Jet Li remains one of the hottest action stars around, with his latest film, Kiss of the Dragon, his most elaborate outside of Hong Kong. Li plays Liu Jiuan, a mysterious operative who travels from Shanghai to Paris on a mission so sensitive, the details are unclear even to him.
A few clues lead Liu to Jean-Pierre Richard, a brutally corrupt cop. When the mission goes horribly wrong, Liu falls into a deadly trap and becomes embroiled in a vast conspiracy – accused of a murder he didn’t commit, on the run in a city he doesn’t know. When Liu is thrown together with an American woman forced into prostitution, the unlikely duo goes up against the cunning and ruthless adversary who set this trap in motion. Paul Fischer spoke to Li in Los Angeles’ Four Seasons Hotel.
In the era of martial arts superstars, they don’t get any bigger than Jackie Chan. Always working, either in his native Hong Kong or Hollywood, Chan’s unique blend of comedy and action set him apart from many of his contemporaries. Born Chan Kwong Sang on April 7, 1954, Jackie Chan came from a poverty-stricken Hong Kong family . so poor, claims Chan, that he was almost sold in infancy to a wealthy British couple. As it turned out, Chan became his family’s sole support. Enrolled in the Chinese Opera Research Institute at the age of seven, he spent the next decade in rigorous training for a career with the Peking Opera, excelling in martial arts and acrobatics.
Billed as Cheng Lung, Chan entered films in his mid-teens, appearing in twenty-five productions before his twentieth birthday. Starting out as a stunt man, Chan was promoted to stardom as the potential successor to the late Bruce Lee. In his earliest starring films, he was cast as a stone-cold serious type, determined to avenge Lee’s death. Only when he began playing for laughs did Chan truly attain full celebrity status. From 1978’s The Young Master onward, Chan has usually been his own director and screenwriter. His best Hong Kong-produced films include the nonstop action pics Project A (1983), Police Story (1985), Armour of God (1986) and the Golden Horse Award-winning Crime Story (1993) . not to mention the multiple sequels of each of the aforementioned titles. Despite his popularity in Europe and Asia, Chan was for many years unable to make a dent in the American market. He tried hard in such films as The Big Brawl (1980) and the first two Cannonball Run flicks, but American filmgoers just weren’t buying.
At long last, Chan mined U.S. box-office gold with 1996’s Rumble in the Bronx. Chan remained the most popular Asian actor with the greatest potential to crossover into the profitable English-speaking markets, something he again demonstrated when he co-starred with Chris Tucker in the 1998 box-office hit Rush Hour. In 2000 Chan had another success on his hands with Shanghai Noon, a comedy western in which he starred as an Imperial Guard dispatched to the American West to rescue the kidnapped daughter (Lucy Liu) of the Chinese Emperor, a sequel to which is currently in pre-production. Chan will next be seen in Rush Hour 2, again starring Chris Tucker. This time, Tucker heads to China for this fun-filled fish-out-of-water action comedy, which also stars the beautiful Ziyi Zhang of Crouching Tiger fame. It was an impeccably dressed Mr Chan that spoke to Paul Fischer in Los Angeles.
Question: Were you concerned about doing a sequel to Rush Hour?
Answer: I knew there was a sequel going on after part one finished. I don’t think part one was a success. When I look at the film, I don’t like it.
Question: Why not?
Answer: Just different. I am from Asia. I only know Asia. Rush Hour in Asia isn’t a success compared to my old Jackie Chan films. Not funny, the action isn’t good. For myself I look at and see there’s another Big Brawl 20 years ago. Bye Bye. Then just boom, a big hit and I just don’t know what happened. Then I realized oh, that’s a very typical American film, very local. The dialogue was ‘What’s up Nigger?’. In Asia the whole theatre goes huh? In the United States it’s ha ha and everybody claps. From that time I know I have to make two kinds of films, one film for the American market and one film for my own market. My own market has been watching Jackie Chan films for so many years.
Question: Which type of film makes more money?
Answer: Of course, Rush Hour. Rush Hour in Hong Kong just made $10 million. But Drunken Master 2 – $59 million. See the difference? But Drunken Master in the United States, how much? $25-$30 million, that’s all. There’s obviously a difference between then. My own audience is not enough. Rush Hour is for a family audience, the whole family can go. But my movie in Asia is a family audience. But in American, new. Everybody is suddenly a new action star. No, I’m not new, I’m old. I’m an OLD action star – they just don’t know me.
