Speaking at the highly successful Red Sea International Film Festival in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, action hero Jackie Chan recalled his time starting off in films and his journey to Hollywood.
In his early days, the now renowned face of action, began in the shadow of one of the biggest names in martial arts and the action genre – Bruce Lee.
One of Chan’s early jobs in cinema was to play Bruce Lee’s stunt double in the film Fist of Fury.
The award-winning actor said, detaching his name from Lee was a gradual process and it took him several more years to get his first few big breaks before he could establish himself as a leading actor.
“After Bruce Lee became a big star, everybody [tried to] follow,” he said.
“When he died [in 1973], they needed action stars, but they didn’t care about acting. They only cared whether you could fight — hapkido, karate, whatever.”
When Chan got his first leading role in the 1973 film Little Tiger of Canton, his excitement was somewhat diluted. He soon realised a big reason he scored the part was because the director wanted him to emulate Lee’s moves and action style.
“I said, ‘No, I’m not Bruce Lee. Nobody can be a Bruce Lee’,” Chan recalled. However, he says, it was difficult to move away from that shadow because the director saw him as someone who can carry on Lee’s legacy, saying “‘You are the second Bruce Lee’”.
Chan further narrates that after the release of that movie, he made a conscious decision to tweak his fighting style in a way that would least associate him with Lee, as he realised the filmmakers were trying to cheat the audiences by branding it a Lee film.
“Even when the movie was released, I see a big poster and it said, in big letters, ‘Bruce Lee’. I walk closer and see they had written second above. They tried to cheat the audience and the movie bombed.”
It was thereon that his comedy flourished. Many of his idiosyncratic moves, such as his rapid strikes or flapping his hand in pain after a punch, were developed as a result, he notes.
“I just did everything totally opposite,” Chan explained. “I just tried being myself, slowly, slowly developing the Jackie Chan style.”
After proving himself in Asian cinema, becoming a household name in Hong Kong, China and Japan, Chan set his sights on Hollywood. Here he was met with some resistance from filmmakers who found his fighting style unconventional.
After countless hours of learning English and tireless efforts to appeal to Hollywood’s liking, Chan said he reached a point where he didn’t see why he should keep pushing himself further and was even considering returning to Hong Kong.
“I spent nine months learning English every day. A, B, C, D. How are you? Good. My name is Jackie Chan from Hong Kong. An action star,” he said.
“I didn’t have time to train. And whenever I’d do an action sequence, I was told to do less, to slow down. It was just a different culture.
“I said, ‘No more Hollywood. They don’t like this kind of action’. I said, ‘I’d rather stay in Asia and do my own thing’.”
Although today, Chan’s fighting and acting style have become synonymous with the man, in the early 1990s, filmmakers were not so eager to give him a chance…that is of course, until Rush Hour.
And while the role was specifically written for Chan, he said he was initially hesitant to take it on.
“I was playing police officers from Hong Kong, from Macau, from China,” he said. “It was always a police officer.
During his search to break away from this stereotype, his manager told him of a new script called Rush Hour. “It’s about a Hong Kong police…” were the only words his manager could put in before he was met with an resounding “No”, Chan said as he shared his initial response to the film.
Fortunately, despite his own no-more-police-officer policy, after some convincing on his manager’s part he went onto accept the part.
Rush Hour became a success, Chan had already flown back to Hollywood when he received a call from his co-star Chris Tucker and director Brett Ratner, telling him the film made US$70 million in its first weekend. The franchise then came out with two other parts and perhaps a possible fourth, according to Chan. “I’m going to meet the director tonight to talk about it,” he said.
Chan has appeared in hundreds of films but he has no plans of slowing down.
He has plans to direct a drama and act in a film that he has been writing for three decades. He is also keen on doing more love stories.
“I have so many things. So many scripts in my mind that I hope I can finish in the next 10 years.”