Monday, April 30, 2012

Heavy Action: Rumble in the Bronx / The Replacement Killers

by Patrick Bromley
Welcome to America, boys. We're sorry.

Rumble in the Bronx (1994)

Rumble in the Bronx was not Jackie Chan's first American movie. He was showing up in the Cannonball Run movies as far back as the early '80s. In fact, Rumble in the Bronx is not even an American movie, despite purporting to take place in New York (it does not) and featuring an almost all non-Asian cast. It's actually a Chinese film released in its native country as Hong faan kui, but was picked up by New Line, trimmed down slightly and given a new English language dub in order to be Chan's "breakthrough" American movie. Amazingly, it worked; the movie was a hit and Chan became a star in the U.S.

I get it, too. As an introduction to Jackie Chan, the movie is effective. He gets to play the best kind of Jackie Chan character (almost the only kind): the decent guy trying to do good, fighting only in self defense. More than that, though, it was the way he fought that made the movie a success in America. This was 1994, and not every single movie featured kung-fu. It was before Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Before The Matrix. Before fucking Charlie's Angels. Mainstream audiences who took a chance and went out to see Rumble in the Bronx in 1994 had likely never seen anyone move or fight the way Jackie Chan does. It's breathtaking. It's awesome. And he deserved to become a star because of it.

That's good, because as a movie, Rumble in the Bronx is pretty terrible.

Jackie plays Keung, a Hong Kong cop who comes to New York for the wedding of his uncle Bill, a shop owner who has recently sold his grocery store. When a street gang begins terrorizing the new owner, Keung steps in and stops them, essentially painting a target on his back. To make matters worse, one of the gang members has gotten wrapped up in some diamond smuggling with the mob; when the diamonds wind up in the seat cushion of wheelchair-bound kid Danny (Morgan Lam), Leung has to protect both him and his sister, Nancy (Fran├žoise Yip), a model and sometimes stripper who just happens to be part of the street gang, too.
I'm sure there are a lot of people who love Rumble in the Bronx. Some of them are probably fans of Jackie Chan and are predisposed to like anything he's in (anything not called The Tuxedo, that is). Some dig its goofy charm. Then there are those -- and you know they exist -- who like the movie not in spite of its badness, but because of it: they enjoy the bad dubbing and over-the-top performances in an ironic way. And while I would typically be inclined to call those people assholes (people who like things ironically usually are), in this case I kind of get it. If you're going to like Rumble in the Bronx, you have to be willing to accept all of these things as parts of the whole. For better or worse (it's worse), it's this stuff that gives the movie its personality.

Not one thing is convincing about the New York of Rumble in the Bronx. The movie was shot in Vancouver, and it shows. The set decorators appear to have learned everything they know about cities from watching Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoons. The gang members look and act like extras from Tromaville. It is one of the ugliest, tackiest movies ever made that wasn't really trying to deliberately be ugly and tacky. The dubbing, apparently commissioned by New Line before releasing the movie in the States, is downright weird; here you have English-speaking actors saying their lines in English, but all of their voices have been dubbed by some truly awful voiceover actors (at least Jackie Chan gets to do his own lines). Danny, the kid in the wheelchair, is dubbed in a way that makes him sound like either a little girl or Bob from Lucio Fulci's The House by the Cemetery. If you've seen that movie, you know exactly what I'm talking about. No one forgets Bob. At any rate, all of these weird choices give the whole thing a weird, alien quality in which we recognize all of the pieces but none of them add up.

Though he had been playing a version of the same character for years in his Chinese films, Rumble in the Bronx pretty much cemented the "Jackie Chan" persona for American audiences. He gets compared to silent comedians like Buster Keaton a lot, and with good reason: his appeal is all about physical grace and his ability to wow audiences with his ability to perform amazing stunts inside of rapidly escalating situations. And, like Keaton, he wears one face through these physical feats -- only instead of the Keaton stoneface, it's a look of worry. That expression has always been my favorite thing about Jackie Chan; even when he's hitting someone, his face is preemptively apologizing for it. Some of the best scenes in his American output don't even involve fighting, like the sequence in the first Rush Hour where he's trying to catch all of the priceless vases before they smash on the floor. That's pure Keaton/Chaplin, and his trademark look of worry has never been put to better use. There's nothing in Rumble in the Bronx that overtly comic, even though there are comedic overtones to the whole movie. In fact, it's jarring to realize that the movie is rated R, something I only remember when we get to the scene in which a gang member is stuffed into a wood chipper; otherwise, it's pretty tame.

