A film review by Craig J. Koban

 
 

 
 

RUMBLE IN THE BRONX jjj

10th Anniversary Retrospective Review

1996, PG-13, 83 mins.

 

Keung: Jackie Chan / Elaine: Anita Mui / Nancy: Francise Yip / Uncle Bill: Bill Tung / Tony: Marc Akerstream

Directed by Stanley Tong / Written by Edgar Tang and Fibe Ma

Jackie Chan’s RUMBLE IN THE BRONX is a wondrous achievement in amazing and unapologetic goofiness.  It’s not just a silly and dumb film – it’s a gloriously and ridiculously asinine film.  I remember calling last year’s KUNG FU HUSTLE an “explosion of inspired and ludicrous idiocy and madness.”  No more is this description apt when discussing RUMBLE IN THE BRONX.  In contains characters that seemed to have been removed from the one-note, cardboard cutout factory and engages them in a plot that is sheer and utter nonsense.  Yet, by the time the film cuts to its end credits and shows an exuberant Chan turning to the camera and giving the audience the thumbs up, the audience I was with at its premiere here in Saskatoon in 1996 went berserk.  I have yet to see a film as moronic as this one get a standing ovation at its conclusion.

Now, all sarcasm aside, RUMBLE IN THE BRONX does not exist to be examined on any thought-provoking or intellectual basis whatsoever.  The film’s narrative is about as dense as a bubble gum card with individual performances that channel the very epitome of mediocrity.   Yet, people with the proper mindset know keenly and exactly how to watch a Jackie Chan film.  One does not go to his films for startling insights into human nature; one goes to these types of films to become lost in the limitless physical inventiveness of its star, who literally leaps off the screen in scene after scene of acrobatic skill and grace that draws completely worthy comparisons to Harold Lloyd or Buster Keaton.  I would also add Donald O’Connor and Gene Kelly.  Chan sure has the extraordinary sense of corporeal timing and fluidity with his action scenes and stunts that they did with their song and dance numbers.

Chan not only deserves our respect; he demands it.  He’s probably one of the most thankless performers and exhibitionists of the modern cinematic era.  I see him less as a movie actor than I do as an entertainer.  His acting skills are fairly suspect (as is the case during many moments of BRONX), but there is no denying his enthusiasm, charm, and innate likeability.  He could never play an effective antagonist in a film; he’s just too insatiably affable, and it comes through in his work.  Again, like O’Connor and Kelly, 90 per cent of what makes Chan a star is his boundless appeal and energy that he exudes on camera. 

Beyond demanding our respect, Chan has most certainly paid his cinematic dues to become the legendary action persona that he is today.  He appeals to contemporary viewers in different ways than other past and current action heroes.  The most crucial characteristic he embodies is the fact that he does most, if not all, of his own stunts (however, I still consider Arnold Schwarzenegger’s winning of the California bi-election to become the Governor of that state the most miraculous stunt ever committed by an actor, but never mind).  Anyone doubting this should always stay around for the final end credits of his films, during which key outtakes of the production are shown that highlights how badly Chan has injured himself for a particular stunt piece.  We see the final, polished product on the big screen during the actual film and marvel at its audacity, but when we see a more mortal version of Chan in these outtakes, laying on the ground, clutching an appendage, all while blood is spraying and/or ambulance sirens can be seen in the distance, then you just sure as hell have to respect the guy.

No one person in film today can claim that they have suffered more for their art than Chan.  Just consider: in perfecting his stunts and skills over the years, Chan has broken his nose three times, cracked his ankle, broken most of his fingers, both his cheekbones and his skull (patched together with a steel plate) and has fractured or broken his ribs.  Not surprisingly, he is unable to get insurance anywhere in the world.  He came closest to death while filming ARMOR OF GOD when he fell from a tree in a relatively routine stunt and fractured his skull.  He has also broken his left ankle so many times that he can no longer rely on it while pushing for a jump and must use his right foot instead.   If all of these near fatal injuries were not enough to prove his worth, Chan even sings many of the theme songs to his films.  He has been a popular pop singer in his native Hong Kong, although after hearing him sing I still confess to preferring his acting instead.

