Jackie Chan, Everybody's All-American

"For the first time," the ads say, "he's fighting for America." Soon, Hollywood may be fighting for mainland China.

Published January 10, 1997 8:00PM (EST)

finally, it no longer seems so strange to see Jackie Chan as an American movie star. For two decades Chan has been for me, as for virtually every other Asian cinemaphile, a particularly personal passion. Ferociously loved by us, he was, until recently, virtually unknown to everyone else. It was hard to imagine him in the parallel universe of American pop culture, where action stars are lummoxy hunks and witlessly overproduced, brutally plodding action sequences are the rule. Then, last year, Chan's "Rumble in the Bronx" and "Supercop" won him a mainstream American audience. And now, with this weekend's release of "Jackie Chan's First Strike," he seems poised to become a permanent fixture on the American screen. "For the first time in his career," the movie trailers proclaim, "he's fighting for America!"

"Americans are very myopic in their tastes, and very provincial," Karen Hermelin, Senior Vice-President of Marketing at New Line Cinema, explains. And though Chan does not actually fight on U.S. soil in the film, he's hired by the CIA to help combat nuclear terrorists. His American connection, Hermelin suggests, will help Americans "connect [to the story] more ... as opposed to [Chan] just saving the world from nuclear threat."

A year ago, when I heard the first announcement that New Line Cinema intended to release Chan's "Rumble in the Bronx" -- one of his lesser efforts -- I couldn't conceive how they expected to introduce his peculiarly Asian genius to the American public. Neither, at first, could New Line. "We were sitting there with a Jackie Chan movie, and nobody knew who he was," says Hermelin. "We asked ourselves 'What is it about him that makes Americans want to see him?' And we decided that the thing that makes him different was that he does his own stunts." A segment for ABC's "Prime Time Live" was produced, featuring a career's worth of Chan's greatest stunts -- and from there, press and television coverage snowballed. "Rumble" pulled in over $30 million, enormous business in relation to its distribution costs, and while "Supercop" (a better film) was only half as successful, it too turned a robust profit for Miramax.

With Steven Segal and Jean-Claude Van Damme still recovering from their latest failures, Chan is now America's biggest martial arts-oriented action star. And to confirm his ascendancy, Chan has taken his place in that distinctly American tradition of marketing lunacy, the soft drink ad wars. He can now be seen in a big-budget television spot for Mountain Dew. Outnumbered by kung fu thugs, Chan flees for his life, until a set of Gen-X slackers offer him their Zen-by-way-of-Pearl Jam wisdom and flying soda cans whoosh in to save the day.

New Line's marketing shrewdness is undeniable, but Chan's success may come at a cost. For Chan is much more than a mere action star; his films merge improbably disparate elements of American silent film comedy with martial arts, in an East-West synthesis as artistically ambitious as Kurosawa's appropriation of the American Western. Watching Chan at his best, whirling and leaping impossibly in the midst of flying furniture and bodies, one begins to see the whole world as part of an elaborate dance.

Americans, though, have a different set of expectations for their own screen heroes -- expectations that may make it impossible to appreciate Chan's innovative talent. The Mountain Dew spot, though it takes place in Hong Kong and puts Chan in similar situations to those in his own films, is a thoroughly American product. Its style is frenetic, full of quick MTV-style cuts and skewed camera angles that distract from Chan's fluid physical grace. The ad manages to make him look pretty much like any other American action star. And so, when Americans turn from "First Strike" to Chan classics like "Project A" and "Drunken Master II," period films with far more in common with Keaton and Chaplin than Schwarzenegger and Willis, they may have no idea what to make of them.

Still, it's misleading to look only at Jackie's Americanization. Hollywood may well be successful, perhaps too successful, at domesticating Chan, but at the same time it is undomesticating itself, transforming itself to reach a global audience that, particularly in the Pacific Rim, is far larger than the American market.

Special effects extravaganzas have always done well in overseas markets. But the lingua franca of popular cinema is action. Gunfire doesn't require translation; no subtleties of language are lost in a fistfight. John Woo and several other Hong Kong directors are now on American studio payrolls, and American directors have absorbed much of the innovative kineticism of Hong Kong's action genre. It's fair to say that every action movie made in Hollywood today reflects this osmosis; take a Hong Kong film fan to a screening of, say, "The Long Kiss Goodnight" or "Set it Off," and he'll be more than happy to detail their Crown Colony genealogy.

A recent Variety report estimates that by the end of the century China will have 200 million households that subscribe to pay television. Such numbers have not been lost on Columbia Pictures, which has cast Chow Yun-fat, the leading man in most of Woo's major Hong Kong movies, to play a remorseful assassin opposite Mira Sorvino in "The Replacement Killers," scheduled to be released later this year. Though a vastly talented actor with a cheeky charisma, Chow is a relative unknown in America -- and is not even a kung fu master. But in Asia he is a star second only to Chan in popularity, and that changes the equation completely.

"The Replacement Killers" reflects a Hollywood that is increasingly setting its sights not just on an American audience -- or even a European one -- but on a mainland Chinese one as well. In the years to come Hollywood will no longer simply export its visions of glamour and heroism to the world -- it will also have to mold its products to take account of Asian market demand. This may be the most visible sign of a larger hemispheric shift: for the first time in modern history, the stream of world culture will flow not merely West to East, but East to West as well.

Eventually, one hopes, this process will make it possible for American audiences to appreciate heroes who aren't shaped to fit their preconceived expectations. Forget the Americanization of Jackie; we're talking about the Jackification of America.

EXTRA! Judge Bork, Meet Karl Marx

We've been trying to keep you up to date on failed-Supreme-Court-nominee-turned-bestselling-crank-author Robert Bork's troubles with contemporary American life. (In case you haven't been following the little saga, Bork's pig-biting mad about all that hedonism and debauchery and liberalism going around.) Anyway, in a January 13 New Yorker review of Bork's terrible book, film-critic-turned-pop-philosopher David Denby suggests that "the anarchic individualism that Bork so deplores ... is itself a personality formation created by the same system that makes us wealthy and gives us liberty." In other words: if you don't like hedonism, you'd best toss capitalism out the window as well. Denby suggests Bork pick up a copy of sociologist Daniel Bell's recently reissued 1976 book "The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism," which Denby calls "a devastating critique of the intellectual habits of today's far right." We're not so sure Mr. Bork should read Bell's oddly compelling mixture of economic socialism, political liberalism and cultural conservatism; his head might explode.

By Wagner James Au

Wagner James Au is a frequent contributor to Salon, and also writes "Notes from a New World," an online journal for Second Life, an upcoming MMOG.

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