There are three or four big action set pieces in the movie, and most of them are amazing. That's expected. I don't think there are any that are quite up to the level of the big warehouse fight in Mr. Nice Guy, another Hong Kong import that New Line redubbed and released in the U.S. in the wake of Rumble's success, but that's ok. They still put any of the fight scenes released in any American movie in the first half of the '90s to shame. Part of what makes them so enjoyable is that Keung doesn't want to fight the gang members, primarily because he never really wants to fight but also because he knows they're just misguided and need to straighten up and fly right. This leads to my favorite line in the movie, in which Jackie Chan pleads in his clipped English, "Don't you know? You are the scum of society!"

It's unfortunate that instead of ending with another big fight scene, the movie climaxes with Keung and Nancy driving a hovercraft and chasing down mobsters across a golf course. It results in one of the strangest endings to any movie ever, when (SPOILERS FOR THE LAST SECONDS OF THE MOVIE) they finally run over the big bad guy, who is left face down on the ground, stripped naked with a chapped ass. Everyone cheers. Jackie smiles. The movie FREEZES MID-CHEER and goes to credits. But don't take my word for it:

Where the clip freezes at the end? That's where the credits start. It's fucking crazy.

There are still a ton of Jackie Chan movies I have never seen, so I wouldn't dream of judging his body of work on the basis of Rumble in the Bronx. Both the character and the action do a good job of introducing what's great about him as an action star to American audiences. I just wish it did those things inside of a much better movie.

The Replacement Killers (1998)

If the move to Hollywood ultimately distilled Jackie Chan into a nice-guy clown, it would give Hong Kong action star Chow Yun-Fat even less dimension. For his big American debut, it was determined that he should just do the things for which he became famous in movies like The Killer, A Better Tomorrow and Hard Boiled: look cool and shoot guns. That is literally it.
Yun-Fat is John Lee, professional killer hired by crime boss Terence Wei to kill the young son of a cop (played by the invaluable Michael Rooker) he blames for the death of his own son. When Lee has a crisis of conscience (because of course he does) and chooses not to MURDER A SEVEN-YEAR OLD, Wei calls down the thunder and orders a couple of REPLACEMENT KILLERS (played by Hugo Stiglitz and Machete) to kill not just the cop and his son, but also Lee and Meg Coburn (Mira Sorvino), the professional forger who gets wrapped up in all this nonsense when Lee hires her to make a fake passport so he can return home to his family.

Everything about The Replacement Killers wants so badly to be slick and flashy and cool that it forgets to really be a movie. Before the opening titles have even finished, we see Chow walk into a dance club (clad in a suit, of course) and assassinate a bunch of dudes at close range, much of it in slow motion and all of it set to strobing lights and thumping electronic dance music. Every effort has been made to maximize the coolness factor of every shot -- it's all leather jackets and neon lights and tracking shots -- as though director Antoine Fuqua wanted everyone to know right off the bat that a) if you already knew Chow Yun-Fat from his Hong Kong movies, he hasn't been ruined here or b) if you've only heard of him, this is what you've been missing.

Closer to the end of the movie, there's an entire sequence in which Lee takes out a shitload of bad guys with his patented two-gun approach. The camera endlessly pans around while Yun-Fat spins and shoots and poses, repeat. It plays like a demo reel, or like some kind of fetishistic John Woo porn. It's the whole movie in a nutshell: a slavish attempt to bring John Woo-style action to America by imitating it badly without understanding what it is that makes those movies special. It's especially misguided when you consider that Woo had already brought his brand of operatic craziness to the States -- not in his first movie, Hard Target, because he was neutered, and not in his first big success, Broken Arrow, because that movie is kind of horrible. But 1997's Face/Off is classic John Woo, and remains the only good interpretation of his filmmaking voice in an American movie. Replacement Killers tries -- holy shit does it try -- but its understanding of Woo's work is that sometimes, that shit was cool. Manufactured coolness does not go very far.
In almost every way, The Replacement Killers is the total opposite of a movie like Rumble in the Bronx. Where the latter movie is ugly and clumsy looking, the former is super polished and attractive -- it's shot like a music video (which is no surprise, since that's where director Antoine Fuqua got his start). Where Rumble is goofy and comic and, like it's star, good-natured and kind of sweet, Replacement Killers is grim and serious and devoid of any humor. And while Rumble in the Bronx was able to sell America on Jackie Chan because it demonstrated he was able to do things that no domestic action star could do, Replacement Killers wants to convince us that Chow Yun-Fat should be an action star because he can fire two guns at once. Sure, he holds the screen because he's a born movie star, but Fuqua and writer Ken Sanzel don't understand the soul that made him so compelling in The Killer or the swagger of the great Tequila in Hard Boiled. They just want him to look empty. Empty and cool.

