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Fall Sneaks

His Career Is No Stunt

Comedy may be his forte, but Jackie Chan is quite serious about which movies he chooses

September 08, 2002|HUGH HART

Jackie Chan has dangled from a Hollywood street sign, slid through pools of fire, leaped off buildings and tangled with an out-of-control helicopter, earning nearly a billion dollars in worldwide box office for his troubles. But this fall represents a first for the 48-year-old action star.

In "The Tuxedo," Chan's stunts are augmented with special effects. Up until now, Chan himself was the special effect, and he's a tad nervous about the results. "I don't know. It makes me worry," Chan says.

Why? "I try to do special effects a long time but I don't know how, so I always stayed with my style, Jackie Chan style."

But Chan listened when DreamWorks pitched him a special-effects spy spoof, if only because it meant he'd get to meet his hero, Steven Spielberg.

"When Spielberg see me, I said, 'I just want to know how you do that, with the dinosaurs jumping around,' and he say, 'It's so easy, just push button, button, button, button.' I say, 'Oh, button. OK.'

"Then Spielberg say, 'Jackie, let me ask you something: How do you go flying from the roof to the building?' I say, 'Easy. You roll and jump.' "

The masters always make it look easy. Like Gene Kelly or Charlie Chaplin or Muhammad Ali, Chan has channeled prodigious physical gifts into remaking a traditional performance style in his own image. Since his 1998 international hit "Rush Hour," Jackie Chan has become known to moviegoers around the world as that funny martial arts guy who speaks broken English and whirls around at warp speed beating villains to a pulp.

Jet-lagged after a flight from Hong Kong, Chan didn't fall asleep until 10 in the morning during a recent visit to Los Angeles. But three hours later, showing no sign of fatigue, he waltzed into his manager's Beverly Hills office for an early-afternoon interview.

Dressed head to toe in white, Chan sat down, jumped up, slumped in his chair, made faces and provided his own sound effects. Tireless? Evidently.

"The Tuxedo," aimed at 11-to 16-year-olds, will likely fortify Chan's popularity among young viewers. But how the film plays to his longtime fan base is of equal importance to Chan. Acutely sensitive to audience feedback, the actor can rattle off grosses, territory by territory, for each of his films.

He once experimented with a dramatic role. The film only did so-so at the Asian box office. Chan hasn't made what he calls a "crying movie" since. Not that he needs to fret about losing his Asian filmgoers. For more than two decades, his action flicks have dominated the Far East box office. "In Hong Kong, I'm like king on the set," he says. "Director, writer, producer, star--it's one-man show."

But his reach has always extended beyond Asia. Chan wants to stay hot in the Western world, and he's shrewd enough to realize that continued success in the English-speaking world depends on good chemistry with contrary co-stars.

"Without Chris Tucker, 'Rush Hour' would not be so successful," he says. "And without me, not as successful. But together, boom!" Chan also mentions "Shanghai Knights," the sequel (due in 2003) to his movie "Shanghai Noon," co-starring Owen Wilson. "Then, almost like a formula, the second one with Owen Wilson, same thing. I will continue to find different partners, maybe children or even with a dog or a monkey, because in the American market, I need somebody's help." In "The Tuxedo," which opens Sept. 27, that somebody is Jennifer Love Hewitt. In the film, Chan plays a chauffeur who suddenly acquires the ability to dance, sing and do kung fu when he dons a high-tech dinner jacket. Hewitt plays a rookie agent who teams up with Chan.

Chan may be content to share the billing in American-made pictures, but not if it means playing a villain. Smarting after the failure of two Hollywood features, "The Big Brawl" (1980) and "The Protector" (1985), Chan was invited in 1988 to appear opposite Michael Douglas in "Black Rain." Only one problem: He'd have to play a drug dealer. Chan turned it down.

"I don't mind being a co-star, but bad guy?" he says, sipping a cup of warm water. "I tell them, I just cannot do it. I'd been creating my image so many years. I believe the Asian audience would have killed me. So, no."

The role model business is something Chan takes seriously. "Being an actor, you should do many things, not only one thing. But I think my case is different because I receive so many letters from all the young children and the parents who write me. I get letter from the young mother: 'I don't like the one shot where you grab somebody's crotch.' For me, it's funny but it's dirty funny. So, I go, 'OK, I'm not going to do that anymore.' Year by year, no more breaking fingers, poking eyes, we take that out. Now, I can almost say, my action is clean action."

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