in the Bronx
Almost every Melburnian I encountered in the mid '90s – whether artist or taxi driver – had a Jackie Chan story to tell. Close encounters abounded as Chan filmed an action-adventure caper in our inner-city areas.
Suddenly, it seemed, the figure who is a living legend to so many fans of Hong Kong cinema seemed poised at the brink of absolute success in the international mainstream.
This marked the first time that a Jackie Chan movie was being released widely in commercial theatres all around the English-speaking world. The only question prompted by this momentous event is: why didn't it happen five, ten, fifteen years earlier? A veteran of some fifty films, Chan is the Buster Keaton of our time: an actor and director possessed of prodigious physical skills, winning comic talent and a superb control of cinematic energy.
Would Rumble in the Bronx be a box-office hit in Australia? I awaited the answer to this with some nervousness. There are minor hurdles that local viewers not yet converted to the Chan cult had to clear, such as the English language dubbing. More seriously, there is an incompatibility between American and Chinese modes of action cinema which audiences here may find disconcerting.
Chan's brand of action is essentially comedic. There are exciting spills, thrills and clinches, but none of the bloody, steely, macho climaxes that mark the average American action movie.
The premise of Rumble in the Bronx recalls Crocodile Dundee (1986). Jackie is a fish-out-of-water in the big, bad city of New York. Minding the grocery shop belonging to his Uncle Bill (Bill Tung) and Elaine (Anita Mui), Jackie soon upsets the members of a local street gang and finds himself drawn into a whirl of crime, corruption and violence.
Yet violence – especially in the context of recurring debates on this topic in Western societies – seems an inappropriate word to describe the spectacle that Chan presents in his films. Chan is a rather peace-loving hero; he rarely shoots a gun, and certainly never uses it to kill. When he cannot fight fair, he lies down and takes it like a true masochist – as in the stunning scene where he is pelted by bottles in an alley. Bodily violence is often replaced by the burlesque destruction of property, as in a Jerry Lewis movie of the '60s.
Martial arts is, of course, the arena in which this action hero shines. But possibly even more spectacular than the kicking and punching, the ducking and weaving, is the stunt work: Chan's awesome ability to run, jump, dive or crawl through any physical space that is presented to him, no matter how tiny or vast. And when, on set, Chan stuffs up the stunt, he keeps that footage for our delectation during the end-credits – even proudly including the evidence of any injuries incurred.
Rumble in the Bronx is not one of Chan's very best films. The romantic intrigue (involving Francoise Yip as a riot girl with a heart of gold) is a strictly token inclusion. The jokes about multicultural America are pretty lame. The bad guys, whether in sinister suits or garish gang clothes, are a hammy, unconvincing lot. The direction by Stanley Tong (who also co-choreographs Chan's stunts) is perfectly functional, but also a bit pedestrian.
None of this can really detract from the fact that Rumble in the Bronx is a splendid, invigorating, hilarious entertainment.
Several few years previously, Sylvester Stallone's SF movie Demolition Man (1993) speculated that, in the not-too-distant future, Jackie Chan will be known as the world's most beloved action star. I just hope that this bright future has well and truly started.
© Adrian Martin May 1996