Friday, July 9, 2010

When is a Jackie Chan movie not a Jackie Chan movie?

One cynical response to the question above might be, "When he is making a junkie kiddie movie like The Tuxedo and The Medallion." But what mars those films is not that they are intended for a juvenile audience, but because their employment of second-rate wire work and other tricks comprises what Jackie Chan is. What is important about Jackie Chan is that he is what he does, and what you see him doing is something he actually did, even if it's undercranked or the set has been adjusted to fit his physical capacities perfectly. Thus, in the more recent kiddie movie The Spy Next Door (2010), we still have the delight of seeing him effortlessly scramble up the face of a suburban house to perch himself on the roof of the garage and fetch a lost ball. It is a trick that goes back to Douglas Fairbanks, and that's a pretty good pedigree for an action film.

I'm gradually zeroing in on my own film aesthetic, and Jackie Chan lies at the heart of it, which is a perpetual tension between narrative and actuality. And actuality embraces the contrived, when it is being filmed honestly. Dancing and singing skills are real--and we hate it when they're not--but not necessarily narrative. Likewise with kung fu and other martial arts. Even with the contrived elements, the skills involved are real. And we enjoy that. But if there is nothing but singing or nothing but martial arts, not only does the film fall apart, but we are bored. If the performance is in proper proportion to the story, but not integral to the story, we accept it, but we are not satisfied. The triumph of Jackie Chan over his predecessors in martial arts films is similar to the triumph of the musicals of the 1950s and 1960s which found a way to incorporate performance without interrupting narrative. That is, narrative is incorporated into the performance. Hence, Jackie's emphasis on and skill with incorporating the settings and props at hand in a fight sequence, regardless of how unorthodox they may be in formal rules of fighting. This integration of story and performance is why Chaplin, Lloyd and Keaton's feature films continue to be satisfying (and needing no explanations or apologies for modern audiences) while Keystone comedies pretty much tire out the viewer after one short subject.

This integration of narrative demonstrates that Jackie Chan has always been more interested in being a good filmmaker than being "the greatest fighter in the world." Such an interest seems to have brought him to Shinjuku Incident (2009), a gangster story, reportedly based on fact, centering on Chinese being smuggled illegally into Japan, and pushed into underground and outlaw businesses. It has much the feeling of a Warner Bros. picture of the early 30s, with Jackie's character as a fundamentally decent guy pushed into crime via necessity. Most interesting in comparison with Jackie's larger body of work is the way fights begin and end in this movie--and there are fights.

Fights in martial arts movies begin the way songs begin in musicals--there is a little pause to shift gears, to tell the audience "get set--here comes a fight/song." Perhaps we need to adjust our expectations, or the performers just need to get ready to operate in a different mode. But we all know there is a transition, enjoy when it is smooth, and feel that little lurch when it is rough. Because these are performances coming. They are to be enjoyed, savored even.

But a fight in a dramatic film, like Shinjuku, like From Here to Eternity or Bad Day at Black Rock is an expression of narrative conflict, not of performance skills. So they start without preamble and usually end without triumph. Thus, Jackie finds himself surrounded by opponents and begins flailing away--not with moves developed by training, but the way any strong and reasonably nimble man would do to keep danger at bay. That Jackie brings a lot of dignity to the role is no surprise to anyone familiar with the body of his work.

And uncharacteristically, he does not have the flashiest role--that distinction belongs to Daniel Wu as Jie, who is as good-natured as Jackie but lacks the inner steel to become a criminal. He undergoes some violence and then a personal transformation. Jackie's performance when he finds Jie's body proves that he is a real actor.

Of course, there are others that could do what Jackie does in this film, and no one else who can do what he does in his own films. But that does not mean he is not entitled to prove himself as an actor in a film like this. After all, nobody thinks Cary Grant or Harrison Ford can act, because they are not in the kinds of films in which you catch anybody "acting"--that is, visibly and often theatrically emoting, in the Meryl Streep mode.

I suppose Jackie is used to being underestimated, and they're still doing it, as the Karate Kid remake was not expected to be the hit it has become. I hope to write about that in the near future.

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