Question: It looks like there is more of your Asian martial arts action in this one than in the first.
Answer: Yes. Now because in the last couple years, with the new directors, the new generation, they really like Asian films. And also the way they make them is almost like Asian. They are not prepared on the set. Not like the old days when everything was scheduled. Now no. I design the fighting on the set just hurry, hurry up. I can change everything when I want. This is not like the old days with two months of rehearsal and you have to show everybody. And on the set you have to do exactly what you did. Now I can change everything.
Question: Is it easier to work in English now?
Answer: Yes, much, much easier. Before it would drive me crazy that we couldn’t change the dialogue. Now I can change the dialogue. If I can not speak – I tell Chris to speak. Anything. Okay, let me speak this one, that’s the easy one. I’m the detective from Hong Kong, he’s the detective from U.S. If it’s difficult I let him say it. I just say the easy things. Brett Ratner [director] is more Asian in style now. He’s changing. He’s very flexible.
Question: How is he Asian?
Answer: Before I could only star. I could not do this, I could not do that. Now on the set I can watch the camera and tell the cameraman how to move this shot. Because you are talking about action. I’m the best – at least on the set. I tell you how to move one, two, three, bang. Before I just sit there and the stunt coordinator teaches me how to punch. I had to follow them. Right now it’s more flexible.
Question: When are you allowed to just be yourself?
Answer: I force myself to do it. Sometimes when I have two days holiday I just don’t know what I’m doing. Like yesterday, when I looked at my schedule, I was just wow. What’s going on next? I really don’t know because I do four movies in a row now. After Rush Hour 2 now I’ve got to do an Asian film. Every year for me one American film and one Asian film. Now, day after tomorrow, I’m going to London to start High Binders which is an Asian film, non stop shooting.
Question: Are you doing a film called Tuxedo in Toronto?
Answer: It’s an American film, DreamWorks, Speilberg. He asked me to direct and I don’t like. I said, why don’t you direct? He said, no I’m producer. I said okay. We found a director. Kevin Donnovan who is starting in September 1st until February the 4th. Tuxedo is what I want. More acting with fewer special effects, with my own action. And more acting, drama. Because I don’t want to be an action star. An action star’s life is so short. I want my life to get longer. I want my career to be longer.
Question: What drives you to work so hard?
Answer: I don’t know. Because friendship, promise. High Binders is going to be directed by a friend of mine who wants to get into the film business and he called me up. I said if I have time I’ll do it. Before I made the Rush Hour film he said there is a strike going on, right? I said, maybe, yes. Okay, while the strike’s going on, we have a few months holiday, we do High Binders. Then I promised him. Now it looks like the strike is not going to happen but I already promised him and they are in production already. With Tuxedo I promised to start September the first so my friend knows that we will just film until I go start Tuxedo. Then the whole crew stops and goes back to Hong Kong until Christmas. I get ten days holiday from Tuxedo and I’ll go back to film High Binder. Then I’m coming back. I have to finish as soon as possible Tuxedo. If I don’t have time to go back, I start Shanghai Knights right away. Sometime between then, I go back to finish Highbinders. Then June something we start Bellboy. We are not talking about coming back to promote the film and the junkets. We are not talking about going back to China to help the charity things. When I look at my schedule, there’s not one day to rest. Highbinders, seven days a week, non-stop because they know. Any time an American production calls me, I have to go. I’m happy but I wouldn’t mind having a vacation right now.
Question: What would you do?
Answer: I think making a film for me is like having a vacation. I am in a different country, different people and they are not like 24 hours to make a film. You are on the set, you wait a little bit, we create something. We stop the film at night with nothing to do. I’d rather make a film than do the promotion. The promotion is one day New York, then come to an L.A. premiere, then another junket, another TV, then Jay Leno. That drives you crazy. I’d rather stay on the set where the only thing I know is the movie. It’s more relaxing and easier. It’s more tiring doing promotion.
Question: What do you think of the success of Crouching Tiger?