And what is Mira Sorvino doing in the movie? Don't get me wrong; she actually kind of holds her own with a gun. The problem is the character, which is utterly superfluous and yet another example of a Hollywood female who is supposed to look grungy and "edgy" (messy hair, heavy eyeliner, big boots) but who is clearly the product of a costume designer. Meg belongs on the short list of semi-worthless female action movie sidekicks, alongside Bridget Fonda from Kiss of the Dragon, Erika Eleniak from Under Siege and, of course, Lenina fucking Huxley (who, to be fair, doesn't really belong in that company because she's not worthless and is the best thing about Demolition Man). The character adds nothing to the movie. She does not have any kind of relationship with Lee, nor does her presence reveal anything about his character. She is in the movie presumably so that the studio could put an American movie star on the poster, because what action movie fans wanted in 1998 was Academy Award winner Mira Sorvino. She's also in the movie so that she can get in her underwear for a few seconds, and then those few seconds can be placed in the trailer.
While The Replacement Killers is slicker and more technically accomplished than Rumble in the Bronx, it's a movie without a shred of personality that hasn't been copied from someplace else. It's just an attempt to imitate Hong Kong style action without understanding anything about it beyond that it "looks cool." That's the movie's attitude towards Chow Yun-Fat, too; he looks cool dressed in a suit and shooting two guns. The critical and commercial failure of The Replacement Killers (it didn't even make its budget back at the box office) meant that Chow Yun-Fat only had one more attempt to become an action star in the same vein of his work with John Woo: James Foley's 1999 crime drama The Corruptor. It's a much better movie than The Replacement Killers, and actually gave Chow an interesting character to play.  It made even less money than Replacement Killers, though, and Chow's chances of becoming an American action star where basically dashed. Pity.

Maybe it was just time that eventually ruined both Jackie Chan and Chow Yun-Fat, but I kind of think it was Hollywood, which was only interested in each of them being one thing. Two things, if you're willing to count "Asian."

Got a movie you'd like to see included in a future installment of Heavy Action? Let us know in the comments below. 


  1. ^^^ Wasn't 2003's "Bulletproof Monk" actually the last shot a Hollywood studio gave Chow Yun-Fat at American stardom? He still gets top billing on this one, although by this time it was "The Matrix's" 'bullet time' mojo the filmmakers were chasing, to no better/worse effect than "The Art of War" (from fellow 'Heavy Action' inductee Wesley Snipes).

    Terrific column, loved it. Many of us who knew about Jackie Chan's mad skills before 1994 though bootleg VHS copies of his HK movies (if you live in a big-enough city to have a Chinatown in it that's where they could be found, long before the internet) knew better than to patronize the dubbed-like-crap post-"Rumble in the Bronx" Chan movies coming here. I personally couldn't help to go to at least a half-dozen of them (the one's already in the can, not the new one's he started making in Hollywood post-"Rush Hour" fame) and it was both exciting and goofy as hell. The dubbing/storylines were atrocious, but on opening weekend every Jackie Chan fan seemed to come to the movies to spend 90 minutes with their hero and cheer every other amazing stunt or choreographed fight.

    And everybody that came to see Jackie Chan movies in theaters knew better than to dash for the exits when the credits rolled because everybody knew the best part was coming up: the outtakes of Jackie and his fellow actors/stuntmen goofing around and, every once in a while, getting seriously injured for their craft. There's something about seeing a movie star literally bleed for his/her profession that's endearing. Even now, when Jackie is too old to do his own stunts, the goodwill from his younger days when he was willing to risk life and limb to entertain us is still appreciated. And no, that still doesn't make "The Tuxedo" even remotely worth seeing.

