Jackie Chan: The Centurion

The action star celebrates his 100th film

Two questions into an interview in the windy courtyard of a Beijing clubhouse, Jackie Chan tries to show a trick with his very hot glass of tea -- and fails. Despite his fame, fortune and long filmography, it's hard not to think that the likable Chan resembles a big kid, a hyperactive one at that.

"I might have what the kids nowadays have -- ADD," he laughs.

Who can blame him? Between finishing "Little Big Soldier" from a script he's been writing on-and-off for the past 15 years; filming Columbia Pictures and China Film Group's "Kung Fu Kid"; and meeting with his longtime collaborator, Stanley Tong, for his 100th movie project, "Chinese Zodiac," he's got enough on his plate to give anyone ADD. And that doesn't even include the concert he's staged, the cameo he had in the epic "Founding of the Republic" and his attendance at numerous charitable and promotional events.

Just thinking about it is exhausting -- but not for Chan, who's a bundle of energy. His body doesn't ever seem to stop moving; he's constantly glancing around, shifting his weight, enthusiastic when he acts out a couple of his signature moves. Only when he talks about the things he's most passionate about -- like China and "Chinese Zodiac" -- does he suddenly become very still, his tone firm, allowing you to see the determination that has made him a global superstar. That, and the passers-by swooning before him.

Chan might have an easygoing, everyman quality, but he's clearly different, and he's been different ever since he was a child.

Chan's parents put him in the care of Chinese opera and martial arts master Yu Jim-yuen when he was 6. At 8, he made his first appearance on celluloid in the movie "Seven Little Valiant Fighters." It was 1962 and Chan was a live-in pupil at the China Drama Academy, which means he had to practice acrobatics and martial arts every day.

"Making movies meant I could have a whole lunchbox to myself," he recalls, clearly relishing the memory. "And it meant I didn't have to do my Peking Opera training."

Chan has few memories of what he did in those early films, but the stars he met have stayed with him. "We got to work with our idols -- Bai Yan, Cheung Wood-yau, and later, teen idols Connie Chan and Josephine Siu. I remember the uniformed maids of my godmother, Li Li-hua (who played Chan's mother in "The Story of Qin Xianglian" in 1963), and how she was always delighted to see me on set. I was no one's treasure at the academy, a cane to my face during training day after day; but on set, the lead actresses were always pinching and kissing me, showering me with affection." Still, he acknowledges, "I've never thought I'd be making films for life."

More than 40 years later, with the release of his 100th film, Derek Lee's grim action drama "Shinjuku Incident," Chan has entered a new phase in his career, transforming himself from the amiable character he usually portrays into someone more complex. His performance might come as a shock to his fans, but that is exactly what Chan had in mind.

"I thought if the audience accepted me in this role, it would give me tremendous freedom to play whatever roles I want in the future," he says of the film, which opened in April.

In the 1960s, Chan appeared in numerous films along with his "brothers and sisters" at the academy, known collectively as the Seven Little Fortunes. The eldest brother, Sammo Hung, left the academy when he came of age and earned his living as a stuntman. Envious of how the young and successful Hung was "rolling in money," Chan aspired to follow Hung's footsteps when it came time for him to leave the academy, too. He did just that, quickly becoming a reliable name in stuntmen circles, and eventually landing work in films like Bruce Lee's landmark 1970s martial arts blockbusters "Fist of Fury" (1972) and "Enter the Dragon" (1973).

After Lee's death in 1973, the Hong Kong film industry was desperate to fill the kung fu hero void and Chan was eager to separate himself from the stuntmen pack. He got his first starring roles with "Fist of Fury" director Lo Wei, who wanted to replicate Lee's success in a string of period kung fu films like "New Fist of Fury," "Shaolin Wooden Men" (both in 1976) and "To Kill With Intrigue" (1977).

In their eagerness to find another tough-guy persona, these early films failed to tap into the unique qualities that would eventually make Chan a star. It was only director-producer Ng See-yuen who saw Chan's potential and borrowed him from Lo, putting him in films tailor-made to showcase Chan's everyman and comedic sensibilities.

The one-two punch of "Snake in the Eagle's Shadow" and "Drunken Master" in 1978, produced by Ng and directed by Yuen Woo-ping, became the major breakthroughs in Chan's career and ushered in a new style of action comedy.

