“In the pantheon of movie action heroes, there is only one true god, and his name is Jackie Chan.”
—The Washington Post, 1998
When I found myself deep in the bush in northern Uganda in June 1997, a 12-hour bus ride from the nearest city, I had one of those memorable conversations that can only happen with people from different cultures and life experiences.
I sat outside of my darkened guest house, under a star-filled sky, talking with a young man. We had just met and were trying to learn what we had in common. We instantly found a shared love: Hong Kong action films starring Jackie Chan.
He couldn’t believe that I knew about the Hong Kong film star, or that I had favorite Chan films and even favorite Chan action sequences. We laughed and formed a memorable, short-lived bond because of the artistry of perhaps the world’s most famous action star and Hong Kong-native, Chan. We both loved him because he spoke a universal language on film that blended action, dance, grace, and physical comedy.
At that time, Chan already was a bona fide celebrity, having made dozens of Hong Kong action films few Americans had ever seen. Those films set the standard for physical comedy, death-defying stunts, and creative genius in a genre I can only describe by calling it Jackie Chan cinema.
My favorite of his actioners is the 1994 classic Drunken Master 2, which assembled some of the most elaborate stunt work I have ever seen.
As with all of Chan’s films, he did his own stunts and racked up countless broken bones and even near-death experiences.
In a Chan film, you can feel the brutality of a fall, the smack of a blunt weapon on the back, and the sweat falling off an actor’s face as a fist cracks their jaw. One of the funnest choreographed set pieces I adore comes from his 2003 Owen Wilson buddy flick set in Victorian England, called Shanghai Knights. In one scene, Chan riffs on Gene Kelly’s graceful dancing, using the Singing in the Rain soundtrack, as he escapes a gang of English ruffians with a deft touch that the great Kelly would adore.
Finally Meeting my Favorite Action Hero in the Flesh
A year after my trip, in 1998, Chan burst into the lives of American filmgoers with his buddy action comedy Rush Hour, co-starring Chris Rock. Since that time, Chan has continued to crank out films at a furious pace, and continued to get injured and trash his body as only Chan can.
In 1999, I finally saw my film icon for my first and only time at a book signing at a Seattle shopping center. That is where I snapped this photograph. There were hundreds of fans, waiting in line to see their beloved action star and have him sign a copy of his semi-autobiographic memoir, I Am Jackie Chan. The intensity of the adoration astounded me. I could suddenly understand why a young man in Uganda felt that personal connection.
To a filmgoer, Chan provides a guaranteed promise of pure cinematic escapism. The plots, outside of his earlier kung fu genre pieces, are flimsy at best. The films mostly provide a vehicle for him to cleverly battle his foes, improvise escapes from impossible closed spaces, experience immense physical pain, and somehow save the little guy. Anyone who sees a Chan film knows that Chan has beat himself up for all of them and is fighting just for them as he gets pummeled by bad guys in all directions, before he manages to limp away and escape.
A Star Is Trained
Chan likely draws from the deep well of his own tough experiences being born in poverty, in 1954, in gritty and bustling Hong Kong.
A new Chan memoir just came out, Never Grow Up. The co-written tome provides insights into the cruelty of his brutal childhood and teenage apprenticeship and growing up poor in the former British colony. When he was 7 years old, Chan’s parents placed him in the China Drama Academy, a facility that cranked out performers for Peking operas and other popular acrobatic shows. Left by his parents who went to Australia, Chan was signed up for a 10-year “contract” that more resembled old-fashioned indentured servitude.
According to a story about his memoir in The New Republic, his formative years, were stark and brutal: “For ten years, Chan trained all day long, from 5 a.m. to 11 p.m., with breaks for lunch and dinner. Along with the other boys, he slept on a thin mat, on a carpet encrusted with sweat, spit, and piss. When he misbehaved, he was beaten with canes; when he fell ill, he was told to suck it up and keep practicing his kung fu.”
It was during that time that star we love as Jackie Chan became that Jackie Chan, through the process that only comes from intense study.
The same story notes the China Drama Academy helped blaze the trail for Chan’s success in three ways. It created lifelong friendships with fellow action stars like Sammo Hung, who helped out Chan in his early films and later co-starred with him. It gave him the skills for stunt work and martial arts, which was the currency of the Hong Kong film industry when Chan came of age in the 1970s and later. It also “turned his body into an instrument that could withstand ungodly amounts of pain.”
That pain is nowhere to be found in this picture I snapped above. I remember a feeling of elation that I finally met a man who spoke a universal language that can bring together people around the world, rooting for the underdog, who always manages to escape calamity with cosmic luck, his fast fists, and the will power to win.