    Alas, saw "Jackie Chan's Who Am I?" on Cinemax recently (one of those flicks I remember enjoying myself in a theater with a packed house) and it doesn't hold up. The stunts are still cool, but the formula Chan relied on kind-of got worn-down from overuse by the late 90's. 12 years later Jackie is still at it, but to truly enjoy his (and Chow Yun-Fat's) super stardom days you have to go back to his better days/glory years to relive the thrills on DVD/streaming/BD.

  2. My first exposure to "Rumble" was on TBS(back when the network had pro-wrestling and such tags as "Movies For Guys That Like Movies" and showed 90% of the movies reviewed in this article everyday), and it's telling that despite all it's problems the movie is highly rewatchable. I definitely agree the ending is weird(and "Mr. Nice Guy" practically does the same thing with its ending).

    I caught "The Replacemnt Killers" several years after its release and I echo Patrick's opinion of it. "The Corruptor" was a much better film, mostly because it doesn't try to be flashy and cool like "The Replacement Killers". I remember seeing the trailer, not coincidently between showings of "Rumble", and I'll admit the flash of Mira Sorvino in her underwear was the only thing that stayed with me(What can I say? I was a hormonal, young teenager). I also think it's funny that Sorvino's character had a generic tribal tattoo on her arm cause that's what the Hollywood thought was "hip" and "rebellious" back in the 90's.

  3. J.M.,

    I think Yung-Fat's casting in "Bulletproof Monk" was mostly made to cash in on his role in "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon", and not anything to do with his image as two-gun firing Tequila.

  4. What makes me sad is that Chow Yun-Fat never really made it, although he's a solid dramatic actor. Since his English skills weren't totally up to leading man level, but he had leading man charisma, and he was really good at being Asian (I mean, do martial artsy-action) he ended up in a grey area where Hollywood didn't know what to do with him, and, as a result, was sort of wasted. Same thing happened to Jet Li, too.

    For those interested in more Jackie Chan, I'd suggest "Drunken Master II" (also known as "The Legend of Drunken Master"). It's ridiculous.

    Another Chow Yun-Fat movie worth mentioning is "God of Gamblers."

    Great column, PB.

  5. I still will put on Replacement Killers to zone out to when I just want a candy bar of a movie. You know, empty calories that taste great while I'm eating it but that will make my head hurt when I'm done. I had/have such a crush on Mira Sorvino, too. She doesn't get much to do, but this movie is an extended music video, as you mention, so she poses and looks pretty, which is really all Chow gets to do, too. It should have been better, but I still love it as a piece of candy garbage (sometimes I guess that's all I want).

    By the way, Patrick, I'm so happy that this column is still going and you're still feeling it enough to give us one of these each week. Thank you.

  6. Thanks, Heath. There are definitely weeks where it feels more like work, but it's still great to go back and watch so many of these movies. Glad you're still enjoying reading the column.

    I totally understanding digging The Replacement Killers if you've got a Mira Sorvino jones. She may never have been cuter than she is here. And, like I said, I think she handles herself ok in the action stuff; makes me wish she had been given more to do. The movie is totally watchable (candy garbage, as you so accurately put it). I just wish it stuck with me a tiny bit more.

  7. My suspicion at the time of The Replacement Killers was that Mira Sorvino (not really known as an action star) was cast because she was an American actress who spoke fluent Chinese. Unfortunately, she was fluent in Mandarin, and Chow Yun-Fat spoke Cantonese (he had to learn Mandarin phonetically for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon).

    I saw both of these movies in the theaters, because I'd seen both actors on video and was tremendously excited to see their U.S. debuts. You really hit the nail on the head when it comes to the one-note characters for each of these films. I can go along with the sheer cheerful cheesiness of Rumble in the Bronx, because everyone looks like they're having a great time. But while The Replacement Killers was stylish (love that bit in the opening sequence when the suited Chow Yun-Fat spins around, guns extended, and his necktie flips neatly over his arm), it was such a waste of Chow's considerable acting talents.

    Love the podcast, by the way. Keep them coming!