jackie Chan is, bar none, the world's greatest action hero. The most popular star in Asia, in the U.S. he was the exclusive property of art-house brats and kung fu buffs until 1995, when "Rumble in the Bronx" was spruced up for American release, paving the way for three more recycled releases (so far) and a promising new career in Mountain Dew commercials. Now 43, the Hong Kong legend still does all his own stunts, which range from impressive to insane, and is blessed with a near-flawless sense of comic timing. He maintains an impish, regular-Joe air that makes his more absurd plot devices or goofy schticks forgivable. Most endearing is his habit of adding a montage of bloopers to the end credits, showing him bumping into pillars, making funny faces to get a baby to laugh for the inevitable stroller-in-traffic scene or falling from a great height and injuring himself.
His latest offering is actually a 1991 film originally called "Armour of God II: Operation Condor," co-written and directed by Chan. It's far from his best work, and holds together about as well as a Clinton cabinet, but it's still thoroughly entertaining. There's no reason to be deterred by the fact that it's a sequel; the skeletal plot carries nothing over from 1986's "Armour of God," and the skinny is laid out in some clumsy expository dialogue toward the beginning. The U.N. wants Jackie -- a Chinese Indiana Jones, minus any discernible profession -- to find 240 tons of Nazi gold buried beneath the Sahara before a pack of international terrorists does. Tagging along are Carol "Dodo" Cheng as Ada, a Chinese U.N. attachi specializing in African desert environments, and Eva Cobo De Garcia as Elsa, leggy blonde granddaughter of the Nazi who hid the gold. For no particular reason, they also pick up Momoko (Shoko Ikeda), a Japanese hippie wandering through the desert. The three women serve as comic relief, running around in towels that are repeatedly dropped to distract baddies, misfiring weapons, getting kidnapped by bandits and put up for auction and squealing a lot. And whenever the dumb-gal jokes begin to wear thin, bumbling, bickering Arab gunmen Tasza and Amon (Jonathan Isgar and Daniel Mintz, a couple of unshaven white guys in turbans) show up and attack our heroes.
"Condor" lacks the spectacular stunts of "Super Cop" or the amazing martial arts action of Chan's "Drunken Master" movies, but it squeezes in an over-the-top motor scooter chase and a half-flying battle in a wind tunnel. It is perhaps questionable judgment to place the best scene -- which involves cultural misunderstandings with a tribe of lampshade-headed cave-dwellers and Chan rolling down a mountain face in a giant inflated sphere -- before the opening credits. But the rest of the movie keeps us entertained with its Nazis, huge mechanical traps, brutal henchmen with Amish beards, and more superstitious tribesmen than you can shake a spear at.
What carries the movie are the stunts -- an art being not-so-slowly subsumed by tech wizardry nowadays -- the slapstick, and an odd sort of warmth. The heroes and villains may not be nuanced, but they're human. In American action flicks the characters are given a few quirks to suggest individuality, but they still make the same ridiculous mistakes as their counterparts in a dozen other movies. Chan doesn't bother to give the characters specific qualities or histories to round them out -- they're just there to fulfill a role, and don't pretend otherwise -- but they use a refreshing amount of common sense. During a spectacular fight spent jumping from one high, tilting giant grate to another, Jackie and his three opponents look down and see a sizzling red-hot grill far beneath them, waiting for someone to fall onto it. The four stop, look at each other, and silently agree to postpone the battle until they're back on solid ground.
To find Jackie Chan in theaters all over the country is a treat after all this time, but the revamped, dubbed version of "Condor," oddly, does not translate as well as his other old subtitled prints. About 20 minutes have been trimmed from the film's midriff and are not missed. But the computer-generated main title sequence is annoyingly choppy, and Stephen Endelman's Kraftwerk-lite score is no great shakes. The dubbing is distressingly clumsy -- not as bad as the stereotypical Japanese monster movie, but far worse than the sanitized-for-your-protection dialogue in in-flight features. It's synchronized to the sentence, but not to the word. Most of the voices used are fine -- although everyone has an American accent except the ex-Nazi terrorist Adolf (who has a slight pan-European lilt), the stereotypical Moroccans and Jackie (Chan's own voice, thank God) -- but it's easier to get past the script's hokeyness when it's flashing across the bottom of the screen, removed from the action. Those countless cries of "Jackie, save me!" sound so much more dramatic in Cantonese.