Jackie Chan, Jet Li and the Struggle with Hollywood

(Originally posted on i-Pocalypse.com in early ’02 or thereabouts)

Jackie Chan is a legend. He is probably the most successful Asian film star of all time.  His following is fanatical. There are droves of people that believe he does all of his own stunts without the benefit of a net. Now whether that is true or not (not), he is truly a talented man and an amazing physical specimen.

In short, he is well established.

He has crafted an indelible screen persona. His movies are generally high energy fun, with tightly choreographed action sequences that end with a big machine knocking over something even larger than a big machine.  His character is pure Jackie, seemingly surprised at his own skill, a bit of a clown, caught up in a situation beyond his control and understanding, but persevering to the end, because it is the right thing to do.

He has tried on several occasions to bring his character to the US.  First in “the Big Brawl”, a movie I still haven’t quite figured out. It was a kind of “Blood Sport/Enter the Dragon” type thing that was supposedly set in the early 1900’s.  Poorly done, but it captured Jackie’s screen persona pretty well. Then he was one of a cast of thousands in “Cannonball Run’s  I and II”.  He was practically invisible in these two movies, but he was relatively true to the Honk Kong Jackie.  Then in the mid to late eighties came “The Protector”, in which he was a revenge bent cop in New York.  It was a fairly dark, low budget riff on Dirty Harry.

After that he disappeared from our screens for a while.  When he returned it was in re-releases of some of his Hong Kong hits, like “SuperCop”, “Rumble in the Bronx” and “First Strike”.  These, of course, were re-edited, dubbed and new soundtracks were laid on them for American audiences (we’ll get into the re-editing and new soundtracks in a little bit – dubbing, however, is the price we pay for a semi-literate movie going public). And then, with much fanfare and hype….

“Rush Hour”.

What a festering piece of bile.  I am not sure why Jackie even consented to being in this movie, other than the fact Hong Kong was returning to mainland Chinese control and he was desperate to get any kind of foothold into the US marketplace.  It was quite obviously a Chris Tucker vehicle film. Jackie was a secondary character, and not a terribly compelling one at that. At least they let him take a little of the center stage in the fight scenes.

“Shanghai Noon” was next and it was a step in the right direction. I believe he had a bit more creative control over this one.  He had a more central role, he was allowed to play goofy and he had a much more complimentary co-star in Owen Wilson.  The plot wasn’t nearly as dark as the one in “Rush Hour” and relatively coherent for this kind of thing.  Of course, coming soon to a theater near everybody, we have “Rush Hour 2” to look forward to.

Jet Li has not had quite the pre-market exposure that Jackie did, however, he is a certifiable star in Asia.  His entry into the US Film scene has been a little more cautious.  His first big outing was as an emotionless killer and counterfeiter in “Lethal Weapon 4”.  He generated quite a bit of buzz from this, and after all was said and done it wasn’t a terrible move on his part. It made sense to take a secondary, key bad guy role in one of the biggest film franchises going.

But, what was up with “Romeo Must Die”?  Does Hollywood really need to import this wonderful foreign talent, only to put them into a movie that was most likely a Steven Segal reject?  Had they not seen any of Jet’s previous movies before hiring him?  Did they miss out on what makes him such a charismatic hero?  Or did they just read some internet hype and say ‘we gotta have this guy’ like some two bit extra on “The Soprano’s”.

Jet Li’s movie persona, before “Lethal Weapon 4” and “Romeo Must Die”, was entirely refreshing to a western movie going perspective.  He generally played a naive, shy, powerhouse martial arts master, who generally gets caught up in situations because he is just too nice of a guy to say “no”. So, naturally, in his first US starring role, he is a hardened hit man for the Chinese triads, bent on avenging the death of his brother. (Actually, in his first two US starring roles he basically played this character.)  The only thing missing was the patented Chuck Norris cowboy boots, the tight blue jeans and the Jack Daniels.

His upcoming movie “Kiss of the Dragon” does not give me much hope, either, based on the trailers. There are rumours that he is planning on doing a comedy based on a story that he wrote himself. So, maybe down the road….

Is it the nature of the beast to destroy what works and rebuild it as something we have seen a thousand times?

It would seem so, based upon a look at what has happened in the US releases of their overseas box office hits.  The most glaring changes are in the insistence that all incidental back ground music be hard rap or hiphop.  I have seen most of these movies in their original form, and there is no hiphop.  Does Hollywood think that the only paying audience available for these movies are urban wannabes?

Jet Li’s “Black Mask” was a decent fantasy action piece with a pretty good score, but in its US release, it was end to end hiphop music. It was used to an oppressive point. Plus, they edited out a very sweet and funny romance between the Jet Li character and the Karen Mok character, leaving the entire piece completely dark and unredeeming.

A similar thing happened in the US release of Jackie Chan’s “Rumble in the Bronx”.  In the Hong Kong version, Jackie’s character had more of an attraction to the very funny Anita Mui as the new store owner.  In the US version they actually shot a new scene between he and Françoise Yip, the barely likeable biker chick, in which they kissed, which totally undermined several payoff arguments regarding the growing relationship between Jackie and Anita from earlier in the movie.  And in Jackie’s movie “First Strike”, a wonderfully choreographed underwater fight scene was almost completely excised from the US version.

And all I ask is why?

Like I said previously, I can handle dubbing, it is the price we pay.  But is there a reason that Hollywood feels that they need to bring these wonderful, established and successful performers over and then repackage them into a pre-fabricated box and ruin everything that made them so wonderful and different to begin with?

Is it too much to ask that established and respected directors not be forced to work with Jean Claude Van Damme, and that charismatic overseas action stars not have to emulate Patrick Swayze or Lorenzo Lamas?

If we want them to come here and make movies, let us allow them to make their movies. And then go from there.

2 thoughts on “Jackie Chan, Jet Li and the Struggle with Hollywood

  1. Pingback: Jackie Chan meet Jet Li in The Forbidden Kingdom movie « K-Pop Corner

  2. Jet Li, Jackie Chan and Chow Yun Fatt should do a movie together regarding over 50 Chinese and asians who fought in the American Civil War for both Union and Confedartate Armies.

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