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Chan Spurred Into Action

The Hong Kong star's vision of 'Far East meets the Old West' is realized in his latest movie.

May 25, 2000|ANNE BERGMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Throughout more than 20 years and 40 films, Hong Kong action star Jackie Chan had a seemingly far-fetched dream: to make a Hollywood western. Now, with the release Friday of "Shanghai Noon," Chan's dream comes true.

"The original idea was mine," says Chan by telephone from New York between rehearsals for his May 20 guest shot on "Saturday Night Live." "But no one would listen to me in Hong Kong because making an American movie is so expensive."

But after proving his bankability in the U.S. with "Rush Hour"--the acrobatic Chan's 1998 effort that teamed him with Chris Tucker--Chan knew the time was right, so he pitched the "Far East meets Old West" story to "Rush Hour" producers Roger Birnbaum and Jonathan Glickman.

"They thought the idea was fun," he recalls of the informal pitch session with Birnbaum and Glickman, who agreed to produce the $50-million-budgeted "Shanghai Noon." "And I was just so happy when Disney picked up the film because it means my movie is a family movie. All these years I've been doing a lot of action, no violence, always happy-go-lucky."

Not only did Disney's Touchstone Pictures pick up "Shanghai Noon," the studio showed confidence in the film by moving its release date up from July 21, placing Chan in direct contention over Memorial Day weekend with fellow Hong Kong veteran John Woo's "M:I-2."

Set in 1880s Nevada, the plot line of "Shanghai Noon" resembles "Rush Hour," complete with language and cultural-barrier jokes. In sum, Chan's character, Chon Wang--yes, it sounds like John Wayne--is a member of the Chinese Imperial Guard who travels to the U.S. to rescue a kidnapped princess (Lucy Liu). Along the way, Chan teams with outlaw Roy O'Bannon, played by Owen Wilson, who, like Tucker's character in "Rush Hour," is more adept at banter than he is at battle.

"I was worried how he'd be improvising, if there would be a language barrier, because he was kind of shy when I first met him," Wilson says. "But his English was great and more important than that was his sense of comedy. I was able to riff on some stuff with him."

"When he's acting," Chan says of Wilson, "he's very cool, not like me. He does the verbal comedy. I do the action comedy."

Action comedy indeed. In "Shanghai Noon," the 46-year-old Chan leaps from moving trains, takes on a barroom full of cowboy thugs and swings from rafters with princess in tow. But perhaps Chan's most challenging stunt was horseback riding.

"A horse is a giant animal," says Chan. "Every time when I get on, he want to eat. And I have to say, 'Stop! Stop!' And the trainer say, 'Pull him!' And I ask, 'How can I? He's much stronger than I am!' Then after I know the trick, it's OK. Up till then he totally control me."

"In Asia we'd never spend this kind of time to train the animal before we're shooting," he says, noting that horses are too troublesome an element for the low-budget films he makes in Asia.

Chan, who usually speaks in Cantonese, is as animated off-screen as he is on, and while his English isn't perfect, he makes himself understood, punctuating the interview with a set of sound effects and exclamation points.

Born in Hong Kong in 1954, by the age of 7 Chan was an apprentice at the Peking Opera School, where he learned acrobatics, gymnastics and martial arts. He got his break in movies in the early 1970s, beginning as a bit player and stunt coordinator. Gradually Chan built a reputation as a consummate martial artist who also infused his routines with comedic elements. He made his directorial debut in 1980 with "Shi di chu ma" (Young Master) and since then has produced, starred in and directed more than a dozen films.)

Yet success in the U.S. remained elusive, as Chan attempted a crossover in 1981's "The Cannonball Run." His initial experiences in Hollywood left a bitter residue, he says, that was only washed away when "Rush Hour" grossed more than $140 million in the U.S.

His Humor Doesn't Always Translate

"Rush Hour" came on the heels of Chan's "Rumble in the Bronx," which was dubbed into English for U.S. release in 1996, and helped boost Chan's level of recognition here. Still, Chan finds that what works in the U.S. doesn't necessarily work overseas.

"For some people there's only one market, but for myself, there's two markets, one is Asia and the other is America and Europe," he explains. "Like 'Rush Hour' was a success in America, not really a success in Asia. Because in Asia people don't get the jokes. Everybody smile in America, nobody smile in Asia."

To maintain a balance, Chan, who also executive produces his films, alternates between Asian- and English-language fare, recently starring in and producing "Gorgeous" after "Rush Hour" and before "Shanghai Noon." Currently Chan is making another Asian-language feature, "Accidental Spy," before he begins filming "Rush Hour II" in September.

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