December's Underrated Movie of the Month (MOTM) left a major impression on me upon first viewing. The genre of "martial arts action flick" is not one that I've ever gone out of my way to explore, but after seeing Rumble in the Bronx in 1996, I made sure to keep an eye on the career of Jackie Chan.
Yes, he was already a massive star in his native Hong Kong well before 1995, but Rumble in the Bronx finally brought him to mainstream American audiences, which aside from sending his paycheck through the roof, also served to significantly influence martial arts action in many American movies that followed it. After Rumble in the Bronx, no longer were we satisfied with Jean Claude Van Damme's roundhouse kicks, Wesley Snipes' wide-eyed brawling or Steven Seagal's stone-faced scuffling. We wanted our fighting to be entertainment, with ever more imaginative props and ever more ambitious stunts.
Those who were already familiar with Chan's work in the 70's and 80's must have been thrilled to see American audiences eat up his frenetic fighting style, even if it was in a movie that admittedly plays like a parody of itself half of the time. The dialogue is cringe-inducingly cheesy and the bare bones plot (Chan's character visits New York to attend his uncle's wedding) features an unnecessary number of twists . The attempts at romance are laughable (which I think was the point) and the set pieces absolutely scream "early 90's"; it would be hard to find anything in this movie outside of the action that hasn't dated terribly. In his pan of the movie, the New York Times' Stephen Holden likened the production design to "a candy-colored battleground that looks even more garishly fake than the set for Michael Jackson's 'Beat It' music video." Can't argue with that (remember when Michael Jackson was relevant?...sigh...).
In the San Francisco Chronicle, Mick LaSalle also rails against the setting, charging that the movie " throws Chan into the middle of an unrecognizable, cartoonlike version of America, then makes him look silly by forcing him to take it all too seriously." LaSalle also makes a valid complaint that Rumble in the Bronx "gives [Chan] little opportunity to show his exuberant personality", which wouldn't have occurred to me at the time but makes plenty of sense now considering his winning charm in movies like Rush Hour and Shanghai Noon.
So I concede that the story and production are passable at best. That the evil street gang prowls around on flashing (and numbered, as if in a race?) dirtbikes and ATV's is ridiculous, and so is the fact that numerous times during the movie it becomes painfully obvious that Rumble in the Bronx was not filmed anywhere near the Bronx (it was shot entirely in Vancouver, British Columbia). But no matter what other problems you have with this movie, it's almost impossible to complain about a lack of energetic action. Our first real taste comes early on, when Keung (Chan) confronts some rowdy gang members in his uncle's store (watch the clip here). It's a perfect introduction to the Jackie Chan that America would grow to love - the action star often considered a combination between Bruce Lee and Buster Keaton.
From that point on, Rumble in the Bronx is an exercise in patience and optimism. If you don't get caught up in the flaws, you'll be rewarded with action sequences that have the slapstick choreography of a silent comedy and the physical prowess of the best martial arts movies. It's not entirely clear to me why such salty language was used in this movie, which a.) makes the over-dubbed dialogue sound even more awkward, and b.) earned the movie an unnecessary "R" rating, which may have kept a sizable number of action-hungry American teens out of the theater.
The distribution details in general of Rumble in the Bronx are puzzling. Filmed in 1994 and titled Hung fan au, the movie played throughout Asia in 1995 before being re-dubbed, re-edited and retitled for an American release in 1996. The eventual $30 million box office take wasn't the success some may have hoped for, but it's probably the only reason Jackie Chan got another star-making opportunity opposite Chris Tucker in Rush Hour. Additionally, it opened the doors for several of his older movies to make their way into American theaters for the first time, including the last two installments of his Police Story franchise: Supercop and Jackie Chan's First Strike.
In watching parts of Rumble in the Bronx online recently, I realized that since 1996, the only non-computer generated action in movies that left me slack-jawed upon first viewing was Tony Jaa's stunt work in Ong-Bak (some of the highlights can be seen at the end of the trailer and in the ridiculous chase scene). Both Chan and Jaa stunned me with their physical feats - running up walls, squeezing through holes, leaping over cars, and so on. These would have been plenty impressive on their own, but considering these stars do all of their own stunts, some of the scenes become absolutely unbelievable (observe Chan in Supercop, impossibly dangling from a helicopter ladder above Kuala Lumpur without any kind of safety harness).
Alas, there have been some rumors that director Stanley Tong, himself an experienced martial arts expert and stuntman, is actually the one we see in several of the most dangerous scenes in Rumble in the Bronx. It's up to the viewer to believe this (I see Chan when watching the clips) or dismiss it, or to think it matters anyway. Either way, I'm confident this movie helped raise the bar for action and martial arts movies that followed it. Stephen Holden was curious about this possibility in his review: "If 'Rumble in the Bronx' scores well enough at the box office to make Hollywood see major dollar signs, it could augur a new style of action-adventure film in which swaggering macho pyrotechnics give way to balletic daredevil comedy."
I don't know if there have been many movies that clearly qualify as "balletic daredevil comedies", but the last decade has certainly seen new interest in balletic (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, The Matrix trilogy, the success of Jet Li movies), daredevil (Daniel Craig and Matt Damon doing their own stunts in Bond and Bourne, respectively), and comedy (the Rush Hour franchise by itself has earned nearly $1 billion at the box office).
My evidence of the influence Rumble in the Bronx may be limited to those examples, but I think Jackie Chan can nonetheless be given some credit for changing the action game in Hollywood. Maybe this clip will make my point more persuasively: