These days, Jackie Chan is a joke. He can still clean up at the box office with movies like Rush Hour 3 and The Forbidden Kingdom, but describe the man as an “artist” and watch people burst into laughter. This puts him in good company. Charlie Chaplin ended his life in political exile, Buster Keaton was a forgotten shadow when he died, and Jacques Tati’s last major film bankrupted him.
It may seem perverse to compare the man who stars in the remake of The Karate Kid to three of the greatest filmmakers of all time, but take a look at Jackie Chan’s body of work outside of Hollywood, and the parallels with these legendary figures are striking. All four men are director/performers who exerted absolute control over their movies, creating alternate worlds where the laws of physics were up for grabs. Improvising their movies, working consistently with the same crew of dedicated craftsmen, they didn’t just turn out filmed stories, they made movies in the purest sense. A Buster Keaton or a Jackie Chan movie sounds simplistic when you describe the plot, but when you watch it, the physicality of the performance and the originality of the filmmaking are virtuosic. In the West, Chan is sold as a sideshow freak: See the Chinaman risk his life to entertain you! No stuntmen! No wires! Read a list of his injuries and marvel that he can still walk! But beyond the life-threatening stunts, beyond the broken bones, he is one of cinema’s great artists. Click here for a video slide show on the genius of Jackie Chan.