What’s On The Shelf: The Radical Radicalness of Rumble in the Bronx
With news, reviews and events in the fair city of film a little thinner on the ground at the moment, Film In Dublin will taking an occasional look at What’s On…The Shelf, taking a deeper dive in to some of the films in their personal collections. This time, Luke Dunne goes on a ramble about Jackie Chan’s 90’s hit, Rumble in the Bronx.
In times of uncertainty and fear, cinema has always had a great power to offer comfort and perspective. In loneliness, the rom-com is there, offering a tissue, telling you it’s okay to cry, speaking reassuring words and cracking a cheesy joke just to snap your face muscles into smiling again, even just for a moment, even just so they remember how. So often we feel like we’re in the wrong place at the wrong time, so we all deserve to also feel like we can be the hero, that we can kick ass, take names and save the day, and that the day is still worth saving. Even darker, downer, disturbing films can show us that we’re not alone in our uglier impulses, or offer a Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come vision of where they might take us.
From sparse indies to the most bloated blockbusters; a film can show us the truth so precisely and accurately that we can’t help but ignore it, or so big, bold and over the top that we can’t hope to miss it. A movie can cost hundreds of millions or just about enough to get a few new shoestrings, can have all the awards and hype in the world or arrive to you as if from nowhere, once the lights go down all of that falls away and in the space between the screen and your eyeline, something bigger, deeper, new is born.
Roger Ebert described movies as like a machine that generates empathy, helping us to identify with the people with whom we are sharing the journey of life. We reach out to the empathy machine, when we need a laugh, a cry, a distraction, we need our art to care for us, to understand; we sit in front of the screen reaching out to be seen, and the machine reaches back, artists of all kinds combining to show us something of themselves, of how they see the world.
For a few hours, the movie and the audience agree to look at something not quite real, the better to understand that which is. You may never get hit by a train, but for 50 seconds your brain can experience what it feels like when one pulls into La Ciotat.
Jackie Chan’s rumbles in the Bronx in Rumble in the Bronx may not offer moving moments of understanding, or profound clarity. When the empathy machine reaches out through Rumble in the Bronx, the question it asks of us is, “wouldn’t it be rad if Jackie Chan killed a hovercraft with a sports car wielding a sword?” Every time, when it asks, the same emotion wells up inside me: “Hell yeah dude!”
Some context may be required here. It takes someone on the brink to charge down a runaway hovercraft in a Lamborghini Countach with a sword hanging out of it, and by the final act of Rumble in the Bronx, Jackie Chan’s Ma Hon Keung is as firmly on the brink as it gets. The story’s job isn’t to move, illuminate or educate, but to bring the viewer to the point where they too would rev up the engine and grab the nearest sword, and to cheer on Keung when he does the same.
Jackie himself wasn’t quite on the edge in real life while making Rumble, but he was still a star with something to prove in the West. Previous attempts to break out in the West had stalled out, proving unsuccessful and/or creatively stifling. Working on The Protector with director James Glickenhaus in the mid 80s, he hated the way Glickenhaus directed the fight scenes, feeling that his methods were sloppy and lacked attention to detail, a dispute that would lead to warring cuts of the film and a box office dead end.
Jackie would go on to direct the sublime Police Story as a response to that film – about as firm a “screw you, I’m right” as it gets – and would continue to hone his craft in Hong Kong, making some of the greatest action movies of all time in the Police Story series, Armour of God and more.
Around a decade on from The Protector, Jackie went back to the West with a different strategy. Having turned down several parts in Hollywood productions (including Wesley Snipes role in Demolition Man), he decided along with director Stanley Tong make a Hong Kong style film that could work as a cross-over hit. Using an American setting and dubbing all the dialogue – even the parts already filmed in English – the pair and their producers figured that an Amercanised film done their way would seal the deal on selling a package of the star’s Hong Kong work to U.S. distributors.
And they were absolutely right. Opening on 1736 screens in North America, Rumble in the Bronx was the number one movie in America in its opening weekend, ended up making $32,392,047 and sealed Jackie Chan as a superstar in the US.
