Shanghai: Jackie Chan, John Cena Talk Action Collaboration on 'Project X'

THR joined the martial arts legend and WWE superstar as they met for the first time to discuss their upcoming work together in Scott Waugh's big-budget action adventure set in the Middle East.
Courtesy of the Shanghai International Film Festival
John Cena, Jackie Chan and Scott Waugh in Shanghai

WWE champion and rising film star John Cena flew into the Shanghai International Film Festival this week to speak alongside screen legend Jackie Chan about their upcoming action-thriller-comedy Project X.

The big-budget Hong Kong–China co-production led by Chan is entirely Chinese funded, will be filmed all in China using local crews, but with Cena as co-star and Hollywood’s Scott Waugh (Act of Valor, Need for Speed) directing from a script by Arash Amel (Grace of Monaco, Erased, The Titan).

“The highlight of this movie is really simple: we have one of the greatest legends of action working with a talented newcomer in the action genre,” says Waugh. “It’s possibly one of the greatest pairings… in terms of how the movie is stylized, it will hopefully be another level — our action will be extremely exciting.”

Set in the Middle East, the plot follows a retired Chinese military man and now private security contractor (Chan) who is sent to rescue workers from a Chinese-run oil refinery under attack. Cena appears as a former U.S. Marine who ends up helping Chan. Together they fight to defeat the attackers whose real motive — a massive oil heist — is soon revealed.

“In the film, both characters start off as quite normal guys, both retired military and not superheroes," explains Chan. "At first, I think we’re opponents — I think he’s the bad guy and he thinks I’m the bad guy. But then we realize that we’re on the same side and go after the real enemy.”

The Shanghai event served as the first occasion for Cena and Chan to meet in person, and already Chan was jumping to his feet to plot fight choreography during their group sit-down with The Hollywood Reporter.

“You see!” laughed Cena as Chan wrangled his arm, “He just never stops…Jackie’s presence is undeniable. His energy doesn't stop. His process never stops. It’s going to be so special. Not only will we make a good movie, I’m going to learn so much.”

The recent blockbuster success of modern-day Chinese action films — such as Wu Jing's Wolf Warrior 2 ($855 million) or Chan's own The Foreigner ($145 million) — has revealed a hunger for the genre among mainstream Chinese moviegoers. The trend bodes well for Project X, Chan and Cena agreed.

“China as a country is bigger and stronger now, so we really need heroes,” argued Chan. “Look at how many on-screen heroes the U.S. has, but China doesn't have its own superheroes, it's own Superman, Spiderman… Monkey King is not really modern. And today’s young people want new, contemporary-era heroes!”

Action aficionados are already expecting the potent pedigree of the Chan-Cena-Waugh trifecta to serve up world-class stunt work in Project X (a working title, the Chinese film title translates roughly to Fury Sandstorm). With Chan’s unparalleled four-decade-deep martial arts experience, Cena and Waugh have taken to referring to him as "the master." But as a 16-time WWE world wrestling champion, Cena brings his own brand of physical skills to the fold. Even Waugh is a former stuntman, with a strong personal connection to the field: his father was famed stuntman Fred Waugh, co-founder of the elite Hollywood group Stunts Unlimited. The action side of the collaboration, then, is sure to be sophisticated.

Chan’s JC Stunt Team will be choreographing their characteristically complex fight scenes, whilst Waugh will lend his Need for Speed expertise to a promised sequence of high-level stunt driving.

“I’m excited," Waugh said. "When you get actors who are truly physically talented, you can design action to really use this — it’s a dream,” he added.

But the director insists that the film will be more than just fights and explosions; there’s an emotional side to both characters' backstories, too. Chan’s character will fight to rescue his daughter, while Cena’s character's motives will be similarly personal.

“I always want the audience to go for a full ride in my films,” Waugh explained. “I want you to laugh, cry, be on the edge of your seat. Audiences are now paying a lot more money to watch films, so we as filmmakers have the obligation to entertain them.”

One of global cinema’s most recognizable stars, Chan has now made over 200 films during nearly 60 years in the industry. For Cena and Waugh, Project X will be their first time working on a Chinese production. Waugh said he has been “extremely focused” on China for some time: "There’s so much incredible talent here that has yet to be cultivated; it could turn into something that goes even further than we’ve ever gone in Hollywood.”

Chan is producing Project X with longtime collaborator Joe Tam, as well as Esmond Ren and Hans Canosa. He said that he chose Waugh and Cena because of their talent, skill and also their curiosity for China.

“Some Western talent just come in-and-out when they do a China project, but these guys have a commitment to the culture and industry,” Chan explained. “Scott has been living here for months to prepare for the film, and John has been learning Mandarin on his own for years, way before we asked him to join our cast.”

“I’ve been learning it three to four years,” Cena elaborated. “My fascination with China and Chinese culture started about a decade ago, and I’ve dreamed of being in the industry here.” Even at WWE, which attracts very little Chinese audience, Cena was pushing to go into the market, making steps including “me trying very hard to learn remedial Mandarin” to break through, he said.

Although he made his name as a WWE star, Cena’s comedic abilities didn’t go unnoticed in this casting in Project X, Waugh said. Cena's first film was The Marine (2006), followed by several action flicks; but he's gone on to gain even more attention in popular comedies, such as Trainwreck, Sisters and Daddy’s Home.

“I was looking for something exciting. I’ve often been typecast as a WWE wrestler, so it was often difficult to do action as the typecast kind of prevented that,” Cena said of what attracted him to this role. “After having some fun with comedy, I read this story — the plot was great, the action was great, the twists were amazing and keep getting better. Now there is also some lighthearted fun, which I’m very happy about.”

Although funding for the production comes entirely from Hong Kong and China, the film's script contains elements of East-meets-West that match the casting of Chan and Cena. Told in both Mandarin and English, the film is targeted towards a global release and global success, the team said.

Still, the China market is of utmost importance. “We cannot refute the fact that China is now the world's no. 1 theatrical market already this year — it’s two years ahead of schedule,” Waugh said.

But the director also said he hopes that Project X can be a model for successful Hollywood-China collaboration, on both a creative and commercial basis.

"Cross-pollination has always been a challenge,” he added, “But we want it to entertain audiences everywhere."