Even though Jackie Chan is working on a new Police Story film (Police Story 2013), his days of big and crazy action are apparently at an end with Chinese Zodiac. You can see some of that death-defying action at the Jackie Chan Experience retrospective in NYC for the next few days, but Chan is definitely in a transition period as a performer and filmmaker.
Movies like 1911, The Shinjuku Incident, and Little Big Soldier are pointing toward a new kind of experimentation and risk taking for Chan. I know he doesn’t need unsolicited career advice (e.g., like how he should remake Gene Kelly’s It’s Always Fair Weather), but this idea popped into my head a few weeks ago and just seems so obvious and so right.
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I just want that one day, when I retire, that people still remember me like they remember Buster [Keaton]. I really want someone to respect me the way they respect Buster.
— Jackie Chan, quoted in “The Lyric Poet of the Silent Screen: A Profile of Buster Keaton” by Chris Wood
Chan has spent his entire career paying homage to the legendary silent clowns of the past. In Project A, he dangled from a clock like Harold Lloyd in Safety Last. In Project A Part II, he recreated Buster Keaton’s famous falling house bit from Steamboat Bill Jr., a film which also seemed to inform some of the wind tunnel gags in Armour of God 2: Operation Condor. And of course there’s Chaplin, whose little tramp gets riffed on in The Fearless Hyena; there’s also a bit of Modern Times in the Project A clock tower sequence. Chaplin’s influence was given a goofy wink/inversion via Shanghai Knights: during a marketplace fight, a Dickensian version of young Charlie Chaplin marvels at the stylish movements of Jackie Chan. Chan uses an umbrella rather than a cane, but there’s something oddly perfect about that moment; ditto the Chaplinesque use of an umbrella in the bus chase from Police Story.
Though Lloyd and Chaplin inform much of Chan’s work, Chan always seemed closest to Buster Keaton. There’s a lot to be said about the stuntwork and inventiveness of both filmmakers. Keaton constructed elaborate sight gags about chain reactions, unforeseen consequences, narrow escapes, clever solutions, and closed loops of cause and effect. While present in all of his silent works, these qualities are best showcased in The General, a masterpiece of visual comedy and derring do.
I think that broad description of Keaton’s comic sensibilities applies to a lot of Chan’s work. In many of his fight scenes involving large groups — the Amazons in Armour of God or the hatchet gang in Drunken Master 2 — Chan has a way of circling around, setting chain reactions of moves in place, and capping little sequences in fights with a punchline. Both Keaton and Chan struggle against insurmountable odds, doing impossible and improbable acts to get small things and big things done. In a movie like Rush Hour, Chan fights goons while saving antique vases, which is such an oddly Keaton thing to do; the same can be said about the overly ornate way he tries to answer calls and eat noodles in Police Story.
I remember hearing film lecturer Greg Kahn once saying that Jackie Chan generally doesn’t portray rebels but instead plays characters who are frustrated conformists. For some reason that phrase “frustrated conformist” fit with Chan’s filmography of cops, sailors, and the occasional average Joe who happens to know how to fight. These characters are all just trying to get by without being chewed up by the machinery of the universe. I don’t think I’d call Keaton a frustrated conformist, but there might be something there that ties Chan and Keaton together.
Chan usually isn’t as stone-faced as Keaton, which isn’t a bad thing. Chan’s face is more elastic and made for winces to underscore the broad comedy and pratfalls. This was part of Chan’s attempt to be the anti-Bruce Lee in the era of Bruceploitation movies. (After the death of Bruce Lee, a bunch of Bruce Lee wannabes tried to make names for themselves.) Yet Chan’s face sometimes mirrors Keaton’s blankness. These moments of understatement usually come after something incredible has occurred — he’s just climbed over a fence in defiance of gravity, he’s just tied up bad guys in their own shirt sleeves, he’s put on his hat with a flourish that resembles sleight of hand. That’s the real connective tissue between Keaton and Chan: as physical comedians, they make audiences wonder how they did what they just did and how they made it look easy.
You may have noticed that I wrote “silent comedy” rather than “silent action movie.” This isn’t because Chan is getting older and he can’t fight anymore. (Chan has a great factory fight scene in Chinese Zodiac that shows he’s still got it, though the action is undercranked like an early 80s Hong Kong movie.) The General is action-packed, but for some reason I always think of it as a comedy before I think of it as an adventure film or an action picture. Chan should do this silent movie with visual comedy at the forefront and action as a kind of seasoning or accent. The action shouldn’t attempt the scale of Operation Condor either. I’d rather Chan make this movie on the cheap, focusing less on big thrills and special effects and more on a purity of movement like his early films when he was just making his name.
During the Q & A that preceded Chinese Zodiac here in New York, Chan described his improvisational working method from the heydays of Hong Kong. There’s an elaborate comedy sequence in Project A Part II that involves multiple people hiding, moving in and out of eyelines, and evading detection while in an apartment. Chan said it took weeks to figure out who goes where and to get the timing down, and it was created on set without the script, like improv and problem solving. His approach to comedy is just like his approach to fight choreography. By divesting the film of sound and relying solely on his knack for the visual, Chan could potentially do something really special.
I have no idea what the story for this silent Jackie Chan film could be, and I wouldn’t feel comfortable suggesting one. The form is enough of a challenge and a game — like a playground for Chan’s imagination, or a warehouse full of props. In all honesty, I’d love to see him do a silent film that’s relatively small scale because many of Chan’s films in the last 15 years have been overblown and overproduced. Not only would a modern silent be a path back to his heroes, but it’d be a great exercise in back-to-basics storytelling and scene creation. Chan never needed to rely on blockbuster spectacle to be great. Like Keaton, Chan’s creativity and ingenuity is spectacle enough.