Wacky Jackie

 

You'll believe a man can fly, promised the publicity slogan for the Superman movies starring Christopher Reeve. The startled tourists pouring into Dublin Castle on a wet Saturday morning recently believe it, too, as they watch open-mouthed while Jackie Chan races through an outdoor cafΘ set in the upper yard of the castle, scrambles past the alfresco diners and vaults over a barrier.

From the distance, it looks like Chan is defying gravity. It is only when one moves much closer to the action, as the scene is shot again and again, that a thin wire becomes visible, connecting Chan's jacket to a nearby crane - and hoisting him into the air.

It's all in a day's work for Jackie Chan, the charismatic Hong Kong actor who was born into abject poverty in 1954 and has made a hugely successful career out of action movies over the past two decades. A superstar in Asia since the 1980s, Chan was a long-time cult favourite in the West before breaking into the mainstream in recent years with the action comedies Shanghai Noon, Rush Hour and the recently released Rush Hour 2, which have seen his earnings rise to $20 million for a single film.

Down the years, Chan has been responsible for some dazzling screen stunts: falling handcuffed off a five-storey clocktower in Project A; sliding down a live electric wire in Police Story; roller-skating under a moving diesel truck in Winners and Sinners. One stunt, a swing from a tree limb in Armour of God, nearly killed him.

One of the reasons why Chan's action sequences are so convincing is that he is quite clearly performing all his own stunts - an unthinkable policy for a Hollywood star and surely a nightmare for the insurance company engaged by his producers. What is most remarkable about seeing the lithe and graceful Chan in action in Dublin is how supremely fit and agile he is at the age of 47 - and he looks many years younger in person than he does on screen. Chan left Dublin last week after five weeks' shooting on Highbinders, which, with a budget of $35 million, is the most expensive production to emerge from Hong Kong. Production on the movie will resume in Hong Kong and Thailand later this year after Chan shoots another film, The Tuxedo, in Toronto.

Highbinders is an action comedy in which he plays Eddie Yang, a Hong Kong detective who uncovers an international slavery syndicate and pursues its members to Dublin, where a bumbling British Interpol detective (played by comic Lee Evans) is also on their trail. This unlikely duo is joined by another Interpol agent (Claire Forlani from Meet Joe Black) in trying to track down the elusive Snakehead, who is running the ruthless human traffic operation.

The scene shooting at Dublin Castle occurs early in the movie, after the Chan character arrives in Dublin. He is leaving his hotel when he spies one of Snakehead's henchmen and he takes off in pursuit through the outdoor cafΘ.

While Chan does another retake of his running and jumping routine, screenwriter Bey Logan, a Hong Kong-based Englishman, explains that the Irish section of the movie was originally set in Australia. The producers changed their minds after meeting Roger Greene from the Screen Commission of Ireland and Kevin Moriarty from Ardmore Studios at the Irish-hosted reception during the American Film Market in Los Angeles last spring.

The title, Highbinders, has "a convoluted genealogy", Logan says. "A highbinder is someone who is killed and brought back to life with a special magic - in an enhanced version of what they were earlier, good or evil. That's what happens to Jackie's character in the film. Highbinders historically were Chinese gangsters in New York and San Francisco. We wanted a specific name, and not something obvious like vampires or angels, so we settled on highbinders."

While the movie is replete with Chan's elaborate stunts, it is much more than just another action vehicle, Logan notes, pointing out that, for once, it places Chan at the heart of strong ensemble playing. There is his relationship with the eccentric and tetchy Lee Evans character and his Vietnamese-Canadian wife, and the romance that blossoms between Chan and the Interpol agent played by Claire Forlani. These key players are surrounded by what Logan calls a tower of Babel - an international cast and crew hailing from Hong Kong, Ireland and Britain, along with a couple of Koreans and a single Moroccan.

"Even though it has a very big budget, at $35 million, the movie will look far bigger than that on the screen," says Logan. "We're not wasting money. Jackie always bemoans the money wasted on Hollywood pictures. And in this we have two Jackies - the dead one and the re-animated one.

"So he's a bargain! You can save so much by following his guidelines. He is very strict about energy and the environment, without ever being preachy about it. If everyone followed Jackie's example, there would be enough energy for the whole world."

The lunch break is called and Jackie Chan settles his lean five-foot-eight frame into a chair in the courtyard of the castle. Before arriving here, he had no idea how popular his recent movies have proved with Irish audiences. "It's really nice to know that so many people have seen Rush Hour 2 here," he says in slightly hesitant, heavily accented English. "I've come from thousands of miles away in Hong Kong and I'm very surprised that so many people recognise me here. The young kids have been so enthusiastic."

