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  xSaturday, June 22, 2002

Movie thoughts

Saturday morning started well for me. Naomi woke up at about quarter after 5, but after I gave her a bottle she went back to sleep and let me sleep until nearly 7—practically a miracle. Once we were both awake, I fixed her breakfast and she watched some traditional Saturday Morning Cartoons. As we went about our day—me cleaning house, she furniture cruising and playing with her toys—I decided to recall the days when I was a youngster and watched our local then-independent station all day Saturday. It’d run kung fu movies, Japanese kaiju (giant monster) flicks, old science fiction films and, later in the evening, horror movies.

So I’ve had the VCR and DVD player going all day, showing stuff like Godzilla vs the Sea Monster (which obviously didn’t have much of a budget, as Godzilla stomps not Tokyo but an Inept Evil Organization’s base on a tropical island; but it’s the swankest of all the Big G films, with a dance marathon, the mystic Mothra twins and swingin’ island rhythms) and a double-feature DVD with Beast from Haunted Cave and The Brain that Wouldn’t Die. Today’s kung fu offering—admittedly too recent to have appeared on WDRB—was Jackie Chan’s 1995 US breakthrough, Rumble in the Bronx (official site).

jackie chan

This thoroughly entertaining movie made Chan—who had starred in dozens of Hong Kong movies and appeared in Hollywood films like The Big Brawl and Cannonball Run—a star in the US. Chan’s character travels to New York (which appears only in second-unit establishing shots; the movie was filmed in Vancouver) to help his Uncle Bill (Bill Tung, who appeared with Chan in the Police Story series) sell a market, and stays on to help the new owner (Anita Mui of The Heroic Trio).

He runs afoul of a multiethnic gang that travels around on brightly-colored dirt bikes, complete with racing numbers, and despite his kung fu prowess finds himself on the wrong end of a couple of beatdowns. Meanwhile, he sparks a friendship and very tentative romance (the pair share exactly one onscreen kiss) with Nancy (Franscoise Yip), the gang leader’s girlfriend—I guess that’d be ex-girlfriend. Notably, Chan’s usual reaction to the gang’s threat is to run away, which results in some breathtaking stunts, including a leap from the roof of a parking garage to a fire escape across an alley.

jackie chan makes a mighty leap

The gang goes too far, though, when it trashes the market. The fur flies during a frenzied fracas in the gang’s headquarters—stocked with presumably stolen property that gives Chan ample opportunity to exercise a trademark flair for impromptu weaponry. Chan single-handedly dominates the group and the leader gives up. Just then, word arrives that one of the gang has been killed by a group of diamond thieves whose haul was intercepted by another gang member, and the diamond thieves soon trash the market again. All of a sudden, old rivalries are forgotten as Chan tries to save some of the gang and nab the diamond thieves.

Rumble in the Bronx is full of goofy fun. During a fracas in the store, Chan punches a gang member into a tall display of soda cans—which prove to be empty as they clatter to the ground. Examples abound—the stage where Nancy dances is encircled by a tiger cage complete with tiger; the climactic chase occurs with the diamond thieves make their getaway in a hovercraft; and the gang challenges a rival crew to a cycle race—over the tops of parked cars. (As funny as it sounds, the stunt was no laughing matter; the actress who played Nancy and two stuntpeople broke legs filming it.) And notable exceptions depart from the film’s generally lighthearted tone. Chan is beaten bloody on at least one occasion and there are several murders by the diamond thieves; this and some strong language gave the film an R rating.

jackie chan in action

As is traditional with Chan movies, outtakes appear under the closing credits. They show numerous occasions where a particular stunt goes awry, including one occasion when Chan broke or sprained his ankle during a leap onto the hovercraft, which led him to perform some stunts in a cast covered by a fake rubber sneaker.

Aside from being entertaining pratfalls, the outtakes make it even more obvious that the preceding story is just a fantasy, a story. They drive home the fact that the punches and kicks shown on screen can hurt. They also make it clear that the people in the movie are just characters—several times and stunt people stop fighting and rush to aid an injured colleague, and the cameras catch actors breaking out of character and into applause when a stunt is over.

I’ve ranted before about people who blur the line between fantasy and reality. But in a way, the stories movies tell help shape our reality. A culture’s stories give it context and a shared reference point. While there’s been a lot of worry about the effect of onscreen violence, what disturbs me is the fact that violence is often the first and only response ever presented to resolve a conflict. And the violence that occurs is often without cost and consequence.

Violence is not only the sole solution offered, it’s also almost invariably the successful course of action, the thing that usually resolves the conflict in the hero’s favor. It always works, and usually at little cost to the hero (although best friends and love interests sometimes become dramatic collateral damage), and innocents never get hurt except by the despicable heavy.

I sometimes wonder if this subtext doesn’t pack much more influence than the desire to imitate the moves one sees onscreen. Sure, after seeing Star Wars you might pretend you have a light saber—but after hundreds of these movies, most made with much less attention to detail than Star Wars, a subtle message that violence is the answer might be delivered. Then again, I think I’ve seen more violent movies—and movies that are more violent—than the average guy, and I think I know that the world doesn’t work that way. (At least, I hope not.)

Rumble in the Bronx shares these tendencies, but after his victorious battle, Chan tells them he regrets their being enemies, which makes the gang’s eventual turnaround less surprising. And in a significant departure form action movie tradition, the major villain—who’s responsible for the deaths of several people—is not killed, but humiliated (and presumably arrested).

But Chan’s character, who despite his obvious skills that ultimately lead him to prevail against the entire gang, runs away whenever possible. That tendency not only lends Chan greater credibility a martial artist, but also renders his eventual resolve to fight the gang more dramatic. Chan also isn’t always successful either in running away or fighting; at times he’s injured, even when he wins (although his cuts and bruises tend to vanish by the next scene).

Rumble in the Bronx doesn’t need heavy analysis, though. It’s mostly goofy and good-natured, you get to see Chan and a team of expert stunt players in action, and then there’s the lovely Franscoise Yip and Anita Mui, so what’s not to like?

franscoise yip

(A sad note: Mark Akerstream, who played gang leader Tony, died in a 1998 stunt-related accident.)

Second opinion: Stomp Tokyo

Omi and I are going to go grab some milk and then pick up her mother and big sister from the airport. I’ll be good to have them both back.