Courtesy photo
Interviewed at the Ritz-Carlton in
San Francisco, February 6, 1996

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Does Jackie Chan dream of eclectic stunts?
Hong Kong action king takes another shot at America

It's a funny feeling, sitting in a seventh-story suite at the Ritz-Carlton in San Francisco talking to Jackie Chan, arguably the world's biggest movie star, and not feeling nervous or humbled.

But then this is America, where Jackie Chan is mostly known as "that martial arts guy from 'Cannonball Run'," so maybe it doesn't feel like sitting down with cinematic legend.

Or maybe it's because Chan is so humble himself, smiling widely and welcoming another gaggle of reporters into his hotel room to quiz him about "Rumble in the Bronx," his first wide release in the American market since "The Big Brawl," which came and went in 1980 with barely a ripple at the box office.

Sporting a small bruise on his temple from the filming of his latest movie, "Thunderbolt," (which American distributor New Line Cinema will release next year) Chan shakes hands and sits down on the edge of a plush chair, as if he wants to be ready to jump up at any given moment to illustrate a point.

The claim to fame of Jackie Chan is not that he has starred in, written, directed and/or produced many of the 43 films he's made in the last 36 years. What makes Jackie Chan a legend is that choreographs all the rapid-fire fights in his movies and that he does all his own breath-taking stunts -- stunts that he deliberately edits to show the audience no stuntman was used.

In "Rumble" this includes jumping from a 20-story building on to the fire escape of the building across the street, having dozens of glass bottles thrown at his head by a gang in an alley and crashing a Lamborgini into a hovercraft.

Chan says he was surprised when New Line bought "Rumble" for release in North America because his trademark hero is not a superman and his movies are not special effects extravaganzas, both of which are staples of the American action movie.

"I tell my manager 'No, no, no.' I don't think this movie can get American market," he says in his confident but somewhat broken English. "Because right now I look at American movie, they are too big. Look at 'Waterworld,' 'Terminator 2.' My movie small potato. How can I get that market?"

Chan's production company makes the most expensive movies in Asia, sometimes even topping $20 million -- practically low-budget by Hollywood standards.

He says he is always learning from American movies, but has stopped looking to Hollywood action films for ideas.

"(Now) when I look at American movie, I'm very disappointed, for myself. Why? Nothing to learn. All computer," he says gesturing toward a reporter's laptop. "Even now you give me a computer, I don't know how to type.

"I say, 'Incredible! How can they do that? Where does that stunt come from?' Then I try to buy a lot of book. Oh! I know, that's the special effect with the blue background," he says, referring to the blue-screen method of super-imposing an actor into a scene to give the illusion of an amazing stunt. "OK, even if they give me the book I don't know how to do it. I don't know technology. I don't know even zip."

So Chan sticks to what he does know, action-comedy, the variation on the stunt-driven genre that Hollywood has embraced so passionately in the last 10 years with films like "Die Hard" and "Demolition Man."

Chan's movies have always had large doses of humor. A fight scene in "Rumble" takes place in an appliance warehouse where Chan smacks his opponents in the head with refrigerator doors and televisions.

He was driven to use comedy in his early career when he was being groomed to be "the next Bruce Lee." He realized, he has said, that his small frame and friendly features would prevent him from being the intense presence his producers wanted.

The everyman hero was born of frustration with these expectations, as was the comedy he picked up from silent film comedians and the choreography he learned from musicals.

"First I learn action from American stuntman. Punch, kicking," he says, jumping out of his chair with a lightning-quick turn and a kick.

"Then comedy I learn from Buster Keaton. Then to Gene Kelley...ahh, yes! Before we fighting in Chinese style," he jumps up again making mechanical Kung Fu movements and sounds to match. "After the editing we look at it. Very boring.

"When I look at Gene Kelley it give me new idea. Why? Because before they're just hear that sound," he shuffles his feet and makes tap dancing noises with his tongue, "If 10 minutes like this, very boring. But suddenly the music come up (he starts singing), suddenly the music stop (tap dancing noise again). Then I said, 'Yes! That's the rhythm.'"

Chan goes on to list Donald Duck and Dustin Hoffman among his inspirations for his recurring underdog character, saying of Hoffman "he's not very tough, but people like him."

The dance-like choreography of his movie fights is never far from his head, Chan says, and he is constantly visualizing potential fights scenes and stunts wherever he goes.

He describes the previous afternoon when he spotted two skyscrapers in downtown San Francisco that were about four feet apart and says he would like to shoot a scene in which he escapes the antagonist by walking down between buildings, his back on one and his feet on the other.

Asked about what kind of stunt he would do from the room we are in, he looks out the window and at first says there's no way. But two seconds later he changes his mind.

"We change another location. Two more floor down, then there's a tree," he says, holding on to the window frame and leaning out to survey the landscape and pointing. "OK, I jump to the tree first, then on the car.

"I use one shot," he says, siting his desire to show the stunt would not be faked. "I don't use cut, cut, cut, cut. That's my trademark."

He looked like he might just do it right then and there, which wouldn't have come as a surprise. Chan is the Evil Knievel of the movie business, with dozens of broken bones on his resume and hundreds of injuries to his crew members as well. The credits of his films are always run over out-takes of blown stunts and the resulting visits from paramedics.

He returns to his chair and segues into the difference between his Hong Kong crew and American stuntmen.

"American, I think they are very professional. They are very careful. We are not calculators, we just do it," he grins. "When we're filming (I say), 'Can we do that?' The American stuntman: 'Um, yeah, next week. We have to count this, count that.' Then when American stuntman go away, my group go into it right away. 'Hmm. Yes, we will try it. OK, let's do it!'"

Chan leaves his chair again and acts out the scene as he describes it, jumping and falling back on his seat: "Boom! Hospital. Out. Next! Boom! Out. But we finish the shot in one day. American stuntman say I'm crazy. I don't care...I get hurt, but that's OK."

Despite his action and fight-oriented storylines, Chan says he tries to keeps "real violence" to a minimum. His movies seem closer to a Road Runner cartoon than a Steven Segal movie, and although "Rumble" somehow received an "R" rating, it's light-weight when it comes to violence.

"I hate violence, but I like action. Very dilemma...Really violent movie, I really hate it. Really disgusting," he says, somewhat over-simplifying the issue. "So now in my movie, I always tell children good things. All my movie, I have some message. That's my philosophy."

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