Answer: It’s a surprise for me. Exactly a surprise like the first Rush Hour. Crouching Tiger, we’ve been making this kind of movie more than 30 years. Right now you come to Hong Kong, cable TV [makes flapping cloth noises], Pay TV [flapping cloth noises], TV [flapping cloth]. Just like in America everything is special effects.
Question: What about wirework? There was some talk when that was released that Jackie Chan doesn’t do that.
Answer: Suppose I make that movie. Ang Lee did not let me do that. Said, that’s not your film. You won’t like it. It’s flying around.
Question: You were offered it?
Answer: Before he made that movie and meeting in New York, he said it’s not good for you. Because I want to make a movie with Lee, as a drama movie, the whole movie drama. Crouching Tiger – I don’t like these kinds of things. I want to do something either Steven Spielberg like Jurassic Park or like Matrix. That makes me excited. Wow, something new. These kinds of movies for me, I produce these kinds of movies. I make this movie. That’s why when I come to America I work on Tuxedo – good.
Question: What do you play in Tuxedo that makes is so different?
Answer: They won’t let me say much. I’m a taxi driver and I help somebody and he was a spy. He was in a coma in the hospital and I go back to his house to help him get some things like a toothbrush and underwear. Then I find the tuxedo and the story begins.
Question: Are there any people that you look up to and would like to work with?
Answer: Stallone. He’s been my hero for a long time. I admire him because he wrote the script, he directs, he acts and he does everything. I admire people who have talent and it’s not just that you are handsome. Handsome, There are too many handsome and pretty girls every year. Talent keeps your career forever. I tried to make a movie with Stallone for so many years but he still changes the script right now. He wanted to do Rambo three or four. He wanted me to be a drug dealer. But a good bad guy. Before, bad but later on becoming a good guy. But all my fans wrote me letters no, you can not be a drug dealer. So I know I cannot do a drug dealer.
Question: Were you seriously hurt on Accidental Spy?
Answer: Paralysed? I do get hurt on every movie and I almost get used to it but not paralysed.
Question: So is the head hole still worst injury?
Answer: Yeah, there are holes. So many I can’t remember.
Question: What about on Rush Hour 2?
Answer: On the bamboo scene, yes. They made the bamboo scene raining and every time we had to whack the bamboo. It was slippery.
Question: How was it to work with Chris Tucker again?
Answer: Good. With this movie we were becoming buddies. For part one I didn’t really know him and I was hiding from him. When he came to talk to me I would just hide from him because I didn’t know what he was saying and I had to respond. But my English is not good enough so how could I respond so I’d hide in my motor home and only see him on the set. Slowly we would get to know each other on the promoting tours. In Japan, Hong Kong and Korea we stay together, we ate together and became good friends. Now we are buddies.
Question: You are getting older. Do you still do all your own stunts?
Answer: I always choreograph myself and I know how far I can go. When I design a stunt – okay, that’s too far away and then I put it a little bit closer. Then I make sure I can do it. I always choreograph the things I believe I can do. Also I have a trick, a way to help me do a stunt, an action.
Question: Tell me about Shanghai Knights.
Answer: I start from China again, my sister and father have some problems. You know, all the scripts always I’m from China, I’m from Hong Kong. I can not be born in the U.S, because of my English. Not like Big Brawl 20 years ago, I’m ABC, .American Born Chinese’. My kind of English, how can I? Wrong script. Now, they have to [say] I’m from China. My sister comes to Carson City, looking for me to help my father. Then I know Owen Wilson is in New York. I have to go to New York. I thought he was rich but he’s just cheating people. I’m helping him and then we take the boat to England and to Ireland and then we start the story. It’s a fun story.
Question: Chris Tucker gets top billing on this movie and you were the only name known when Rush Hour one came out. Will it be the reverse for Asia and was it worked out before hand?
Answer: With Rush Hour one I was the leading actor but for Part Two, they suggested Chris Tucker have leading too. Half of 5,000 posters Jackie first, 5,000 posters Chris First. Then I said okay. For me that really doesn’t matter. As long as we are becoming buddies. For the first one – no. Now, yes. It really doesn’t matter who is leading. Most important is if the movie is a success. All those years I don’t just care about the name. The audience knows what happens.
Question: Do you like this better?
Answer: Definitely I like it better than the first one but still I say that’s an American film. That’s an American film, I have to go back and make an Asian film. Now, getting more and more like Asian.