Chan insists that any violence in his movies is stylised and never graphic, which broadens his appeal to the widest possible audience. "The difference between my action movies and other action movies is that I don't want any blood or violence in mine," he says. "I love action, but I hate violence. People always think action movies should be violent, which is why I put so much comedy and humour in my films.

"Even when I'm doing a punch-up scene, you never see the blood coming from the nose. American movies are just too violent now. There are so many ways of making a movie, and this is my way of doing it. I am proud of what I do, and proud that my movies don't teach kids bad things. Kids learn from their idols, so I have to be very careful."

However, there is a downside to having such an extended fan base. "I've tried to go out and do some shopping in Dublin," Chan says. "But every time I've gone to a shopping mall here, the crowd have come and mobbed me. They're very nice, but when it happens all the time I prefer to just stay home."

He was wary when he first learned that the movie would be shooting in Dublin. "When they first told me, I said: 'Why Ireland? There are so many terrorist bombs going off there.' But they told me I was thinking of Northern Ireland and that it's totally different in Dublin. For me, living so far away from here, Ireland, England, Scotland seemed to be all the same.

"But Dublin is great. Wow! It's very peaceful, very green - I know now why it's so green because it rains so much here. I'm so happy to be here - apart from the weather. And now I know why so many movies are being made here. The crew here is one of the best I've ever worked with."

Later he promises "I'll be back", echoing another, now fading action star. And he will, next summer, for a sequel to last year's hit screwball kung fu comedy, Shanghai Noon, a good-humoured romp set in the 1880s in which he played a former imperial guard sent by the Chinese emperor in search of a kidnapped princess played by Lucy Liu of Ally McBeal. He traces her to a mining town in Nevada, where he teams up with a western outlaw (Owen Wilson) to rescue her.

"I was in a meeting in LA two weeks ago with the producer of Shanghai Noon," Chan says. "And he said they had just finished shooting Reign of Fire in Ireland. He said it's a great country and that we'll be going back next year for Shanghai Knights."

How will they contrive to get a Chinese warrior and an American train robber to late 19th-century Ireland for the sequel? "It will be set in the 19th century again, probably in an Irish castle," Chan says. "And Owen Wilson will be with me again and our characters will come to Ireland on some kind of mission. I'm sure there will be some dude we will have to have a problem with."

Asked about his stunts in Highbinders, Chan describes the most elaborate one, which was shot a few weeks ago in Dublin's docklands. "We did a scene where I climb up this eight-storey building and I have just a tiny wire attached to me. We could have done it with a blue-screen background and faked it, but I prefer action to look realistic. So I climbed the whole side of the building."

As soon as we finish talking, and before Chan finally gets a chance to have some lunch, he has an appointment on the set for a costume test with the designer of his next movie, The Tuxedo, in which Jennifer Love Hewitt will co-star as an FBI agent he instructs in martial arts. "The day after I finish here I fly to Montreal to receive an award at the film festival there," he says. "And then I start filming The Tuxedo in Toronto."

Within five minutes, Chan is standing in a tuxedo at the entrance to the State Apartments as the costume designer's team inspects every detail of the outfit.

Unusually, there are two directors on Highbinders - Gordon Chan for the drama scenes and Sammo Hung Kam-Bo for the action sequences. Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung Kam-Bo have been working together since they were children studying acrobatics, martial arts, music and dance at the Peking Opera school back in the early 1960s. Arthur Chung, who had the original idea for Highbinders and is producing the film, credits Jackie Chan's apprenticeship at the school as the foundation for his fitness 40 years on.

"The Peking Opera was not a formal academic school, and there are no schools like that today," Chung says, on the set after lunch. "It was more like a camp, and very strict. They trained from early morning till late at night and started working in plays and films from when they were eight years old. They had a master who made them totally disciplined. Jackie has never lost that discipline and he has never stopped training since. He's been doing it every day of his life since he was six and that's why he looks so well and is still so athletic. It reduces the ageing process because the body gets so accustomed to it."

Chung describes Chan as a legendary figure in Asia. "We had Bruce Lee and now we have Jackie Chan - and there are no replacements in sight because kids don't get the training he had any more," says Chung. "He really appreciates it when people work so hard with him. That's why he is so happy with the Irish crew on this film. He says they are one of the two best crews he has ever worked with. He was too diplomatic to say which was the other best crew. "For a superstar, he has no ego whatsoever. He is the opposite of so many Hollywood stars. There is never any screaming and shouting. He cooks for us. He washes my shoes. He even washes my underpants."