Rating * Has redeeming facet

Directed by Stanley Tong

Written by Edward Tang, Fibe Ma, and Lee Wai Yee

With Jackie Chan, Michelle Khan, and Maggie Cheung.

By Anthony Puccinelli

The box-office success of Jackie Chan’s Rumble in the Bronx surprised many. But why? Much more surprising is the success of crappy American films like The Rock and Broken Arrow. Rumble in the Bronx was revelatory because it showed what an action film could and should be: not a series of explosions and flashes of shrapnel flying across the screen, but an homage to the beauty and excitement of the human body in movement.

The American action film of the 80s and 90s has depended almost entirely on special effects for its thrills. Terminator 2 captivated audiences with one of the first and most expert uses of morphing. Every year since, there’s been some new special effect in the latest Schwarzenegger epic to satisfy the American taste for novelty. But with Jurassic Park the endlessly creative Steven Spielberg proved that stars such as Schwarzenegger, Seagal, and Stallone could be replaced by stars such as Attenborough, Goldblum, and Neill–who in turn will probably be replaced by robots. Audiences didn’t go see Jurassic Park for the human beings; they went for the dinosaurs. Along with the star system, Spielberg incidentally disposed of other inessentials, such as story. The result is movies like Twister and Independence Day (or, as fans say with nauseating familiarity, “ID4”)–movies lacking stars and stories, movies pretending to be amusement parks. The problem is that they’re inferior amusement parks. A roller coaster can throw your stomach into your mouth. In the 1974 Earthquake you could at least feel the seat rumble. But in 20 years, Independence Day will look as dated as the Flash Gordon serials of the 1930s, if not television’s Clutch Cargo.

Buster Keaton, on the other hand, will be around forever, because it’s unlikely that human beings will ever go out-of-date the way special effects do. Keaton running and clambering onto a moving Civil War train in The General is infinitely more exciting than Christian Slater jumping from a helicopter onto a speeding locomotive in Broken Arrow because what Keaton does is real, and the camera captures and preserves his feats for posterity. In Broken Arrow we never see Slater (or the stuntman, for that matter) leaping from the helicopter to the train. Instead there are several cuts, and we must suspend our disbelief and assume that the feat has been accomplished. Which means that it’s no feat at all.

The greatest compliment one can pay Jackie Chan is to call him the Buster Keaton of the 80s and 90s. Rumble in the Bronx is distinguished by hundreds of witty choreographic and comic details interwoven with the larger fabric of the story. Unfortunately, the latest Chan film edited and dubbed into English is a dreary letdown. Lax in its details, distinguished only by its set pieces, Supercop disappoints primarily because the choreography is far too simplistic.

Chan has said in interviews that his models are Keaton and Fred Astaire rather than MTV. Instead of editing to create excitement, he uses the camera to document real feats of derring-do, and he choreographs the fights like dances. In Rumble in the Bronx, Chan is a blur of careening comic energy, in movement for almost the entire film, outrunning thugs, climbing 20-foot fences in seconds, leaping through shopping carts, diving over and under pinball machines, hanging from speeding trucks, and generally creating mayhem with his blindingly fast feet and fists. In Supercop Chan merely punches and kicks his enemies and ducks their blows. Sure, he does so atop a speeding train, but this is just not as astounding as watching a grown man leap through a shopping cart. (Try it the next time you’re at Jewel.)

Supercop’s biggest flaw is what its producers probably saw as its greatest strength: it’s very American. For some reason, the acrobatic shenanigans and goofy villains have been replaced by explosions and cackling drug kingpins. (Director Stanley Tong is credited in the press kit with adding “a military style rocket-bomb explosion and semi-automatic gun battle.”) Instead of slapstick physical comedy, Chan relies on the Schwarzenegger one-liner–which sounds even more torturous and unfunny struggling to escape his Hong Kong accent. At least in this country, Chan’s future is as a silent comedian, not a stand-up comic. The Hong Kong sound track has been replaced by a glaringly inappropriate mixture of rap and R & B. Where Rumble in the Bronx ended with a short dose of bubblegum punk, Supercop ends with a thuddingly slow remake of the disco classic “Kung Fu Fighting.”

Though the movie is set in mainland China, Hong Kong, and Kuala Lumpur, neither the screenplay nor the sound track betrays its foreign origins. Rumble in the Bronx, on the other hand, was ostensibly set in the United States and was filmed in Vancouver, but it loudly proclaimed its otherness, giving the film an added dimension, the frisson of cultural clashes. At one point in Rumble in the Bronx, after Chan has beaten up some gangbangers, he starts lecturing them. “Don’t you realize,” he says, “that you are the scum of this society?” When I saw the film the audience erupted into shocked laughter at this glimpse into a foreign way of looking at the world. Just imagine an American film where the villains aren’t glamorized. In Seven and The Silence of the Lambs, our killers are our saints and martyrs.

All such originality has been squashed out of Supercop. Rather than an exuberant, joyful whirlwind of action, Chan has become an American action hero, engaged in discussion and argument rather than dance and duck. The big set pieces aren’t accumulations of hundreds of precise movements–of leaps and spins and twirls–but rather an accumulation of explosions.

At the beginning of Supercop one of Chan’s superior officers offers an interesting idea. He and another officer are arguing over whether or not to use Chan for the upcoming dangerous mission. The chief says, “Why not get James Bond?” The other officer agrees that that might be a good idea. Maybe so: then Pierce Brosnan could play Jackie Chan, and Rumble in the Bronx could become Supercop could become GoldenEye. What’s most depressing is that audiences might not mind.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo of Jackie Chan in action as “Supercop”.