HOLLYWOOD — He’s featured in more than 100 movies spanning six decades, holds the Guinness World Record for most stunts by a living actor, and has enjoyed a career as one of China’s truly global superstars. And despite all this, Jackie Chan continues to dazzle audiences and critics alike — well, most of the time. While recent Hollywood kids’ flick “The Spy Next Door” was generally panned by critics, his latest foray, a remake of 1984’s “The Karate Kid,” has won praise for the natural chemistry between Chan and his costar, 12-year-old Jaden Smith.
A remake of “The Karate Kid” seemed almost inevitable. The original hit movie spawned three sequels, made young actor Ralph Macchio a star — for a while — and brought new prominence to Japanese- American character actor Noriyuki “Pat” Morita (previously known for TV’s “Happy Days”), playing the wise karate master Mr. Miyagi. The movie boasted a great kid’s role and a powerful but lovable East Asian character, and it featured conflict, action, martial arts, a thwarted bully and innocent romance in bloom.
Unlike the originals, which were set in the U.S. and Japan, the 2010 retread is set in China; and rather than a young caucasian unknown, the youthful star is African-American: Smith, the rising-star son of actors Will and Jada Pinkett Smith.
The boots of Mr. Miyagi could not have been easy to fill — he was, after all, a classic and much-adored character. Martial arts legend, comedy action hero and director Chan was a natural and deserving choice. However, quick-witted readers will point out that he practices kung fu, not karate, which is a Japanese martial art.
“Everyone knows ‘The Karate Kid,’ ” explains Chan of the movie’s misleading title. “The producers (decided) to put the movie in China, not America. So then they think of me, because I’m Chinese.”
He justifies the title thus: “The boy (in the film) knows some karate. He learned it back home, I think in Detroit. Anyway, what he knows, that’s not enough to defend himself against the bad boy.”
In the film, Dre Parker (Smith) and his mother move to China after she’s offered a job there. Understandably, the kid feels out of place, until he develops a crush for a local girl at his new school. But the aforementioned bully is at the same school, too. Cue plenty of violence — there’s much more than in the original, and the action is more intense and frequent.
When the bully and his gang of cohorts begin to make life miserable for Dre, Mr. Han (Chan), the handyman in his apartment block, comes to the rescue, for he is secretly a kung fu master. With his aid, Dre prepares for the plot’s climactic kung fu tournament.
Chan was born in 1954 and was named Chan Kong-sang, which means “Born in Hong Kong,” the city where his mainland- Chinese parents had fled during the Chinese Civil War. Five and a half kilos at birth, he was nicknamed by his mother Paopao, meaning Cannonball. (Fittingly, Chan played a race car driver in the early-’80s Burt Reynolds movie series “Cannonball Run.”)
Chan got his break in cinema in 1962, at age 8, when a local director visited his school looking for a young actor. Chan went on to appear in more than 20 movies while a student. As a teen, he was earning up to $75 a day as a stuntman, but his school rules forced him to turn over most of it to his teacher at the China Drama Academy, where he had been enrolled at the age of 6.
“I learned so much from him,” he recalls with suppressed emotion. “But I owe him nothing. I paid it all back. We are even.”
For years, Chan performed bit parts and stunts. As a Hong Kong star, he remained localized. Hollywood saw no potential in this East Asian actor, but on 1978’s “Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow” he began to choreograph his own stunts: daring feats that would eventually include dangling from a speeding bus using just an umbrella; leaping from a snowboard slope to hang briefly from an airborne helicopter, before dropping into a lake far below; sliding down 21 stories on the outside of a sloped building; and weaving through moving traffic on roller skates. The routines drew on the slapstick of ’20s movie star Buster Keaton, Chan’s hero, and established the comedy action genre that he would refine in “Drunken Master” (also 1978), propelling him to domestic mainstream fame. Key ’80s films such as “The Young Master,” “Project A,” “Police Story” and “Armour of God” saw him overtake records set by martial arts legend Bruce Lee and become Hong Kong’s top cinema star.
“I just kept working; I kept trying. I did movies that (I thought) might make a hit in America, and I did the best stunts I could, and I got attention. It took a long time, but they (Hollywood) noticed me, and then they put me into movies with different kinds of Americans,” from black to blond, “and we had hit movies.”
His first Hollywood hit was 1995’s cult smash “Rumble in the Bronx”; before long, Chan’s Hong Kong movies began trickling into the West, leading to his breakthrough role in buddy-cop action comedy “Rush Hour,” alongside Chris Tucker. The movie grossed $130 million in the U.S. alone and made a worldwide star of Chan.