Beyond his cinematic accomplishments – and contrary to popular conjecture – Chan is also a very accomplished Martial Artist in real life.  He spent his life training under several notable masters and is incredibly well versed in Shaolin kung fu, which he took up during his early years while he was in opera school (yes, no bull!).  He has also learned numerous other styles of martial arts to help his screen fighting, including hapkido, boxing, judo, taekwondo and Hei Long (Under Master G.J. Torres).  Jackie's own personal style is said to be a mixture of boxing, wing chun, hapkido and judo. He stated that some of his martial arts training has been attributed to Jin Pal Kim, a korean hapkido stylist.  On top of his incredibly physical dexterity, Chan is no dummy.  Despite being functionally illiterate, he is able to speak seven languages. 

All of this, of course, is merely setup for those of you unfamiliar with Chan.  Perhaps his biggest contribution to the film world in the post-Bruce Lee era of Martial Arts action films is the way he spearheaded a lightening up of the genre.  Looking at Lee’s films, as crude as some of them were, it’s easy to notice that he played more stern, oppressive, and animalistic roles.  Then Chan came in and infused in his roles an inherent goofiness and fun-loving demeanor.  He was light-hearted and happy-go-lucky, not the typical anti-hero nihilist that so dominated the Reagan-era action heroes of the 80’s.  His characters always seemed unwilling to fight and took no pleasure in doing so.  These roles were also of an everyman quality (family themes weighed heavily in his films; his relatives often verbally beat him up more than his adversaries did physically).  Chan essentially played somewhat foolish normal men.  The only difference is, of course, is that when all hell breaks loose, only Chan is able to kick it into serious kick ass mode and use any available prop as an effective weapon.

Before BRONX, Chan made several attempts to break into Hollywood, with distinctively mixed results.  He appeared in many terrible films, like both CANNONBALL RUN outings, as well as in lackluster affairs like BATTLE CREEK BRAWL and THE PROTECTOR.  He was offered the role of the villain in DEMOLITION MAN opposite the then-big action star Sly Stallone, but he stridently refused.  Why?  Because he did not want to play a villain.  It would take until 1996 and RUMBLE IN THE BRONX, which was ironically shot in Vancouver, that would lead Chan to American mass consumption. 

It’s so odd that he became popular in our continent so late in his career.  He made over three dozen films in Hong Kong previous to BRONX and was easily more popular there – pound for pound – than either Stallone or Schwarzenegger Stateside.   He was known and appreciated in art house cinemas and across campuses where midnight screenings of his films were sell-outs, but mainstream acceptability eluded Chan in America.  That’s a shame in itself, as he is easily a more accomplished actor than the Schwarzenegger’s or Seagal's or Van Damme's before him.  Now, that is not saying much, but Chan understands the art of performing better than any of those before-mentioned stars.  More than any of them, Chan marries acrobatic panache and inhuman skill with the comic sensibilities of a Vaudevillian.  If Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton knew kung fu, then you’d get a pretty good impression of Chan.

That’s what makes Chan so fascinating and intoxicating to watch.  His films are not tyrannically violent, per se, and this is largely due to the overt farcical and slapstick antics that overwhelm his scenes of chop-sockey mayhem.  His action moments are not choreographed gore and blood fests.  They are frantic and crafty like a Bugs Bunny cartoon, but they are also as smooth, graceful, and brilliantly constructed as any classic song and dance number from the Golden Age of Hollywood musicals.  His films have consequence-free level of violence for the sake of thrills.  We marvel at Chan’s superhuman athleticism and poise more than we feel for the bad guys who are on the receiving end.  Not only that, but Chan’s face and body language in the more light-hearted moments are as inspiring as seeing him jump off a rooftop or going head first into a thug.

All of these miraculously choreographed scenes are why we see these films.  Character development and story are mostly vacant and superfluous entities.  The plot the characters do engage in is sheer idiotic fodder and only a closeline for Chan’s action scenes.  The lack of decent personalities or an equally invigorating story is completely saved by Chan’s winning personality.  As with BRONX, he brings a limitless enthusiasm and joy to his performance that makes up for his lack of polish as an actor.  His light-hearted and spirited energy is absolutely infectious in BRONX, so much so that you laugh with him during the implausible mayhem and don’t shake your head with incredulous disbelief. 

