Why Is Jackie Chan the King of Action Comedy? A Video Essay Masterfully Makes the Case

When’s the last time you gasped, while watch­ing a movie, at a pure bit of phys­i­cal com­e­dy? Of a clever move, over a stunt that left you breath­less, because you knew that no way was com­put­er graph­ics or green­screen involved? There are indeed some–that hall­way fight in the first sea­son of Dare­dev­il, the end­less apart­ment melee in Atom­ic Blonde, and, bear with me here, most of Jack­ass. But those are few and far between. Dur­ing the Jack­ie Chan hey­day, that gob­s­mack­ing dis­be­lief hap­pened every sin­gle film. We laughed, we winced, we cheered. For a moment, Jack­ie Chan was the king of action com­e­dy.

Per­son­al­ly, I can’t believe we *haven’t* talked about this Tony Zhou YouTube essay, because I have shown it near­ly every semes­ter in my film pro­duc­tion class. Part of me wants to turn the young’uns on to Jack­ie Chan (the HK films, not the Rush Hour series), and anoth­er part hopes that these future direc­tors will go on to cor­rect what Hol­ly­wood gets so so wrong these days.

Chan was com­pared ear­ly on to the giants of silent cin­e­ma like Buster Keaton, but as a young cinephile I couldn’t see past the obvi­ous homages in films like Project A, which famous­ly had Chan hang­ing off a clock tow­er like Harold Lloyd. It was only lat­er that the true com­par­i­son became appar­ent, and Zhou lays it out for us in one of his best essays.

His main points are thus: 1) Chan starts at a dis­ad­van­tage and must fight his way back to the top, which links him with Chap­lin and Keaton, but not like action heroes at the time like Willis and Schwarzeneg­ger, who come ful­ly formed. 2) Chan uses any prop to fight, not just the usu­al guns and swords. 3) He fights in clear­ly light­ed scenes, with cos­tume design to make him stand out.

And here’s the main direc­toral point: Jack­ie Chan and his group of stunt­men can actu­al­ly fight, and fight well. So the cam­era does not need to move a lot and the total­i­ty of the human body in space can be appre­ci­at­ed. This could only hap­pen in a film­mak­ing scene like Hong Kong where pro­duc­tions took time and spent mon­ey to get absolute­ly per­fect takes. Hol­ly­wood, on the oth­er hand, does not hire actors who can fight or act physical–instead they film and edit around the actors’ lack of skill. When we applaud a clever stunt in a Jack­ie Chan film, 50 or more imper­fect takes lay on the cut­ting room floor. (Zhou finds some good behind-the-scenes inter­views explic­it­ly lay­ing this idea out.)

Zhou also blames West­ern edi­tors for cut­ting too fast and cut­ting too much on every hit, ruin­ing the rhythm. Most direc­tors, edi­tors, and stunt coor­di­na­tors don’t know edit­ing, says Chan. There’s a tech­nique in Hong Kong edit­ing where you show the impact twice that to an audi­ence feels like one, strong impact.

One of the final points is that these Jack­ie Chan films focus on the pain of the pro­tag­o­nist. (Which, by the way, is why Jack­ass suc­ceeds as com­e­dy as well.) But so many Hol­ly­wood films skip this bit of real­i­ty, as our heroes tend to be invin­ci­ble. There is a larg­er social-polit­i­cal cri­tique to be made about the par­tic­u­lar lies Hol­ly­wood tells itself, and you can have at it in the com­ments if you wish. But for now, queue up some clas­sic Chan–my jump­ing off point all those years ago was Drunk­en Mas­ter II–and see how the mas­ter does it.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

A Salute to Every Frame a Paint­ing: Watch All 28 Episodes of the Fine­ly-Craft­ed (and Now Con­clud­ed) Video Essay Series on Cin­e­ma

Safe­ty Last, the 1923 Movie Fea­tur­ing the Most Icon­ic Scene from Silent Film Era, Just Went Into the Pub­lic Domain

Judd Apa­tow Teach­es the Craft of Com­e­dy: A New Online Course from Mas­ter­Class

Buster Keaton: The Won­der­ful Gags of the Found­ing Father of Visu­al Com­e­dy

Ted Mills is a free­lance writer on the arts who cur­rent­ly hosts the artist inter­view-based FunkZone Pod­cast and is the pro­duc­er of KCR­W’s Curi­ous Coast. You can also fol­low him on Twit­ter at @tedmills, read his oth­er arts writ­ing at tedmills.com and/or watch his films here.

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