“It works, if you stay, if you keep trying, stay with it, stick with it. If you stop, what you do? Nothing.”
Part of Chan’s enduring Western success comes down to an early decision not to play the bad guy. Fearing he would be quickly typecast, Chan turned down antagonist roles in blockbusters such as “Demolition Man,” instead pursuing positive lead roles.
“I am me. I can act, but I play the Jackie Chan character. He likes everyone; he doesn’t want to be James Bond or hurt anyone. Only to stop the bad guy.”
And he’s stopped more bad guys than all the James Bonds put together — after all, agent 007 has appeared in a “mere” 22 films compared with Chan’s 100-plus. He clearly hopes “The Karate Kid” will perpetuate his images as a positive role model.
“I help out one kid who needs my help, and the movie shows how important is . . . a mentor. Someone older to train you, to pass on skill and wisdom. It’s an important lesson, good for people in the West to know. I had my own teacher,” he says, referring to his days at drama school. He’s likened the experience to army life, in terms of its harsh discipline and punishment.
The physical punishment Chan has taken is near mythical. Reportedly, he’s broken almost every bone in his body. He looks years younger than his age, but how long can he keep up the grueling stunts when in four years he’ll be 60?
“I just keep going,” he laughs. “I do it, I don’t stop to think. I stop to think about moves. About the fights, how to choreograph all that. Because it is like a dance. To do fight scenes and nobody gets hurt, you have to think first and choreograph it. . . . You have to plan it, each move; the two people, or the many people. You plan, you rehearse — sometimes not too much. Then you do it and do it right. And people can say, some of them, ‘That looks so easy, there’s nothing to it.’ They have no idea the planning, the hard work! But if it looks easy, that’s good. You don’t want to look like you’re having a rough time.”
Chan admits he can no longer pull off all the moves he could do in his 20s and 30s (perhaps even 40s). The 2008 film “The Forbidden Kingdom” — in which he costarred with fellow martial arts actor Jet li — depended on wires for many of the stunts; “Kung Fu Panda,” released the same year, was an animated movie to which Chan lent his voice, not his muscles; while 2009’s brutal gang drama “Shinjuku Incident,” which featured Chan alongside Ken Watanabe, was devoid of martial arts altogether, instead winning praise for Chan’s intense dramatic turn.
He nonetheless works out three hours a day — more intensely when preparing for or doing a picture — lifting weights, punching, kicking: “I kick a lot! I watch myself in the mirror. Kicking is important for me.” But he’s careful about weights and bodybuilding. “I can’t overdo. If I get too big, big muscles up or down, I can’t move so fast.”
Through his career in Hong Kong cinema, Chan has gone by many names — Sing Lung, Lung Cheng, Chan Yuan Lung and more — reportedly a measure taken to circumnavigate contract-related unpleasantries. He laughs briefly, then notes, “A person can have several names. Different names for different occasions, for different protection or reasons. Like nicknames — you can have nicknames from different friends and your relatives. They are all good.”
Asking Chan about his home life, his family or his romantic situation is off limits. “I like to talk. I am friendly with people, and they are friendly with me,” he says. “But sometimes, in a position like being a movie star, it is better not to talk so much. It brings disappointment to some people. It can bring even worse than disappointment to others. I like being a regular guy, and I am not stuck up — arrogant — like some movie stars think movie stars should act with fans.”
Above all, Chan is keen to keep his feet on the ground — and it’s precisely this quality that imbues his performances with so much charm.
“The publicity (surrounding a new movie), it makes much more excitement for the fans, and it makes me seem very special. I am in the news, the movie news, and publicity is very . . . potent. It can create an image, a feeling, and some people are very sensitive to feelings created by others. Especially young fans, and the girls who decide to think of me in a way that I think is flattering but is also not realistic. Not good for them.
“I am not a handsome boy,” he laughs. “They told me in movies from before, ‘Don’t make so many funny faces. You want to be (a) clown?’ I was just expressing myself with my face. But a movie star is supposed to be cool, not make faces; be handsome, silent, strong.
Sometimes, Chan says, his day is so full with work, meetings and exercise that he eats few or no meals. Other days, five meals. But he doesn’t worry very much about weight.
“I don’t like to worry about many things,” he says. “About anything, if I can help it. Life is to be happy. I like to make movies that make people happy. It makes me happy, too.”
It may be called “The Karate Kid,” but Jackie Chan clearly steals the movie. Perhaps it should have been called “The Kung Fu Master” instead.
“The Karate Kid” opens Aug. 14.