From time to time, I'm able to offer a guest essay to my readers. Today's guest author is Kyle Leaman. Those who have been reading this site since the very beginning may remember Mr. Leaman and his work at The Part-Time Critic. He was one of my first regular readers and someone who I linked to from time-to-time as his work was often both insightful and insanely comprehensive. A couple years back (just before he retired from writing) he compiled a list, complete with mini-essays and YouTube excerpts, of the 100 greatest fights in Jackie Chan's action career. It's so exhaustive that you may need a stunt man to get through it all in one sitting. So when I read that Jackie Chan had announced that he was officially retiring from action films, Mr. Leaman was the first person I thought of. I asked him if he had anything to say about it and he thankfully obliged. So here is, unabridged and unedited save for token formatting, Kyle Leaman's "The Punctuation of an Action Career".
The Punctuation Point of an Action Career
by Kyle Leaman
In 1978, a film by the name Snake in the Eagle's Shadow became a breakout action hit in Hong Kong and the star of the film, a 24-year-old Jackie Chan, followed it up with the equally successful Drunken Master. Chan then went on to release a major action film in every single decade since, an unprecedented and unequaled 30-year run. To put that into perspective, Jason Statham would need to keep making action films until the year 2032 just to draw even with Chan's run. Even I don't think I could stomach that many Cranks and Transporters.
While promoting his newest film at the Cannes film festival, Jackie declared that Chinese Zodiac would be his last action film. The following day Jackie clarified the comments on his Facebook page, saying that the film would be his last "big action movie." What exactly does Chan mean by "big action movie," and does this mean we should start writing eulogies for his action career? Is this the end of drunken boxing, super cops, and big stunts? Will everyday objects like ladders and clothes racks now cease to become props of mass destruction? If we are to understand what Chan means to do with Chinese Zodiac, the punctuation that he is trying to put on his career, we really have to understand the story he has been writing over the last four decades.
After struggling to step out of the Bruce Lee sized shadow cast upon the entire Hong Kong film industry, Chan's 1978 successes gave him the opportunity to begin casting his own shadow on what an action film could be. In the following years, his projects began showing signs of his unique voice and vision, but it wasn't until 1983's Project A that Jackie's true potential and unique gifts would be realized in a single film. Project A (a film I consider to be Chan's most quintessential) would not only star a Chan that did all his own stunts, but whom also wrote, directed, and choreographed the film as well. All of the elements that Chan has become so well loved for (broad physical comedy of errors, homage's to silent film comedians, intricately choreographed fights, big stunts, and a family-friendly tone) are present in this film. It's this prototype of film that I consider to be what Chan calls his "big action movie," and it's the first film that truly began to write the story of what a Jackie Chan action film could be.
After Project A, Chan has been involved in over 50 film projects. I would categorize his post-Project A projects as follows; day-player, role-player, and big action. What I am calling day-player projects are ones where Chan is sparsely used and has no significant on-screen role or artistic control of the film. Examples of this are films like 1999's King of Comedy or the Kung Fu Panda series, and account for about 1/5 of his projects. For this essay, we can dismiss these roles as inconsequential to the discussion.
Chan's role-player projects are ones that feature Chan in a significant on-screen way, but where he takes minimal creative responsibility on the project. Chan may still do his own stunts and choreography, but that's about as far as his creative control goes on these projects. Most of Jackie's American output falls into this category, such as Shanghai Noon, The Spy Next Door, and Rush Hour. Due to Chan's limited creative control of these projects, he's forced to try and fuse his particular vision into in the larger artistic vision, producing a range of quality from pitiful (The Tuxedo and The Medallion) to excellent (Shanghai Knights and The Karate Kid). By my count, nearly 2/5 of his projects are of this kind.
At last we come to the defining category of Chan's filmography and the category that Chan claims he is retiring from, big action. These are projects on which Chan takes full control of nearly every aspect and uses the film as a vehicle to showcase himself. Since these films allow Chan near free-reign, they also tell us the most about Chan's cinematic vision and disproportionately define his legacy. This category was initiated by Project A and makes up the final 2/5 of all projects Chan would take on afterwards, including his newest film Chinese Zodiac. This is the type of film Jackie is retiring from, and by my accounts, has essentially been retired from since 2006's Robin-B-Hood.
After Project A in 1983, Chan almost solely devoted himself to the "Big Action Movie." This run ended after the mid-90s success of his big American imports like Rumble in the Bronx and Who Am I. In 1998 Jackie made Rush Hour, his first role-playing project after over a decade of big action projects. The next six years were mostly comprised of hit-or-miss American made role-playing projects, with an occasional Chinese film (The Accidental Spy) in between. While creatively frustrating, I think this role-playing phase provided his body with a much needed rest from the physically and creatively exhausting toll his big action movies rang up.
In 2004, Chan returned to his big action movie roots with New Police Story. While featuring much of Chan's signature elements, it was ultimately a failed attempt by Chan to merge his successful pre-1998 output into the more modern action template. Chan's big action follow-ups, The Myth (2005) and Robin-B-Hood (2006), were also creatively disappointing. Despite his efforts, Chan could not recreate the commercial and artistic accomplishments of his previous big action period.
Honestly, I think in these three films we witnessed the outer limits of what Chan had to offer in the arena of big action. This isn't a knock or insult to Chan, I think it's just the acknowledgement that he had exhausted what he had to say in the action genre, his story was coming to a close. I suppose it would be like saying that Michael Jordan had run out of new basketball moves to show the world or that Gordon Ramsay ran out of new recipes; not an insult, just an acknowledgement of reality.
I believe Chan recognized this as well, and that is why (beyond being physically exhausted) he has taken on the challenge of an acting career outside of action. After a six-year hiatus (2006-2012) from big action projects, Chan returns to the big action movie with Chinese Zodiac. Even without Chan's announcement, it seems to me that Chinese Zodiac isn't a sign that Chan has found new creative energy and is entering another period of big action projects, but that he wants to close out his big action career before his body gives out (he's 58 years old), and so that the 2004-2006 run would not be his final contribution to the story he'd been writing in the action genre for over 30 years.
Thus, it doesn't seem tragic for Chan to be ending his big action career with Chinese Zodiac; it seems more like the punctuation point on a sentence that has already ended. In an age where there is always the possibility for a star's career to be more like a repetitive run-on sentence, it can be refreshing for a star to recognize and mark the end.
Looking past the ending of Chan's big action career, I think we can still expect him to be involved with action films, but in the role-playing sense similar to his American output from 1998-2004. I think the big question his fans seem to be asking in regards to his transition to traditional acting is, "Does Chan have anything particularly unique to say in the realm of drama, as he did in the realm of action?" While he's only been in traditional roles for a few years now, the answer to that question seems to be, "Not yet." He has seen some triumphs like 2009's Shinjuku Incident and 2010's The Karate Kid, but he's mostly experienced mixed results.
Looking at Jackie Chan's career as of now, he can be understood to have made one of the most distinctive and unique contributions not only to the realm of action films, but to all of cinema. If Chan were to continue and finish his career with nothing but role-playing action and drama projects of varying quality, then it would still mark an impressive coda to his already impressive career. To expect anything more from him is fairly unrealistic and worse, a bit greedy. So this December, call up your friends, head to the theatre, and enjoy the punctuation point to a story that Jackie Chan has been writing since 1983's Project A. Sitting in the theatre, I only hope the punctuation is more exclamation than period.