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In praise of Jackie Chan

Jackie Chan was both director and star of 1980's The Young Master at the age of 26 - Credit: 88 Films

Jackie Chan is too often dismissed as a mere action star and overlooked for his largely forgettable Hollywood films. But a re-release of one of his finest early works gives an opportunity to appreciate his amazing artistry. 

You don’t hear too much about Jackie Chan these days. Indeed, it’s possible that name will mean nothing to you if you’re too young to remember him as a major cult figure in the 1980s and 90s, or his actual Hollywood stardom during the early years of the century.

With so few opportunities to celebrate this unique talent, it become imperative to grasp each and every chance to do so, such as a new Blu-Ray of one of his early classics. That is just what’s been unleashed by genre specialists 88 Films: an all-singing, all-dancing special edition of The Young Master that shows him in his prime, pulling the kung fu moves that made him famous and displaying the likability that made him a star.

All but the most curmudgeonly will accept it as a thoroughly entertaining ride. Trouble is, too many will go no further than that. There will be uncomfortable shuffling in some quarters if this stocky little brawler is called one of the greatest performers in cinema, and outright resistance to any suggestion that he is ‘an artist’.

Such ignorance is forgivable, though, amongst those not sufficiently familiar with his work. Chan himself is modest about his films but that’s no excuse for us to be; he is acrobat, daredevil and clown, performing each role with supreme style and super-human skill.

He was born in Hong Kong, then technically a British colony but whose population was almost exclusively Chinese, many of whom had been displaced by the communist take-over. Beyond modest Western influences, the culture at that time mainly looked back to the motherland; the young Jackie was apprenticed in Peking Opera, an altogether more physical style of performance than the sort of opera you find in Europe. (You never saw Pavarotti doing backflips.)

By the time he turned 18 the traditional Peking Opera was dying out; the cinema was a bigger draw. Still, Chan’s training would soon be put to good use. With the assistance of former Opera schoolmate Sammo Hung (himself subsequently a star and director of considerable note), he found work in the movies, scratching a living as a stuntman at Golden Harvest studios.

The biggest star at Golden Harvest at that time – the biggest in Hong Kong, in fact – was Bruce Lee, a former child star who’d grown up in America and returned to box-office glory. Although known for his physical prowess, Lee wasn’t quite the iron man that the publicity department claimed. Just occasionally, he needed assistance and, because they were of similar build, Chan was called upon to double for him, usually in falls.

Had Lee continued to make movies, it seems likely Chan would have continued to work for him, part of his filmmaking entourage and even a friend. Except Bruce Lee died, suddenly, unexpectedly in 1973, only 32. Quite apart from the personal tragedy, the Hong Kong film industry went into convulsions; Lee was their biggest draw, a man who’d kicked open a door to the West. Finding ‘the new Bruce Lee’ became a matter of some urgency, and Chan’s connections to the late hero put him firmly in contention.

He was signed up by a man called Lo Wei, a figure of some respect in Hong Kong as the director Lee’s first two kung fu films. When he parted ways from the star, however, it soon became clear who the real driving force of those pictures had been: Lo was a hack, and proceeded to prove it in the films he made with Chan.

Ignoring almost everything that made Chan so special – his charisma, his facility with comedy, even his capacity for hard work – Lo dashed off a sequence of leaden kung fu films that gave very nearly killed Chan’s career before it had really begun: he would not be the next Bruce Lee on the evidence of these so why bother with him?

So disheartened was Chan by their reception that he was on the verge of quitting the business altogether and moving to Australia, where his family had already settled. Happily, fate – or at least producer Ng See-yuen – intervened.

Almost uniquely amongst those who endured those early films, he saw a glimmer of something and wanted Chan for the leading role in his new production, Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow (1978). This – and the very similar Drunken Master (1978), made by the same team six months later – finally made Chan a star.

Rather than the dour characters he’d played for Lo Wei, these films cast him as a lovable scamp, whose kung fu skills ultimately save the day. People didn’t just like the films, they liked him.

Suddenly all doors were open. Having begun his career as a lowly stuntman at Golden Harvest, there was a certain poetry that he should return there a star. The studio, the emergent hyper-power in Hong Kong filmmaking, were determined to sign him and ended up making him an unprecedented offer, giving him essentially carte blanche to do whatever he wanted, at whatever speed he fancied.

Golden Harvest were soon rewarded with The Young Master (1980), which gazumped Drunken Master to become the highest grossing Hong Kong film of all time. As already established, The Young Master is tremendous fun but it is essentially an orthodox kung fu film.

Like so much else in Hong Kong, kung fu films invariably looked over their shoulders to the mainland, usually taking historical China as their setting and taking great care to keep the martial arts action pure and authentic. (Not that the mainland saw them, at least not legally: the communists offered their own, partial version of history and didn’t like films that offered alternatives.)

But in 1983, Chan released Project A, a film which has a better claim than most to be his masterpiece. It’s still set in some ill-defined past but crucially, it was set in Hong Kong, concerning the exploits of the territory’s Water Police as they tackled some particularly unpleasant pirates.

It acknowledged Hong Kong’s identity in ways that the local film industry rarely tackled, cocking a snook at the then-ruling British; Chan’s working-man hero is far more dedicated (and effective) than the imperial navy.

It was an evolution in other ways too: this was the film where he began performing the life-endangering stunts that became his hallmark. Inspired by the silent film Safety Last!, there’s a moment when he dangles off a clock tower, from which he then falls to the ground, with only a couple of shop awnings to slow him down. This he did for real, with no trickery. It only took a couple of takes to get right, albeit with a week or so between each one to recovery from the injuries incurred doing the drop.

This was not his first injury and very far from being his last: no one has suffered more for his art. Over the years, he’s broken almost every bone in his body multiple times, and sometimes done himself more serious mischief: there’s a metal plate in his head from when he smashed his head open on a rock while shooting Armour of God (1986). He nearly died and required extensive brain surgery: it’s typical of Chan, he put an out-take showing the accident at the end of the film.

There is an element of masochism in this that can make the films uncomfortable, but his work ethic demanded he gives his audience everything he could. It’s a hold over from his childhood: His master Yu Jim-yuen was a firm believer in the spare-the-rod-spoil-the-child school of teaching, and it worked; his charges became perfectionists, even if these days we’d call his methods abuse.

After the triumph of Project A, Chan would produce an even more radical film, Police Story (1985), which brought action to Hong Kong in the here and now (well, 1985). The 1980s were a golden age of action films and Police Story is one of the very best: there is gunplay (hitherto rare in martial arts films, for obvious reasons), there are fights and there are wild and crazy stunts, like Chan sliding down a pole covered in electric lights (… electrocution, serious burns to his hands…).

By this time, no insurers were willing to take his business, so heavy had their pay-outs been. But Chan was rich enough to cover the cost, and went ahead without cover. Police Story only made him richer still.

He was by this time, and for a few years after, quite probably the most popular star in the world; when he filmed Operation Condor (1991) in Africa, he was amazed at how many people knew (and loved) his movies, more so than American blockbusters, in fact; his everyman persona was altogether more likeable and appealing in what we’d now call the global south than Hollywood muscle men.

But those Hollywood muscle men kept him from conquering their country. Whereas Bruce Lee had been a bona-fide star in the States, Chan had to settle for being a cult favourite.

It wasn’t as if he hadn’t tried: Golden Harvest recruited Robert Clouse, the American director behind Enter the Dragon (1973), Bruce Lee’s biggest hit, to make an all-American Jackie Chan film, Battlecreek Brawl (1980). It flopped, so they paid for The Cannonball Run (1980), which didn’t flop but did reduce Chan to a caricature. Then they tried again with The Protector (1984). That flopped too.

By the 1990s, though, America was ready for him. After advocacy from Quentin Tarantino, a cut ‘n’ dubbed version of his 1995 film Rumble in the Bronx scored a belated release in the US, and did very nicely thank you. This was fortuitous timing for Chan; by the mid-1990s there was much anxiety in Hong Kong about the imminent transfer of authority from Britain to China: offers from Hollywood gave him a welcome exit strategy.

His American career need not detain us for long. The films he made there – most notably Rush Hour (1998) and Shanghai Noon (2000) – are serviceable action-comedies and did respectable business but lack the mad inspiration of the earlier films, as though he needed the energy of Hong Kong to give him inspiration. Worse, he was obliged to adapt to American working practices: insurance was non-negotiable so the studios forbade him from doing his own stunts. Bah.

He made a few more films, with diminishing results and then decided to go home, which might sound like an ending but really isn’t. His films aren’t much seen in the West these days but don’t think he’s retired. After reunification, Hong Kong’s film industry essentially relocated to the mainland and found a whole new market there, one which has embraced Chan as its number one star. Who needs to export films when the domestic audience is so vast?

The formula isn’t quite the same now; since he’s older, he usually plays the boss rather than the impetuous hot-head of yore, and there are fewer stunts (even Jackie Chan can’t withstand ageing). He’s made other adjustments too. He works on the mainland now, so no longer seeks to celebrate any distinct Hong Kong identity.

In fact, he’s enthusiastically embraced state-sanctioned patriotism – historical drama 1911 (2011), for instance, dramatised the revolt against the Chinese monarchy. Just the sort of thing the government likes.

As though to prove loyalty to the regime, he’s turned his back on Hong Kong, supporting the crackdown against democracy in the province, arguing in favour of restrictive security laws. There are many who despise him there now, an ignominious ending for the one-time homeland hero.

His former fans aren’t missing much. The recent films are negligible, useful as an insight into how the newly-bullish China sees itself, less so as entertainment. But let’s not be churlish: artists should be judged by their greatest work. And, as The Young Master reminds us, Jackie Chan was once a very great artist indeed.

The Young Master is released by 88 Films on February 21

Police, Camera, Action!

Chan’s 1985 movie Police Story is considered one of the greatest action films ever made.

Its final scene featured such a huge amount of broken glass it earned the film the nickname ‘Glass Story’ from its crew. Sugar glass – a brittle, transparent form of sugar – was used for the stunts.

The climactic scene also involved Chan sliding down a pole from several stories up. The lights covering the pole had heated it considerably, resulting in Chan suffering second-degree burns, particularly to his hands, as well as a back injury and dislocation of his pelvis upon landing.