Rumble in the Bronx

rumbleinthebronx1995112Correct me if I’m wrong, but nobody ever went to a Fred Astaire musical for the plot. They came to see Astaire do his thing. It may seem absurd to compare Jackie Chan with Astaire, but bear with me. When the song-and-dance movies died, the beauty of physical movement all but disappeared from screens. Then Bruce Lee came along. Within the martial arts format, Lee inaugurated a violent new brand of ballet. Then he died. Since then, we’ve had skillful but uninspired clunkers like Sonny Chiba and Steven Seagal — bruisers giving martial arts a bad name.

Actually, we’ve had another great fighter-dancer for the past twenty years. America has been oblivious to him until now. His name is Jackie Chan, and he has tried to kick through American apathy twice before — in 1980’s The Big Brawl and in 1985’s The Protector. His new one, Rumble in the Bronx, is the 42-year-old international star’s calling card to the west. It’s not a great movie, but it’s a decent showcase for a great star.

People will probably go to laugh, to goof on the movie. But watch what Jackie Chan does, and try to be unimpressed. Chan, who does all his own stunts, has the most fluid and gravity-defying moves since Bruce Lee, and he isn’t a grim punisher like Chiba or Seagal — he’s an entertainer. The word that best describes him, crazy as it sounds, is “sweet.” He has an easy manner, and when he smiles he looks so goofy yet so delighted that you can’t help smiling along with him.

I love, for example, the way he deals with a scuzzy gang of motorcycle creeps. After dispatching what seems like dozens of them, he stands back and says, “I hope that the next time we meet, we will not be fighting, but instead drinking tea together” — and he means it. Chan only fights when he’s forced to, and even then he’s not vicious. He fights to give us a virtuosic show, not to destroy people. The only time he gets really mad is when some bad guys, looking for stolen diamonds, threaten a wheelchair-bound little boy he has befriended.

Director Stanley Tong, who has a stunt background himself, doesn’t really know what to do with the camera in the dialogue scenes. When it matters, though, his work is crisp and unintrusive. The fight choreography is flat-out brilliant; there’s one brawl — involving a shopping cart, a fridge, you name it — that is easily the funniest and most exhilarating sequence of mayhem I’ve seen since Harrison Ford hung up his fedora. Tong realizes that Chan is the best special effect a director could want. Chan does something no other star can do by himself: he gives us back a childlike sense of awe.

And the plot? This is the plot: Every ten minutes or so, Jackie Chan gets into a fight; everything else is filler. This is the plot of every Jackie Chan movie, as well as every Bruce Lee movie (and every Fred Astaire movie, if you substitute dancing for fighting). Some may say Rumble in the Bronx uses Jackie Chan to make up for not having a story. I say most other movies use a story to make up for not having Jackie Chan.

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