Rumble essentially marks Chan's return to America (his first crack, 1980's The Big Brawl, was a box-office bomb). The film was actually shot in Vancouver and released throughout Asia in 1994. Before rereleasing it stateside, Chan screened it several times for American test audiences, taking notes on which parts they understood and which they didn't. The story was then rewritten, re-edited, and dubbed in English. "When I made it, I never think my film can get in the American market," Chan explains during an interview. "It's not totally for American audience, so I have to recut, get rid of the subtitles, redub my dialogue. Now it's totally for American market."
In its new form, the film turns into a blatant attempt to transform Chan into a viable Western action star à la Stallone, Schwarzenegger, and Van Damme. The story is a staple of the action-film genre (i.e., it's merely a skeletal plot holding the action together): While visiting his uncle in the Bronx, Chan unwittingly becomes mixed up with a motorcycle gang and some ruthless mob-styled hoodlums, which paves the way for several spectacular fight scenes. The subplot, involving a cache of stolen diamonds, only serves to muddle the movie, which eventually slinks into familiar revenge-and-retribution territory. (This is an action picture, after all.)
Compared to Chan's older films, loaded with amazingly choreographed fight scenes, Rumble in the Bronx contains considerably less fighting, mixed with fiery explosions and mild gunplay -- perhaps an attempt to mimic the blazing guns-and-bombs aesthetic in Hollywood. Despite the pyrotechnics, the movie's three major fight scenes provide the most excitement. One takes place in a market and has Chan dispatching a group of pipe-wielding thugs with nothing more than a jacket. There's also an inner-city scene in which Chan performs jungle gymnastic maneuvers over and under chain-link fences and fire escapes; it's Singin' in the Rain, kung fu style. "It's not new, it's an old movie," says Chan of Rumble. "What you are looking at right now is Buster Keaton, Gene Kelly."
Unfortunately, Chan's patented martial-arts acrobatics and comedic histrionics all come at the beginning. As a result, the final half-hour of the film slips into unbelievable and often bombastic set pieces (including a Hovercraft scene that's even more out of hand than the runaway-tank episode in GoldenEye).
Perhaps the most striking thing about Rumble (other than the fact that Chan, pushing 42, still does all of his own stunts) is that it is laced with a benevolent undertone. In one scene, after Chan subdues an entire gang, he exclaims: "I hope the next time we meet there's no fighting. Next time we have tea together." This humble show of humanity is something rarely seen in Western action films. In another scene, Chan's character actually shows fear when a gun is placed to his head. (Can you recall the last time you saw Van Damme or Stallone flinch when a muzzle of cold steel was thrust in his face?) Chan's wide variety of emotion and depth of character sets him apart from the stoic, monosyllabic action-hero persona. "I hope the audience [does] not treat me as an action star," Chan explains. "I hope the audience treat me like Dustin Hoffman. Dustin Hoffman can be very tough" -- as well as very humble, Chan adds. "He's great."
In addition to the fight scenes, the film also incorporates another Chan tradition: the outtakes. Run during the ending credits, they provide impressive behind-the-scenes footage. During the Rumble shoot, Chan sent three actors to the hospital via ambulance. Chan himself even broke his foot midway through filming, prompting him to finish the movie (and many of the stunts) with a knee-high cast.
In the end, despite the cliches of its B-movie plot and the oft annoying dubbing, Rumble in the Bronx manages to rise above current American action fare, thanks in large part to Chan's charisma and mind-boggling stunts, as well as director Stanley Tong's taut, over-the-top pacing. So forget "The Muscles From Brussels," Arnold, Sly, and Mr. Willis. For unparalleled action and death-defying feats, Chan is the man -- and has been for quite some time.
Rumble in the Bronx opens Fri, Feb. 23, at the California in Berkeley and the Century 8 and the Grand Lake in Oakland.