Once in a while, if you're lucky, and paying the right kind of attention, events align to give you a clear view of the future. In 1995, I was in Los Angeles staying with a friend who produced independent films and had the trade magazines Variety and The Hollywood Reporter delivered to his door early each morning. One day, the front page headlines trumpeted New Line Cinema's plan to distribute Jackie Chan's latest film, Rumble in the Bronx, in the U.S. I'd recently begun contributing to The New York Times Magazine, and so I called my editor. "There's a guy in Hong Kong," I told him. "You've probably never heard of him, but he's going to be huge. I think you should send me there to write about him."
I'd guessed correctly -- the editor, who was knowledgeable on a wide range of subjects, had never heard of Jackie Chan. Despite Chan's ubiquity across Asia and the real pandemonium that resulted anytime he made public appearances in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Japan, there was no World Wide Web yet in 1995, no Wikipedia, and no YouTube where one could easily call up scenes from films or appearances on talk shows. So it took some convincing -- VHS tapes of Chan's movies and copies of articles that had appeared about him in the cinephile press -- but I got the assignment and went to Hong Kong that summer to accompany him for three weeks during the shooting ofThunderbolt, a street-racing action thriller whose $HKD 200 million budget made it the most expensive Hong Kong film had ever produced. My piece -- a profile, attempting to encapsulate Chan's extraordinary story, his unique talents as a performer and filmmaker, his popularity across Asia, and the perils he faced in trying to win acceptance among moviegoers in the West -- appeared in the magazine in January of 1996, and helped introduce Chan to the U.S.
In the the late '80s and early '90s, cities like New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and San Francisco were fantastic places to experience the golden age of Jackie Chan, John Woo, Tsui Hark, and the overall florescence of populist Hong Kong cinema. In New York, where I lived, you could see films both at Chinatown cinemas and revival houses, and the video emporia of Chinatown would sell you cheap VHS copies dubbed from the laserdisc releases of all the latest films.
I had come to Chan not because I was a kung fu geek, but because from childhood I'd loved Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and the clowns of silent cinema. The so-called "New Vaudevillian" performers of the '80s -- Bill Irwin, The Flying Karamazov Brothers, Blue Man Group -- and modern dance troupes like MOMIX, ISO, and Martha Clarke, who did pieces oriented toward pop spectacle, had gotten me excited about new ways to continue this tradition. When the New York Film Festival saw fit to include Chan's Police Story in its 1987 program, I'd seen in Chan's exuberant physical virtuosity a thoroughly modern, unaffected, and mainstream way to blend comedy, acrobatics, and dance to amazing and uproarious result.
Hollywood too had fallen in love with Hong Kong action and style, shamelessly plundering daredevil stunts, gags, even entire action sequences from Hong Kong films. The producer Barry Josephson, who started out in the '80s working for the action/thriller impresario Joel Silver (Lethal Weapon, Die Hard, The Matrix) once told me that Silver tasked a small crew of people to go through Chan's and other Hong Kong filmmakers' work on laserdiscs and create "greatest hits" reels of action and fight sequences for his directors and writers to study and crib from. (In some sense this was returning a favor: Hong Kong stuntmen took inspiration from Hollywood practices they observed during the 1966 location shooting of Robert Wise's Boxer Rebellion drama The Sand Pebbles; Hong Kong makers of gangster movies had also studied carefully and then extravagantly sampled the innovative shootout sequences in Brian De Palma's Scarface and Michael Cimino's Year of the Dragon; and even Jackie Chan had remade the Frank Capra chestnut Pocketful of Miracles.)
Still, it's hard to imagine Chan's ever becoming entirely a Communist Party tool: he will always be a symbol of Hong Kong spirit and D.I.Y ingenuity, and his life's work celebrates the triumph of the little guy, the indomitability of the plucky individual.
My weeks in Hong Kong afforded me an intimate glimpse of Chan's life and working methods. It was a momentous time to be observing and talking to him: he had the deal with New Line, the William Morris Agency (now known as WME), signed him and this meant he had a real shot at becoming a global superstar. Chan is not normally inclined to reflection. But on a couple of occasions after the day's shooting had ended, he spoke late into the night with me about what it all meant and what he hoped for his career.
Last week, when Chan came to the U.S. on a promotional tour that included a stop at Asia Society, it was as someone for whom the intervening 18 years had pretty much fulfilled the promise of that moment. Chan has become a global icon, a figure of incontestable international bonhomie, and a funnyman and action maestro whose art transcends language and culture. The U.S. success of Rumble, and, subsequently, that of the Rush Hour franchise (its three films have grossed over $1 billion in ticket sales around the world) established him as a star in the Hollywood pantheon, a true successor to Bruce Lee in the U.S. as well as at home, the only Chinese figure in popular culture who's not regarded as some sort of imported novelty.
The '90s saw Chan publish his autobiography and make a feature-length documentary, both making the details of his extraordinary rags-to-riches story well-known in the West. He became a regular on Letterman, Leno, and Jimmy Kimmel; a sought-after advertising pitchman; and the star of his own kids' cartoon show. And he did so without leaving Asia behind. Parallel to his Hollywood output, Chan kept up producing, starring in, and sometimes directing Hong Kong films. He stretched out into drama, romance, and comedy, and oversaw an even more widespread branding empire and a charitable foundation that gives to children's causes, medical services, and disaster relief efforts. He remains now, as he was when I met him, an absurdly busy human, ever in motion, a jolly goodwill ambassador for both Hong Kong and the mainland who seems never to sit down to a dinner that isn't some sort of ceremonial banquet.
Which is not to say there has not been an embarrassing outtakes reel. While Chan devotes himself to the charity foundation that bears his name, and gives his time and face to humanitarian aid and public cleanliness campaigns, fans have been chagrined to see the Chinese tabloid press -- who, as a rule, make Rupert Murdoch's infamous "Page Six" seem as decorous as The New York Review of Books -- revel in Chan's episodes of public drunkenness, the "Dragon Seed" scandal in which actress Elaine Ng Yi-Lei gave birth to Chan's extramarital daughter, derogatory comments about Chan's son Jaycee's show business career, and the time paparazzi thought they'd caught him in a make-out session with mainland superstar actress, director, and blogger Xu Jinglei.