In recent years, Jackie Chan has been fine tuning his career, trying to figure out how to be a star in both Asia and America. We've been treated to films produced by HK talent which were obviously intended to play well on this side of the Pacific (Rumble in the Bronx, Mr. Nice Guy, Who Am I), and we've had his actual American films, Rush Hour and Shanghai Noon. But in the last year, it seems that Chan has decided to make one Asian market film and one American market film each year. Sure, the two are somewhat interchangeable, but you only see Asian stars in the Asian films and American stars in the American films. So between shooting Shanghai Noon and Rush Hour 2, Jackie shot The Accidental Spy, directed by Teddy Chen (Downtown Torpedoes).
Jackie plays Buck Yuen, salesman at an exercise equipment store in Hong Kong. This is a departure for Chan, who usually plays characters with more glamorous professions like law enforcement or show business. But here, he's just a salesman -- who wanted to be a cop. Okay, now we know it's a Jackie Chan movie.
One day Buck is in the nearby mall on his lunch hour and gets caught up in a bank robbery. With some quick thinking, Buck is able to grab the robbers' haul. They pursue him to the top of a skyscraper. Buck makes a typical Jackie Chan escape from the robbers, which means that major property damage results. Somehow Buck ends up on the arm of a giant crane that goes crashing through the wall of a nearby office building. But he saved the money! Sure, it looks like the amount of money he saved wouldn't nearly pay for the damage he has caused to buildings, construction equipment, and potted plants, but it's the thought that counts, right?
Apparently so, because Buck is dubbed a hero by the local press. Of course, that's the Hong Kong press. If these events occurred in America, Buck would have been sued by the owners of the office building, the crane, and the potted plants, not to mention the robbers. And then Buck would countersue the robbers, the company who left a crane where he could get his hands on it, the police for not arresting the robbers before they could get to the bank, and his parents for naming him "Buck."
Acctually, Buck is an orphan. His appearance in the paper brings him to the attention of a small time hustler Many Liu (played by popular HK comedian Eric Tsang, probably best known in the U.S. for Gen-X Cops), who in turn puts Buck in touch with Park Won Jung, a dying spy searching for the son he gave up years before. Buck travels to Korea to meet Park, who, (wouldn't you know it?) is being strong-armed by some thugs looking for "the thing." Rather than pointing them to the nearest comic book store, Buck engages the thugs in a martial arts throw down in the hospital, highlighted by some uses for a cardiac defibrillator we've been just dying to see somebody try.
Pak kicks the oxygen habit, but not before he sends Buck to Turkey on what he calls a game of hide and seek. Once in Istanbul, Buck quickly finds a deposit box full of cash. But before he can enjoy his windfall, Buck follows another oblique clue to a strange woman named Yong (Vivian Hsu). Yong, in turn, leads Buck to an international gangster known as Mr. Zen (Hsing-kuo Wu) who is looking for a super-virus that Pak may have hidden... and Buck has the best chance of finding it.
Super-virus? A mysterious woman? That sounds kind of familiar. Where did we see that last summer? Oh yeah, Mission: Impossible 2. Still, we guess it's fair of Jackie to steal from that franchise, considering that Mission: Impossible took more than a little inspiration from the climax of Supercop. That doesn't explain why the climax of The Accidental Spy is so shamelessly stolen from Speed. On the other hand, if Speed had starred Jackie Chan in the first place instead of the bassist from Dogstar, we might have a reason to watch it again.
"Does anyone else feel a draft?"
Of course, one watches a Jackie Chan film for the fights and the stunts. After a couple of movies that had big fights at the end (Who Am I, Gorgeous), Jackie returns to a series of smaller scale fights, culminating in a big stunt sequence at the end (with the added innovation of a big stunt sequence at the beginning). Still, the fights in the middle of the film are fun. Heck, take the scene in which Buck combats hired goons in a running battle through a Turkish market completely nude -- or perhaps Buck naked would be a better way to say it. Horrible puns aside, it's a wonderfully choreographed gag, as Buck fights to escape the bad guys and keep too many people from getting a good look at the "Lil' Master."
The final Speed-inspired scene, in which Jackie goes from riding a motorcycle to fighting in a car to trying to rescue a family from a burning tanker truck, is, if nothing else, very energetic. Gratuitous property damage has been a theme of Jackie's later career, and the runaway truck smashes through traffic, a produce market, construction materials, and safety rails before finally plunging off a bridge. Naturally, Chan remains in motion for several minutes after the truck meets its demise.
Finally, a Buddha who talks sense!
A fair amount of our delight with this film is due to a plot that is more intricate than those in most of Jackie's movies. Screenwriter Ivy Ho (who was credited only with the story in Chan's last Asian film, Gorgeous) has scripted a first-class spy tale that is made all the more appealing by Buck's lack of sophistication. He's smart and genuine, and though he revels in the fact that he has suddenly made himself rich, he is quickly saddened by the price of his wealth. Jackie always plays likeable characters, but Buck is one of his most human roles to date.
The film's escape from a Hong Kong setting also lends to the feeling that Chan is moving on to new things in his movies. Istanbul is a city of stone, which is a stark contrast to the glass, steel, and neon of Hong Kong. Sure, it's great to see Chan's stunt crew wreck another HK shopping mall, but even better to see them in action in fresh settings like Turkish baths (rest assured that soapy floors afford new comedic pratfall possibilities) and underground canals. Though Jackie has changed locales before (see Jackie Chan's First Strike) there's only so much mystery to be wrung from fairly new cities like Sydney. Istanbul offers a grim sense of intrigue and evil deals done in back alleys, which is really what an espionage flick needs.
When they told Jackie he had to start
working with a net, he found the loophole.
When future film historians compare the careers of Jackie Chan and Woody Allen, we predict that Rumble in the Bronx will be seen as the equivalent of Manhattan. Both films are named for boroughs of New York City, and both revealed their star's propensity for cradle-robbing. In Rumble, Jackie's love interest was Francoise Yip, 18 years Jackie's junior. Since then it's only gotten worse. In Mr. Nice Guy Jackie's girlfriend was Miki Lee, 23 years younger than he was. In Gorgeous we were supposed to believe that 23 year old Qi Shu was infatuated with 45 year old Jackie. And now in The Accidental Spy Jackie makes eyes at Vivian Hsu, 21 years younger than he is. Sure, it's nice that Jackie surrounds himself with beautiful women, but would it kill him to play romantically to a woman who was out of diapers when he made Drunken Master?
While not the best movie Jackie has ever made, The Accidental Spy is a surprisingly entertaining fight and stunt fest. It's our favorite Asian film from Jackie since Drunken Master II. While it is more serious than his last few Asian films, overall it is still a comedy, and the nude fight scene has the hallmarks of a classic. If Jackie Chan is determined to make one film a year for each side of the Pacific, we can only hope that his future Asian films are this impressive.
* In another odd trend, the last three we mentioned are all Taiwanese, which is also where Jackie's wife hails from. And Vivian Hsu and Qi Shu both had careers as nude pin-up models before becoming actresses. Go back!