Jackie Chan: The ultimate stuntman

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For many of Jackie Chan’s successful movies, a blooper reel would roll during the end credits. But besides the usual gag or stumbled line, the reels of outtakes were quite remarkable for his action movies.

And no, it wasn’t because Jackie included accompanying tracks of him singing Cantonese pop songs to play during the credits.

For the most part, there would be footage of Jackie’s so-called bloopers when he would perform the stunts that were shown in the actual film. Whether it would be a slip-up in the fight choreography, an accidental kick to the face, or tapings of Jackie being tended to by medics after a highly dangerous stunt, the reel of failed stunt work or technical mistakes made for compelling viewing.

This isn’t because we as a species are predisposed to enjoying watching others hurt themselves, but rather because we are made to realise that what we saw throughout the movie wasn’t made with computer graphics or clever camera work. We could appreciate that the action was very much human, and it was evident that the danger was all the more real.

A memorable end-credits reel would have to be from Armour of God, when a small two-second clip from the movie of Jackie falling through a tree saw an outtake of him being carried into an ambulance and nursing a bloody gash on his head.

It was made known later that in the interest of continuity, his hair had to be styled in a certain way throughout the movie’s filming to disguise the newly forming scar on the right side of his head.

But along with the failed stunts came the successes, such as the final scene of the film when Jackie had to leap off a cliff face and land on a hot air balloon. Though he was equipped with a parachute disguised as his backpack, the known fact that Jackie managed to pull off this stunt without a double or computer generated imagery is and should be astounding.

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In the 1999 documentary Jackie Chan: My Stunts, the authenticity of Jackie’s work is made more apparent as Jackie himself walks through various fight sequences and stunts, often employed in his previous films, and even gives quick tutorials on how these scenes are performed. The documentary also visits the sets of the films he was working on at the time, Who Am I? and Rush Hour.

Jackie Chan: My Stunts also served for fans alike as somewhat of an official introduction to Jackie Chan’s Stuntmen Association, aka Sing Ga Ban, aka the Jackie Chan Stunt Team. Like Jackie, his stunt team also undergo rigorous body conditioning and regularly hone their martial arts skills; training that proves to be a necessity for high-quality stunt work. The implementation of a stunt team like Jackie’s was unprecedented and since its incarnation has seen more than 40 members work with Jackie on his portfolio of films.

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An honorable mention is needed for (now former) member Brad Allan, an Australian martial artist and stunt performer, who became the first non-Asian stuntman on the team. It was his work as a stunt double on Who Am I? which led him to be inducted to the team and to eventually become team leader.

In Jackie Chan: My Stunts, actual footage from the set of the movie saw Brad step in for Ron Smoorenburg during a particularly fast-paced fight scene. The narrator explains how timing is crucial in action choreography and how easy a misstep can occur. It was only when Brad was introduced when the choreography was executed to Jackie’s satisfaction and the filmed scene was later used in the movie.

Jackie also spoke fondly of the Police Story series in the documentary. I think it was in these movies where he passed a milestone both as an actor and a director. This was perhaps one of the first of several movies where he started to mix gunplay with hand-to-hand combat, and while he would have at the time fancied himself as playing a modern version of a cowboy, the generous use of props and experimenting with his physical surroundings in on-screen confrontations launched a pattern for more creative, complex action sequences and combat situations.

Some of the most memorable scenes from the franchise include Jackie jumping on top of a moving bus and truck in order to crash through a second floor window of an office building across the street (suffering multiple glass cuts after the stunt), as well as hanging off the outside of a speeding double decker bus with an umbrella (a stunt made possible by a metal rod concealed in a wooden umbrella and impressive upper-body strength).

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But it was in the finale of the first Police Story when he performed arguably one of the most dangerous stunts of his career: jumping onto and sliding down a 30-foot chandelier in a Hong Kong shopping arcade.

“I was pretty scared,” Jackie said in the documentary.

“So I was standing there once, I was look[ing] down. Then I was thinking, ‘Jackie, I can do this’.

“Then suddenly I hear, ‘Rolling!’. I said, ‘What? Rolling?!’

“After I hear … the high speed camera go … then I said, ‘I’m going to die’.

“Then suddenly you see on the screen … you can see I’m yelling.”

He obviously survived the stunt, having defied gravity and electrocution in the process.

“Right now, standing here, I look back and I don’t know how I [did] it really,” Jackie said.

Though perhaps fully unrealised at the time, a pivotal moment in the documentary is when Jackie discusses whether he would personally look at using CGI technology in filming future projects, in response to those who have asked why he still felt the need to risk life and limb when a lot of what he films can be created with special effects.

After making numerous movies where the explosions were real, falls from heights were executed with cardboard boxes and fly kicks by non-professional fighters were only possible with wires, Jackie was still keen to represent the simple, budget-savvy style of filmmaking that spelled the success of dozens of films comprising his career. But notably, he did say that he wouldn’t rule out CGI and other developing technologies in the future.

“I think what I want maybe later and later … I want the real set with the real explosion, and the blue background behind with special effects, computer, everything combined with my real action together,” Jackie said.

“I think that’s for the future. But for now, I like to do the real thing.”

After the box office triumph that was Rush Hour, newly invigorated international attention meant bigger projects for Jackie. Films like The Tuxedo, The Medallion, Shanghai Noon, and eventual sequels to Rush Hour managed to adhere to Jackie’s customary style of filming fight choreography and stunt work to some degree. But for me, the gloss of Hollywood, flash bang effects and multimillion-dollar budgets would tend to detract from the actual fights or stunts and mostly make them generic or underwhelming, when this sort of production value should otherwise help enhance them and make scenes standout moments.

The adoption of CGI in movies today can be incredibly merited, and when the technology is used effectively can help create entertaining and awe-inspiring action and martial arts films.

But for me, it could only come second best to the raw energy of a film’s simple but innovative and mind-blowing stunt work or action sequences of the 80s and 90s – innovations that redefined the action movie genre and helped make Jackie Chan the icon he is today. His willingness to perform his own stunts sets himself apart from other action and martial art movie stars and the unique brand of fast-paced action/comedy style he pioneered proves that a martial arts movie could be just as entertaining without the help of high-tech special effects.

And of course when it comes to tricks versus ability, I appreciate ability.

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