Jackie Chan leaps into prominence Stuntman: The Hong Kong movie star hopes his brand of good-humored mayhem will put him into the American pantheon.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Jackie Chan is plotting his escape from this interview. The room is essentially empty, save for two chairs, one lined up behind the other; Chan sits backward in his chair, facing his inquisitor in the other chair. He sizes up the situation.

"I'm handcuffed, and you're the bad guy, just sitting there," Mr. Chan says -- hypothetically, of course. "I'm sitting here," he continues, rocking his chair playfully, an impish expression on his face. "And you're reading a newspaper, and then I get up." He gets up, and starts innocently dancing around the room, humming a deceptively happy tune.

"And you say, 'Shut up! Sit down!' and I sit back down in the chair facing you. And then suddenly I'll " And here Mr. Chan makes a dramatic sound effect (his conversations are routinely peppered with percussive sound effects) of something getting smashed -- in this case, his captor's feet. He slams his chair down, the chair's back actually just missing said feet, and rolls over the chair back with a somersault.

"And you're going, 'Aauuugh!' Then comes one kick, and then another kick!" From the ground, Mr. Chan feigns kicking the jaw of his interviewer with one foot snapping near his foe's face, quickly followed by the other.

He rises from the floor and mimes removing his handcuffs. Satisfied with the imaginary carnage he has wrought, he smiles and says, "That's reasonable."

This is simply the way Jackie Chan thinks. Average people would walk into a room or through a shopping mall or down a city street and ignore almost everything around them. Mr. Chan scans the same area and asks himself, "How can I use this stuff to create mayhem?"

Mr. Chan, Hong Kong's premier action star, is touted as the most popular star in the world -- his movies may make less than, say, Arnold Schwarzenegger's, but thanks to the way they blanket Asia and other areas, they're seen by more people. He's so revered by fans in Asia that he tries to keep his private life extremely private, though it is known that he's married, with a 12-year-old son.

He has a cult following in the United States that he hopes will broaden significantly with the recent release of "Rumble in the Bronx," a breathlessly frenetic action comedy (with Vancouver standing in unconvincingly, but gorgeously, for the New York borough) that finds Mr. Chan scrapping with a gang of largely ineffectual thugs, then uniting with them to battle a crime lord.

Mr. Chan, 42, exudes an easygoing, boyish charm in his movies, but the chief reason for his appeal is the fact that he choreographs and performs all his stunts, frequently outlandish and even foolhardy exploits of acrobatic derring-do. Fans cherish and respect his meticulous attention to action sequences as well as his sheer bravura when it comes to putting his life in danger to capture an exciting cinematic moment. Put it this way: Mr. Chan is probably the only person on the planet who has been smashed into by a land-bound Hovercraft and an airborne helicopter.

"Maybe I'll get hurt, but we'll say, 'But it's a good shot!' and we'll continue from there," he says.

"When other filmmakers do stunts, they'll cheat a little," he says. "In my films, there's an explosion, and then we'll jump, but others will have them jump before the explosion. It's safer, but not as exciting. Now, we have a reputation -- we're the Jackie Chan Stunt Team. It's not easy, but we don't do anything to ruin our image after all these years."

Forget special effects

Likewise, Mr. Chan has no use for actors who won't do at least a little stunt work and is appalled that directors leave some action sequences to second-unit directors. He disdainfully dismisses the opening sequence from "Goldeneye," the latest James Bond movie: "From the first shot until [Pierce Brosnan] opens the door, all a [stunt] double," Mr. Chan says. "This is 007, he should at least run or jump or do something.

"Why, in Hollywood, don't they have this kind of style anymore?" he asks. "It's all special effects nowadays. They don't try to improve the stunt work. Nowadays, all they improve is the computer.

"When I was younger, I learned a lot from American movies -- action, reactions, everything. Now, everyone learns from me." He smiles broadly. "I'm so happy."

