A little less than halfway through Rumble in the Bronx, Jackie Chan is cornered between a car and a high fence on the top level of a five-story parking garage, with a gang of vengeful punks eager to beat the hell out of him. After a few moments of seeming defeat, Jackie leaps onto one of the automobiles, takes a few running steps, and makes an unaided leap into the air and across the street far below, making a perfect crash landing on a balcony on the next building over. As anyone who’s been paying attention knows, Jackie does his own stunts, and this crazy trick, coming at the tail-end of an extended, expertly choreographed chase scene, is no exception. It makes you want to scream and applaud madly and hell, I’m not ashamed to say that I did.
Now, I’m no stranger to Jackie Chan, and as Jackie Chan movies go, Rumble in the Bronx is really nothing special. (My first recommendations to friends are usually Drunken Master 2, a great martial-arts showcase, and Police Story, a cool cop movie with outrageous stunts that was actually released on video in the U.S. as Jackie Chan’s Police Force.) What’s unusual is that New Line Cinema had the confidence to pick Rumble up for U.S. distribution, slapping a new (digitally mixed) soundtrack on it and trucking it out to a theater near you. Not only is it getting released, but New Line is slathering on the full marketing blitz, touring Jackie around the U.S. and getting worshipful coverage from CNN, MTV, and the Letterman show, among others. The question, of course, remains: can Jackie Chan beat the hype? My guess — almost certainly.
Jackie is Keong, a tourist spending some time in Vancouver, um, I mean New York City, to help out his uncle, who is selling the family’s south Bronx grocery store and taking a honeymoon with his very American sweetheart. Jackie agrees to stay on for a week to help the store’s new owner (Anita Mui) adjust to the neighborhood, and winds up embroiled in a grudge match with the local street gang. To complicate matters, it turns out that the young handicapped boy whom Jackie befriends is not only the sister of a gang moll (Francoise Yip), but also unwittingly involved in the mob’s search for some missing diamonds. The ensuing pandemonium makes good use of pinball machines, a metal crutch, a dozen different ways to clobber someone with a ski, a sports car, a really big monkey wrench, and a hovercraft.
It’s impossible to describe in mere words the full freewheeling scope of all the leaping, kicking, spinning, pushing, pulling, and punching included in this film, but you’ll have to trust me when I tell you it works like a charm. Actual cinematic razzle-dazzle has never been a particular strength of Jackie’s often uneven films (though the editing is always good, because it has to be), but Rumble is a solid, good-looking picture. Especially striking is another scene where Jackie’s got his back against the wall, helpless as his adversaries pummel him with liquor bottles that tumble through the air and shatter in tantalizing, low-key slo-mo. It’s enough to make you forget, until things get really silly, that this is a Hong Kong movie shot in Canada and dubbed into English. On a big screen with digital sound, it sure packs a wallop.
Jackie’s supporting players are terrific. Mui is smart and ambitious, but comically vulnerable under stress, the perfect candidate for Chan’s protection. Yip is the other side of the (admittedly stereotypical) female coin, a gorgeous biker/exotic dancer who’s eventually captured as a hostage but never treated with the run-of-the-mill sadism that characterizes so many action pictures. It’s egalitarian enough that the kid (whose name I didn’t catch) is in a wheelchair through much of the movie, but it’s even better that the kid gloves are off. As a fully formed member of the cast, he’s fair game for the bad guys, who toss him around like a rag doll and even beat him up a little.
Jackie himself is beyond reproach. This charming superstar is aging gracefully, and when he practices his technique on a martial arts dummy in his uncle’s living room, it’s a tantalizing portent of fast times to come. His technique involves sheer stunning athleticism, a healthy and occasionally self-deprecating ego, an eye for the outrageously theatrical, and a sense of his relationship with the audience that recalls Buster Keaton’s. Just as his “Great Stone Face” moniker belied Keaton’s true emotional range, Jackie Chan’s “chop-socky” reputation denies the tremendous pleasure of his dance-like choreography and violent physicality. The cathartic, edge-of-your-seat rush that comes with seeing a Jackie Chan film in a movie theater is one of this generation’s great cinematic pleasures.
But are audiences likely to embrace the occasionally goofy humor or sentimentality of a Hong Kong film? Rumble does have something of a fairy-tale quality, with the action stopping dead at one point so Jackie can lecture the gang members (a la Martin Scorsese’s video for Michael Jackson’s “Bad”) on their bad attitudes, but it’s refreshing to see a movie that’s so honest in its motives. And after the royal ass-kicking that Chan deals to all comers, it sure seems that he’s earned the right to spend about 20 seconds of screen time preaching the gospel. After all, it beats Steven Segal’s newfound environmental awareness, or the postmodern posturing of another Batman movie. (The real irony may be that this movie, so careful with its ultimate moral message that irresponsible violence is bad, is rated R.)
The net effect? The packed house I sat with seemed more than ready for a dose of charm and naive sentiment, especially if it’s wrapped around breathless action scenes that deliver like a half-dozen Segal flicks distilled and concentrated in one 90-minute package. For at least a brief moment, as far as American audiences are concerned, this little Chinese guy may be the Man Who Saved Action Cinema (Drunken Master 2 and Crime Story are waiting in the wings). My advice? Enjoy it while you can — that is, while Hollywood needs Jackie more than Jackie needs Hollywood. One of these days, through the miracle of digital effects, Hollywood is going to figure out a way to have Jean Claude Van Damme or Arnold Schwarzenegger waterski in their bare feet, effortlessly, and God help us then.