What makes a Jackie Chan film? Martial arts star on his movie formula

Hong Kong martial arts star Jackie Chan (pictured here in 1995) reflected on the dramatic roles he used to extend his range, and his movie formula, in a 1997 interview previously unpublished.
PHOTO: South China Morning Post

In the last of our extracts from an unpublished 1997 interview, Jackie Chan candidly reflects on some of the films from his "golden age" in the 1980s and early 1990s.

In previous instalments, the Hong Kong action superstar talked about his early days as a stuntman, working with Bruce Lee, shaping his own fighting style, the making of Project A, inventing his Drunken Master kung fu moves, and how he made the most of every opportunity to further his career.

What inspired you to use the female African-American martial artists in Armour of God? One of them, Linda Denley — known as the "The Texas Terror" — was a karate champ in the US.

Going back to The Young Master, I had already fought with many people. It seemed like there were no more new people to fight, as I had fought all the biggest and baddest guys in Asia already.

I'm always trying to do something new, and that makes finding someone to fight for each new movie a challenge.

For Armour of God, to do something different, I thought I would fight with the four black women, who could all do karate very well.

How did you go about choreographing those fight scenes?

Well, look at it in slow motion next time you watch it — the women in the fights are actually all men. The women were great at fighting, but they could not fight in a movie way, which is different to competition fighting.

They just couldn't get the rhythms right for movie fighting, they were just too quick. So I ended up dressing my stuntmen in women's clothes and using them. The women are in the close-ups but the fights are actually done by my team.

Mr Canton and Lady Rose is an interesting work for you — it's more of a drama, although the action set pieces are great.

I made that film because I wanted to show off. At that time there were a lot of rumours about me flying around.

People said I couldn't act, I had no knowledge of film techniques, and that all I could do was fight. That made me angry, so I decided to make a film with such good camerawork that the Asian audience would be stunned.

I got the biggest budget that I ever had for that film, so I could build a good set and get the best camera equipment available from abroad. I got the best technicians and the best crew. Even the smaller roles are played by big stars like Jacky Cheung [Hok-yau].

How do you feel about the film today?

Actually, I feel a bit stupid, as it was really only a few people who were criticising me. So I made that whole movie just to impress a few people!

First Strike is often criticised, but the ladder sequence is one of your best action scenes. How did that come about?

I'm always trying to do something new, and that is tough sometimes. Americans like to watch me fight, but now in Asia, audiences prefer things like snowboard chases, underwater chases, and special effects. It's harder for me to think of something, as I am now working between the two cultures.

If I don't have any good ideas, I tend to look around, look at physical objects to inspire me. For First Strike I looked around and saw a ladder and — yes! — I got an idea. I think Americans really liked that ladder scene, but Asians weren't too impressed, they already knew I could do things like that.

You really changed tack completely with Crime Story, it's more of a drama — a tough police story without any comedy.

I realised that I could not simply be a fighter all my life, which is why I made City Hunter and Crime Story . I realised that I had to develop as an actor. I looked at a lot of different scripts to see where to go next. I wanted to totally change my image with these films.

I really admired Steven Spielberg, I thought he was a genius, and I liked the way he would direct all different kinds of films. I decided to do something completely different with Crime Story — I'm not smiling and it's more dramatic. I kept changing, as I wanted to do everything.

You have mentioned the great silent comedian Buster Keaton as an inspiration, but had you actually seen any of his films when you started working in Hong Kong?

Well, I did say that I learned from Buster Keaton, but to tell the truth, I never learned from Buster Keaton. I appreciate him now, but I watched his films much later.

Everyone in America likes Buster Keaton, he's everyone's comedy hero. Many people said I was like Buster Keaton, and asked me if I had learned from him, so I just ended up saying yes. Same for Gene Kelly. But how could I have seen those films back then? We didn't have technology like videos when I started out.

Jackie Chan at a 1996 news conference for his latest production at that time, The Jackie Chan Story.
PHOTO: South China Morning Post

When I was doing Young Master, I just created everything out of my head — in fact, I was already doing that type of thing back in Fearless Hyena. I had been doing those things all my life, and suddenly video technology came out, and my editing team sent me some of Buster Keaton's films to watch. I thought, Wow, that really looks like what I do!

How do you define a "Jackie Chan movie"?

A Jackie Chan movie is an action comedy with a lot of extra elements. You can see a lot of action, but there is no actual violence — in fact, compared to American movies there is no violence at all. There is also no sex, and no dirty jokes.

I don't follow trends at all, I have my own style, and I stick to that. That has kept me famous for 20 years, so there must be something in it.

The films are happy-go-lucky, and usually have a simple story about a good guy and a bad guy. At the end of a Jackie Chan movie, you leave the cinema with a good feeling. You might quickly forget the story of the film, but you won't forget me, Jackie Chan!

ALSO READ: From Jackie Chan to Chang Cheh, 7 legends of Hong Kong martial arts cinema behind the camera

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.