Mr. Chan became the heir to Bruce Lee's throne back in the '70s, but only after failing with a series of chop-socky movies that wanly aped the martial-arts legend. Success wasn't ensured until he melded his balletic battle choreography with healthy dollops of humor in 1978's "Drunken Master"(about a young kung fu fighter who is only at full power when he's inebriated; a recent sequel went the responsible route and decried alcohol consumption).

Since then, Mr. Chan has labored mightily to top himself. Perhaps his most outrageous stunt involved jumping from a building to a rope ladder hanging beneath a hovering helicopter and then riding it around a city as part of an astonishing sequence in 1992's "Police Story III: Supercop." (Miramax tentatively plans to release "Supercop" and "Drunken Master II" later this year.)

"Everything is crazy," Mr. Chan says. "I decide all the stunts, so if I think I can do it, I'll try it. I'm thinking, I might not have a helicopter stunt in the next movie, so if I don't do it here, I don't know when I will.

"Of course, I'm scared. Before a practice, you tell the helicopter how far you can jump, put them in the right place. But the helicopter pilot couldn't see exactly where I was telling him to be. If anything happened, the helicopter pilot told me, if I had jumped onto the ladder and something went wrong with the 'copter, he would have pushed a button releasing the ladder and down I'd go. That's scary. He said, 'I'll have to let go, otherwise, my 'copter would go down.' Of course, there's a mat down there, but I'm 10 stories high, so a mat would be like putting a sponge down there."

During "Supercop," Chan actually got thumped by the helicopter. He was hanging on a pole that was supposed to swing out over a passing train, and jump onto the train while the helicopter passed. The crew members, alas, didn't secure their rope to the pole, and when they tried to pull the pole out over the train, the rope fell free and the pole stayed put. "And the helicopter comes along and booom!" Chan says.

"I was out. Totally out," he continues. "It always happens, this kind of thing." Incredibly, Chan broke nothing, but did sport a huge bruise that took up most of his back.

"Rumble in the Bronx" produced a major injury: Mr. Chan broke his foot jumping from a bridge onto the Hovercraft (as with all Chan movies, the resulting botched takes and injuries are shown during the closing credits). He also was run over by the Hovercraft -- he was supposed to hide in a hole dug in the ground, but the Hovercraft hit him with such force he landed beyond the hole -- but, again incredibly, sustained no injuries from that misadventure.

Survivor

Mr. Chan mimics the high buzzing sound of the Hovercraft's turbo. "I pushed myself as deeply as I can into the sand," he says. "It rolled over me, and all these plastic things, I don't know what they are, are slapping at me as it's going over me. Sand is blowing in my face, my nose, my ears. Then there's a huge sound, I can't breathe, then it's gone. Then it passes over me and I sigh, I survived."

Mr. Chan -- who says he will retire in three years, but then, he has threatened to retire several times in the past -- believes "Rumble in the Bronx" represents his last, best chance to penetrate the elusive American market, and even then, he's not sure.

Clearly, Mr. Chan is ambivalent about coming to America. He tried it once, in the early '80s, and found himself frustrated by the fact that Hollywood refused to let him perform at his optimal level (remember "Cannonball Run II"? Mr. Chan hopes not).

Blockbuster appeal

Still, the idea of working on a splashy, Hollywood-style mega-blockbuster ("Rumble" cost $20 million, about half the budget of the most modestly priced Hollywood action flick) has its appeal.

"I really hope to work in America," he says. "When I hear about 'Terminator 2' or about Stallone's movies costing $70 million, I think, 'Wow!' James Cameron, Steven Spielberg, Quentin Tarantino -- if they used their technique with my brand of action, that would be something special."

And yet, a breath or two later, Mr. Chan changes his tune: "I always tell myself, I cannot get into Hollywood. I know, I know. It's very hard to break into the American market. Don't put too much hope in it." How "Rumble" does in theaters could well decide whether the world's most popular star joins Mr. Van Damme and Mr. Schwarzenegger as a foreign-born Hollywood mega-hero or is consigned to mere cult status in the world's biggest movie market.

Pub Date: 3/10/96

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