Is America ready for the phenomenon that is Jackie Chan, baby-faced battler and flesh-and-blood special effect? Is anybody?
Asia's biggest movie star, veteran of more than 40 films, the Hong Kong-based Chan has had more success breaking through stone walls than into the U.S. market. With "Rumble in the Bronx," however, he might just cross over.
Unlike another Hong Kong action legend, "Broken Arrow" director John Woo, who is attempting to reinvent his system in Hollywood, Chan, the wary veteran of abortive attempts to crack the domestic scene a decade back in things like "The Cannonball Run," is content to let others tidy up his enormously popular movies for mainstream America.
So New Line Cinema has made trims in "Rumble in the Bronx" and insisted that the original cast dub the Chinese dialogue into English rather than employ subtitles or the standard practice of voice doubles. But just as movie villains are hard-pressed to match Chan's skill, his films are so inferior to the man's remarkable abilities that their ineptitude becomes part of the fun.
At one level of his appeal, Chan is a practiced and acrobatic martial arts operative, so quick and lethal with hands and feet he was once groomed as the likely successor to kick-meister Bruce Lee.
But more than a fighter, the preternaturally resilient and agile Chan is celebrated for the difficulty of the stunts he supplies his films with, and for having the temerity and the skill to never employ doubles in putting them on screen. And "Rumble" is never too sophisticated to halt after these moments to offer tribute to Chan via awe-struck characters saying, "You're amazing" or "I can't believe this."
There are numerous human spider opportunities for Chan in "Rumble," but the most impressive is a jump, presented from several angles, which starts from a rooftop and ends on a tiny three-foot-square balcony that is 40 feet down on an adjoining building 26 feet away. Kids, don't try this at home.
Doing these kinds of stunts would be hazardous to anyone's health, even Chan's, and the actor, who's had numerous serious injuries, in fact broke his foot on this picture. You can see that accidents happen in a Chan tradition, an end credits montage of outtakes detailing everything that went wrong during the filming.
What sets Chan apart most as an action hero, however, is his unforced boyishness. Unfailingly modest in every sense of the word (one of "Rumble's" sequences has him too timid to answer the door while wearing exercise shorts), Chan's character has to be the most self-effacing killing machine ever, polite enough to say, "No thank you," when propositioned by Bronx streetwalkers.
With all that going for him, most fans, both in Asia and increasing numbers in this country, are unconcerned about inelegant dubbing and the cheerfully cornball nature of his films, the unyielding sentimentality that makes "Rumble in the Bronx" more of an unsophisticated cartoon than "Toy Story."
In many ways a typical product of the Hong Kong industry, "Rumble" (written by Edward Tang and Fibe Ma and directed by Stanley Tong) details the adventures of Keung, a young man who comes to New York on what he thinks will be a quick trip to attend the wedding of his uncle, the owner of a thriving grocery store in the Bronx.
But when the store gets sold to the attractive Elaine (Anita Mui), Keung decides to stick around to help her out. And that puts him into conflict with a local motorcycle gang whose members include Nancy (Francoise Yip), a go-go dancer whose handicapped younger brother Danny (Morgan Lam) becomes Keung's best friend.
"Rumble's" plot gets a bit more complicated, coming to include $7 million in stolen diamonds, a master criminal named White Tiger and a Hovercraft that runs wild in the streets. But getting close to believable is never on the agenda, and its nominal bad guys, especially the dread motorcycle gang, would barely seem out of place on Sesame Street.
And with the filmmakers casual and unconcerned about having New York City police boats motor past what is unmistakably not the Manhattan skyline (most of the film was shot in Vancouver), this movie's setting bears as much relation to the real Bronx as Chinese food does to Big Macs.
Still, if you get into the silly spirit of things, it matters not. For serenely rising above all the foolishness is Chan himself, a performer whose belief in broad and harmless fun gives his films a clear and present connection to the classic silent comedies to go along with its action fixation. For once a film's ad line has a whiff of truth about it: "No Fear. No Stuntman. No Equal."
* MPAA rating: R, for some language and violent sequences. Times guidelines: fairly tame by current Hollywood standards.
'Rumble in the Bronx'
Jackie Chan: Keung
Anita Mui: Elaine
Francoise Yip: Nancy
Bill Tung: Uncle Bill
Mark Akerstream: Tony
Garvin Cross: Angelo
Morgan Lam: Danny
A Raymond Chow/Golden Harvest production, released by New Line Cinema. Director Stanley Tong. Producer Barbie Tung. Executive producer Leonard Ho. Screenplay Edward Tang and Fibe Ma. Cinematographer Jingle Ma. Editors Michael Duthie, Peter Cheung. Music J. Peter Robinson. Production design Oliver Wong. Running time: 1 hour, 37 minutes.
* In general release throughout Southern California.