François Truffaut once wrote, “I demand that a film express either the joy of making cinema or the agony of making cinema.” Truffaut might have enjoyed the cinema of Jackie Chan, whose films satisfy both demands. Chan does all his own stunts, ranging from dangerous to suicidal: While shooting his 1986 Armour of God, he jumped off a cliff, landed on his head, and was left with a permanent dent in his skull. Watching the movie, we see the joy of Chan in action; at the end are outtakes, and we see the agony of Chan breaking his bones when a stunt fails.
Operation Condor, billed as the “new” Jackie Chan movie, is actually seven years old; it’s the 1990 sequel to his head-denting epic Armour of God, though you don’t need to have seen that movie to follow this one. Not that there’s much to follow. As I’ve said before, you watch an Astaire and Rogers musical to see them dance, and you watch a Jackie Chan movie to see him fight and clown around and risk his life. In both cases, the plot is perfectly irrelevant.
This movie’s plot, in fact, is the whole Indiana Jones trilogy in condensed form. There are car chases and deadly crawly things; there are vast treasures hidden in the desert and pursued by Nazis and Arabs; there are elaborate death machines set in motion; there are also not one but three women who can be relied on to shriek, flail, and generally be all useless and girly when confronted with danger. Sheesh, even Indy (and feminist viewers) only had to endure one such damsel in distress; this movie is like Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom with three Kate Capshaws. I point this out not to be overly PC, but to warn fans of Chan’s Supercop that the gun-toting women in the ads for Operation Condor are not cut from the same cloth as Supercop‘s Michelle Yeoh. Now there was a woman who more than held her own alongside Chan; her formidable exploits spoiled some of us for the retro “Eek, a mouse” stuff in this movie.
Aside from that (and occasionally murky photography that detracts from a few of the fight scenes), this was far and away 1997’s best comedy. (I laughed more during any given five minutes than I did during the entirety of Men in Black.) Chan, as always, is a goofy and endearing presence; his small frame and expressive features link him with the great silent comedians he idolizes and also make him a plausible action hero. That’s what he does as a director, too. He sets the tone right away: when he escapes some irate natives by running inside a large inflatable ball, there’s a hilarious long shot of the ball bouncing down the side of a high cliff. There’s a great sequence set in a hangar, where a huge fan alternately blows and sucks Jackie and his enemies all around the room.
The major studios can learn a lot from Hong Kong. Jackie Chan, John Woo, and others like Ringo Lam and Tsui Hark understand the action genre better than Hollywood does. They hire appealing actors, and they stage action cleanly and with imagination and excitement. They don’t need $100 million, they don’t need computer effects, and they don’t need stars — except Jackie Chan.