RUMBLE IN THE BRONX is far, far from being Chan’s most accomplished work (for those of you wanting to see him at his absolute peak, run to the video store and rent DRUNKEN MASTER 2, which includes, for my money, the single greatest scene of choreographed and sustain action ever committed to celluloid).  BRONX does not rival his best films’ action quotient, but it still is a rollicking and campy good time, made all the more palpable by Chan’s determined innovativeness with concocting moments of thrills.

The story of the film, as stated, is pure hogwash that is largely unintentionally funny and moronic.  Chan plays Keung, who is arriving in New York for the wedding of his Uncle Bill (Chan regular Bill Tung).  The film was shot in Canada and many times mountainsides are seen in the distance.  The film’s clear disdain for geographic authenticity is cheerfully hilarious, but never mind.  Anyway, Bill has just sold his grocery store, which is situated in the violent, crime-infested Bronx, but Keung agrees to stay behind and help the new owner with the transition. 

Unfortunately, things go south real fast for Keung and the new owner when a local biker gang of thugs starts to terrorize both him and the store.  Things even go from bad to worse when Keung hooks up with the local biker gang babe and gets close to her baby brother (who - to spread the sentimentality to uproariously hilarious heights - is confined to a wheelchair).  If this was not terrible enough, soon Keung needs to team up with the gang to battle the evil diamond drug lord named White Tiger who wants them all dead for some reason or another.

RUMBLE IN THE BRONX is laughably wretched on a dialogue front.  I am not sure if something was lost in translation (this film was dubbed for American audiences) but many individual lines are absolute howlers.  My favourite single exchange occurs when Keung – after mopping the floor with the entire gang – throws his hands fruitlessly into the air and pleads to them, “Why must you lower yourselves!  Don’t you know you are the scum of society?”  The individual biker gang members also look improperly cast with a bunch of pretty boys that look like the least intimidating posse ever assembled.  Two of the “heavies” in the film who work for White Tiger look less like seasoned actors and more like men that were working at the film’s catering trucks the day of filming and the producers subsequently thought would look great on film.

Sarcasm aside, BRONX exists primarily for its visceral thrills, and Chan does not disappoint one bit.  Endless scenes demonstrated his unparalleled skill.  No prop is too mundane or useless to be used as an effective weapon.  During one introductory action scene he uses items like his coat and a can of pop to take care of biker vermin.  During a later scene (and in the film’s funniest moment), he uses a football helmet followed by a wrench to dispose of a man.  All of this is marginal when compared to the film’s climatic showdown between Chan and the entire biker gang, which conveniently takes place at what appears to be a retail warehouse for Sears Roebuck.  The sequence took nearly 20 days to shoot and I can see why.  I got lost after a few minutes keeping track of how many props Chan uses to beat on his enemies.  Everything from pinball machines, to fridges, to beer bottles, to skis, to pool tables, to shopping carts are utilized.  One brief moment where Chan leaps – from being on his rear end on the ground – straight through the front of the cart and out again on its opposite end is so deceptively amazing that you force yourself to hit the rewind button and watch it over and over again.

RUMBLE IN THE BRONX was not a huge box office success in 1996, but it was significant enough to cement Chan’s reputation to more mainstream audiences and further catapult his American career.  Good American films would follow like his RUSH HOUR and SHANGHAI NOON series.  As of this year Chan will turn 52 and has noticeably slowed down considerably, but even in his mediocre films of late show off how his perseverance and liveliness remains as infectious as ever.

RUMBLE IN THE BRONX is not vintage Jackie Chan by any definition.  However, on certain levels, it successfully showcases the Asian star’s high-octane and vigorous magnetism alongside some of those infamous moments of choreographed turmoil that most loyal Chan fans have come to expect.  As with all of his other films, one leaves BRONX in a perpetual “He have to be nuts to do that” state of euphoria.  Whereas some cinematic grouches griped and complained about the lack of a compelling story to become engaged in, the rest of us sensible and realistic viewers left the film completely fulfilled when it premiered.  The film is undeniably dumber than a bag of hammers, but it succeeds in reveling in Chan’s confidence and grace as a kung fu, gravity defying Fred Astaire.  More than anything, BRONX is a noteworthy historical footnote to an actor that finally achieved some mainstream North American recognition.  For a man that has broken nearly every bone and has bruised and gashed seemingly every inch of his body for the sake of entraining us, he sure should get our respect.

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