes him vaguely clownish. No superhero is more unassuming, less afraid to look silly. When he does strike a macho pose, he’s speedily shot down, often by some heart-stoppingly beautiful Chinese woman with a voice that cuts to his manhood like the screech of brakes on an onrushing semi. (These pouty Hong Kong women can go from mellifluous to piercing in midsyllable; they leave Jackie–and us–cringing.) In spirit, Chan is kin to the great movie clowns like Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd, whom he consciously emulates: a small, deferential, long-suffering fellow at whom life is always hurling things–in his case fists, feet, poles, hatchets, and–on especially busy days–missiles. The wit with which he fends them off has made him the most popular action hero in the world, and deservedly.

Jackie Chan’s First Strike is Jackie Chan’s third strike at the American market in the last year. (The first two were Rumble in the Bronx and Supercop, both commercially successful.) The new film is the most James-Bondian, but it’s also lean and swift and unpretentious. It gets smashingly to the point. Enlisted by the CIA, Hong Kong policeman Jackie (he’s called Jackie) trails a pair of spies to the subzero Ukraine and, in minutes, finds himself (without an overcoat) in the midst of a snowmobile/ski chase that leaves you lightheaded from sheer momentum. The camera rockets along with the screaming Jackie while bad guys on skis, sheathed from head to toe in white like post-nuclear Klansmen, drop from helicopters; the effect is both diaphanous and nerve-jangling. The director, Stanley Tong, isn’t a self-conscious stylist; he doesn’t call attention to his whiplash editing. But then, he doesn’t need to–not with an object like Chan at the center of the frame, and not with so many balletic performers seemingly willing to die for the sake of our enjoyment.

By now, American moviegoers have seen enough explosions and flying bodies to be thoroughly jaded. What we haven’t seen, though, is an action hero being kicked through the air, falling 20 feet, smashing against the hard ground, and getting up–in one shot. We see the kick (cut); we see the body falling through the air (cut); we see the star picking himself up from the ground and dusting himself off. But the whole thing in one shot–that’s a rush, that makes you scream, that’s something you can’t fake. There’s no substitute for fluidity, for a dangerous action begun and completed without the easy recourse of editing. Trained in dance and martial arts at the Beijing Opera, Chan does most of his hair-raising stunts himself, and he makes a fetish of the risks he takes. (Every Chan movie ends with outtakes, some of which reveal the star being carted off by ambulance.)

Chan fights with the staccato fury of Bruce Lee, then, in repose, shakes his head to clear the pain and gives a whinny-yip of frustration (that smarts!); it’s as if the soul of Lee had merged with Curly from the Three Stooges. He wins his fights not because he’s stronger and faster than his adversaries (although he often is, a lethal pretzel), but because he regards himself with less reverence: He’s willing to marshal some absurd weapon–a mop, a ladder–or to do something undignified–say, scamper like a monkey up the side of a building, or cram hot peppers into his mouth and spit in his opponents’ eyes. He isn’t too proud to give up, though. Often, he can be seen running away from a hopeless fight at speeds that suggest fast-motion. Or else, he’ll plant himself on a chair, resignedly waiting for the army of men with clubs to pummel him.

I t must be said that, as Chan has aged (he’s in his 40s, and most of his bones have been broken), he has had to cut back on some of his more twisty moves. For much of First Strike, I was impatient for the fists to fly. Following his Ukrainian ordeal, Jackie is enlisted by former KGB agents and sent to Australia, where he spends a lot of time dogging a dishy young woman whose profession consists of stripping down and diving into shark tanks at an aquarium. Yet, even without the old-style, 78 rpm fisticuffs, the fight scenes are awesomely inventive: Chan and Tong build sequences the way silent gagmen did–as a series of toppers. Take the long underwater kung-fu fight in the aquarium, where Jackie has lost his air hose. In the midst of the melee, the combatants suddenly freeze as a man-eating shark swims by, then resume with undiminished fervor. Desperate for air, Jackie points behind his foe with a look of horror; when the bad guy turns around, Jackie swipes the man’s hose to take a breath. The bad guy turns back, pissed at having been tricked; but his expression changes to horror, and he points behind Jackie, who shrugs him off (he won’t fall for that!), and we see what our hero doesn’t: a huge shark coming up behind him, jaws wide open.

The Hong Kong action masters have a healthy respect for gravity. They know just how much reality they need in otherwise outlandish fights, and they work with astounding choreographic precision. Confronted by 20 men with rods, Chan dives beneath a table, turns it over behind him, and throws it at his opponents; he ducks under one swinging rod then jumps over it; he rolls inside a scaffolding and twirls it around to fend off rods that come at him from above, below, and sideways. He fights with a mop, a broom, against two people, three, four; he grabs a giant ladder, folds it up, parries with it, opens it, goes inside it, swings it around, and then uses it, again, as a weapon. A fight, we learn, can be dizzyingly infinite in its variables.

The same cannot be said for the movie’s plot, which is sturdy enough to motivate the mayhem but otherwise so generic that it evaporates from memory. Much of its climactic dialogue is on the order of: “Get him!” “Chase her!” “Get them!” On the other hand, Jackie Chan’s First Strike doesn’t have the dumb low comedy that marked Rumble in the Bronx, and it’s dubbed better than any other Chan picture: It should cement his U.S. celebrity. But it’s a shame that America did not discover Chan at the height of his physical agility. I’ve been going to see his movies in Chinatown (New York and San Francisco) theaters since 1985, and it breaks my heart that most Yanks won’t have the chance to view Project A, Project A II, Police Story II, or Drunken Master II on the big screen. You can watch most of Chan’s work on tape, but home video is an especially poor medium for Hong Kong action movies, which thrive on the circus cries that attend each stupendous stunt, and are choreographed for a wide screen. On tape, the cropping at both sides of the frame cuts off flying limbs and renders much of the action incomprehensible; the sense of horizontal spaciousness is what these films are about.

They’re also, in a strange way, about modesty. Sylvester Stallone has said that his late father, seeing the wonderful original Rocky (where Sly looked just great), complained about the puniness of his son’s physique; and I think about that when I see Stallone now, grotesquely bulging in all those low-angle close-ups meant to give him stature. It’s as if he’s saying, “See, Daddy, I’m a big man,” and it’s sad. American action heroes are always Big Men, bigger than anyone else on screen: So where’s the challenge? We can learn not only from Jackie Chan’s mastery, but from his diffidence. He photographs himself to look more compact, perhaps on the premise that that the less room you take up in the frame, the more room there is to explode. He comes out ahead by a big broken nose.

A basic Jackie Chan action sequence (30 seconds):

Basic Jackie Chan action sequence II (28 seconds):