Part 1 discusses how in the 1970s, Jackie Chan invented a novel fighting look for himself then developed a unique kung fu film blueprint that featured comedy. Yet Chan would soon reinvent himself and create a new genre of martial arts (MA) film.

When I was Chan’s guest on the Drunken Master 2 set, he reflected, “Back then [early ’80s], everyone made the same kind of movies and so I decided to develope a new-wave genre of martial arts film, the wu da pian through Police Story (1985).”

Wu da pian (fight films using martial arts) combines athleticism, MA and dangerous stunts. Even today, 2017, many MA influenced movies or MA inspired fight scenes in non-MA movies worldwide still emulate Chan’s methodology.

Jackie Chan Kung Fu Films

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In Jackie Chan’s last kung fu film, Young Master (1980), it’s the final 20-minute fight that rocked audiences. By covering himself in dust-powder, whenever the villain kicked, punched, body-slammed and twisted Chan’s joints the wrong way, the powder would fly. This proves to the audience that Chan was absorbing the blows. Chan didn’t use Martial Arts during the fight, instead he flailed his limbs and acted crazy.

With the barn fight in Dragon Lord (1982), Jackie Chan was proclaimed as one of the best and craziest stuntmen in the industry. Chan used bird’s eye shots of himself precariously hanging from dizzying heights without wires, pads or safety nets and did a back breaking stunt where he helplessly falls to the ground headfirst from a second story balcony. The film-ending outtakes depict mishaps so serious that they could never be shown on an American film. Chan got the outtake idea from working on Cannonball Run (1981).

Jackie Chan next developed modern characters who lived in crowded urban areas, dense with buildings and objects. This new milieu challenged Chan’s ling gan to the max. Fights were no longer one-on-one battles but a series of group confrontations, weaving through alleyways, malls, warehouses, catacombs, and other sites that inspired his imagination. During Project A II (1987), Jackie stands atop a large billboard. As the billboard falls backward, Chan runs down the billboard’s other side. In Project A (1983), he dangerously dangles holding onto the second hand of a fifty-foot tower clock. He loses his grip and plummets to the ground, his fall broken by two flimsy window awnings.

Jackie Chan Always Confronts New Circumstances

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Space has a tangible quality in Chan’s films that continually transforms from the confines of small rooms, alleys or a high-rise’s narrow ledges to the vastness of mountaintops, castles or building rooftops. He achieves these transformations by using extended chase sequences through places like malls (Police Story), mountain monasteries (Armour of God; 1987), warehouses (Mr. Canton and Lady Rose (MCLR); 1989) and staircases in Who Am I? (1988), where after fighting two goons on a towering building’s open air rooftop, Chan slides down the building’s exterior 300-foot-long slopping glass trapezium from the roof to the ground.

Each unpredictable redefinition of space adds to the scene’s momentum by creating a giddy farce. As Chan moves through new environments, he confronts new circumstances and possibilities. This is evident in the Armour of God II: Operation Condor‘s (1991) underground dungeon fight sequence. Chan gracefully moves from a wee underground missile storage bin to a water tower to giant see-sawing electrical plates to a huge wind tunnel and finally to a vast desert. On a lesser scale, in Thunderbolt  (1995) the casino fight begins within the narrow confines between rows of slot machines and ends up on large wavy-shaped trampolines suspended from the ceiling high above the floor.

His Humor

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Chan’s characters move through the material world in a linear, precise fashion without  worrying about reality. When he dodges giant spools of rope within a framework of a roof in MCLR or avoids runaway vehicles in a car-testing facility in Twin Dragons (1992), he’s displaying his appreciation for the dynamics of static objects. His comedy is a comedy of physics filled with direction and calculated precise formulas void of any constants.

His stunts are uproarious when he accomplishes them with grace and the economy of motion like in MCLR when he’s fighting three thugs at the same time. One on a ladder he keeps pushing away but rebounds back. A second trying to run over a giant spool of rope that Jackie Chan keeps at bay by spinning the spool and making the goon look like a logroller, and the third attacking via a nearby balcony that Chan repeatedly kicks back, which give him to time to spin the spool, push away the ladder, etc.

Humor is built into his characters’ contradictions like a fighting archaeologist, comic cop, boxing orchestra conductor or a joking lawyer, thus to a point he still must adhere to some societal norms even while he’s breaking society’s rules and confusing the order of things. It’s exploring these contradictions…the angst between conformity and discord, duty and reason, holding back and letting go – that makes Chan’s films so distinctive. Yet when he decides to let the characters go, his films soar.

Jackie Chan’s Fights

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Jackie Chan’s fights play out like a Rube Goldberg machine. It is about building a machine that uses a chain reaction of simple events to accomplish a very simple task in a very complicated manner. It’s akin to my childhood board game Mouse Trap. For Chan, a fight begins a chain reaction of other fights and as they escalate, sets become more complex. Yet it all comes together so Chan can complete one simple task…defeat the villain.

Chan’s comedy is never vindictive and can appear cartoonish, as if physical violence has no real-world effects. That makes his choreography more realistic than Hollywood’s. He doesn’t use Hollywood-required safety features and his camera position guarantees the authenticity of his fights/stunts. That’s why they’re thrilling; no one in his right mind would attempt them much less attempt to shoot them in a way that proves their veracity.

He makes his my life imitates my art points clear when sometimes his character’s names are a form of his own name and by the outtakes of repeated failures of a physical bit or shots of himself being carted off in an ambulance after a stunt goes awry. These scenes reflect his willingness to fight for success, emphasize his pledge to audience satisfaction and raise his contribution to his films to a higher level of discipline and dedication.

Disney | ABC Television Group
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