Rumble’s setting doesn’t much look like New York. The film was filmed in Vancouver, where the production team would throw up put up fake graffiti during the day and take it all down during the evening and they tried to hide the city’s Coastal Mountains as much as possible. Without much success. Modern viewers might be conditioned to think movies have to follow a strict logic, internal or otherwise, or that a movie is bad if it isn’t gaffe-free. The film’s view of America through an Asian lens gives it a distinct character that would be lost if it was filmed on location by Westerners though; a theme park interpretation of the Big Apple where brightly coloured bikes and dune buggies race through narrow streets at night, bands that resemble but are legally distinct from the Ramones have a bop in the middle of a random street, and gangs hide out in lairs filled with pinball machines, pool tables and blow up dolls. It looks ridiculous but it pops onscreen, the slightly sparser city leaves the crew plenty of room to stage imaginative fights, and Jackie bought a lot of the props himself the better to think of cool ways to kick stunt men into them.
That’s the kind of thinking-outside-the-box that comes in handy when, say, your leading man shatters his ankle performing a jump, as happened to Jackie towards the end of Rumble’s shoot. The crew coloured a sock to resemble the shoe on his good foot, which Jackie wore over his cast to shoot the climax. Again, the film’s cartoony approach proves a useful feature, not a bug: no one was looking at his suspiciously large foot when he’s using it to floor it in a golden, blade-wielding car.
It’s a bright, exaggerated world with clear good guys and bad guys, all the emphasis on Jackie’s speed, grace and strength; the camera still as a lake and always wide in the angle as it watches his righteous hero roll into town and take on the villains who are hassling innocents. Wuxia meets western and they rumble together…
…in the Bronx.
From the minute Keung touches down in Vancouver New York, watching over his uncle’s supermarket while its sale is finalised and his uncle jets off on honeymoon, the man is humiliated, stressed, underestimated and attacked. His attempts to defend the shop from a gang of bikers kicks off a chain of events that includes him being cornered in an alley and showered by glass bottles, pushed in a lorry off the top of a building, leaping away at the very last moment and chased through the city, forced to brawl at every corner.
The simply-plotted but dazzlingly set-pieced feud with the biker gang eventually sees Keung embroiled in a diamond smuggling plot with a top crime syndicate, a cartoonishly, but at their root true-to-life evil who tear apart struggling business (literally) and think nothing of attacking women and disabled children. Ever the underdog, Keung can’t just face off against this sinister cabal, but also a hovercraft several times his size which rampages through the water, the beach and the streets of the city, in the process dragging our hero along the water as an unwilling jet skier, pulverised his ankle (for real) when he leaps aboard and ultimately running him over. Being run over by this final boss of a high-powered watercraft might kill an ordinary person, but to Keung, that kind of bone-crushing bump is simply the nudge over the edge.
Under these circumstances, after two hours of racing, scrapping and thinking on his (half-broken) feet, the thought process of “joust a rampaging flotation device with a sports car and a sword that even a Final Fantasy hero would think is excessive” seems perfectly logical, even necessary. Free from the constraints of jaded formula-driven screenwriters, inside-the-box expectations of focus groups or the modern scourge of nit-picking online commentariat, Chan, director Stanley Tong and their stunt team don’t need to consider questions like how the hovercraft can travel so easily on land without anybody stopping it, why a small shop in a New York borough is selling a sword that’s six feet long or why Keung would choose to charge the bad guys down. In an action movie like this, “why would?” is a restrictive question, a distraction from the more creative and more pressing question: “what if?” What if we ended the movie with Jackie killing the hovercraft with a sports car wielding a sword?
As previously discussed, it would be rad as hellllllllllll.
When Jackie Chan kicks a dude into a fridge, or dodges motorcycles or slices up a hovercraft, it may not offer any profound insight or help us to understand each other better. All the same it offers an instant connection, from one of the greatest stunt performers of all time to audiences for the last 25 years – a flash of excitement, frozen in beautiful amber. The thrill of seeing a true master of their craft do something so dangerous, ridiculous and exhilarating, sets the synapses alight. It’s easy to understand why his movies build to a crescendo, the underdog fighting his way up and up to bring it all crashing down with the biggest stunt – not just getting to the fireworks factory, but blowing the whole place up for good measure.
It’s silly, gloriously so, but it’s also the power of cinema: capturing a moment forever. In the past, on the set, as the crew goes over and over dangerous stunts, powering through real-life pain because they believe it’s worth doing right. In the present, from my couch, as I yell in awe and delight even though I’ve seen the movie so many times, vindicating their decision. The empathy machine whirrs to life and does its magic, knowing as it does that sometimes you want to laugh, sometimes you want to cry and sometimes you just want to see some cool shit. Sometimes it offers Buster Keaton. Maybe Bruce Lee. Often Jackie. In 1994, in 2020 and always, Jackie Chan will race head-on towards a hovercraft, driving a Lamborghini, and he’ll slice it up with a giant sword. Now that’s a real comfort.