Raymond Chow, the now-retired founder of Golden Harvest and the man responsible for discovering Bruce Lee, signed Chan to star in and direct a slate of films at the beginning of the 1980s, and thus began a 20-year working relationship that saw Chan steadily rise in popularity across the Asian region.

"Golden Harvest offered me HK$4.5 million to film 'The Young Master' in 1980, a sum that I could have used to buy a whole street in Kowloon Tong (an up-market residential district in Hong Kong) at that time," Chan recalls. "The day before I was earning HK$3,000 a film. Other studios such as Shaw Brothers offered me more, but Golden Harvest promised to make me an international star."

"The Young Master" topped the 1980 boxoffice chart in Hong Kong, and before long, Chan was shipped to Los Angeles to prepare for his Hollywood career.

A former journalist who worked for the United States Information Service during the 1950s, Chow saw it as his mission to make films starring Chinese actors for the U.S. market. He arranged for Chan to stay in Los Angeles to learn English and star in his first English-language actioner, 1980's "The Big Brawl." When the film failed to launch Chan's career in America, Chow landed Chan a role in 1981's "Cannonball Run," the wildly popular Burt Reynolds vehicle that featured a host of secondary parts played by major stars. It was Golden Harvest's first high-profile Hollywood investment, with the express purpose of introducing Chan to American audiences. While the movie was a hit, it would prove to be another false start, not quite establishing Chan as the household name Chow was hoping for.

So Chan returned to Hong Kong, where he soon began to take up directing duties. Ever since his days of working as a stuntman and action choreographer, Chan had always designed the action sequences in his films -- directing a whole film was the next logical move. After co-directing "The Fearless Hyena" in 1981, Chan's perfectionism shone through during the filming of his second solo directing project, 1982's "Dragon Lord," which caused studio head Raymond Chow enormous headaches.

"Part of the film was shot on location in Taiwan, and word came that it was running behind schedule," Chow recalls. "We asked Jackie to hurry up, get it done and come back to Hong Kong, but he didn't, so I flew over. It turned out that he had spent 40 days on a scene of him kicking a shuttlecock, an admittedly very difficult and elaborate action sequence involving all kinds of jumps and somersaults that he intended to do in one continuous shot. I was amazed. I told him, 'Jackie, film is make-believe! Why don't you make do with editing?' He was adamant. In the end, he did it in one take."

The memory still brings a smile to Chow's face almost 30 years later, but it probably helps that the film grossed nearly HK$11 million ($1.4 million) in Hong Kong, breaking the local boxoffice record at a time when cinema admission cost a few Hong Kong dollars. Chan next directed and starred in the action adventure "Project A" (1982), which promptly collected HK$19 million ($2.4 million) in Hong Kong, ¥3.1 billion ($34.6 million) in Japan, and cemented Chan's status as the region's top superstar, action or no action.

Just as Chan was persistent in his quest for the perfect action shot, Golden Harvest was unrelenting in the promise to take Chan out of Asia. Hence 1985's "The Protector," with a young American director at the helm, a script by American screenwriters and a location shoot in the U.S.

"I worshipped Hollywood at the time, so I was initially very impressed by this American production," Chan says. But his years in front of and behind the camera caused friction with the relatively inexperienced director, and after the film and its reshot Asian version flopped in the U.S. and Asia, Chan decided to take matters into his own hands.

"It proved to me that, as much as I thought I was the king in Asia, I was a nobody in America. Since I played a New York cop in 'The Protector,' I thought, 'I'll show you how to make a police movie.' " The result: 1985's "The Police Story," which became an enormous hit in Hong Kong and spawned four sequels. Chan displayed his now-famous daredevil instincts in the death-defying stunts in the film, which later nearly cost him his life.

In 1986, during location shooting in then-Yugoslavia for the action comedy "Armor of God," Chan wanted to try a stunt that required him to jump down from a tree. Rehearsals went fine and he did a good take, but he wasn't satisfied. During the next take he slipped, landed on a rock and cracked his skull. After intensive surgeries and good luck, he survived, but many wondered why a superstar who earned more than HK$5 million per picture would feel compelled to take such risks.

Chan's answer is simple: "I didn't know how to shoot action scenes, I only knew how to risk my life to make a good shot. Whether or not it would please the audience wasn't on my mind; I only wanted to do the stunt well. Ever since the beginning I've felt a sense of responsibility, if one movie succeeded it meant there will be another one; then my colleagues and I could carry on," he says.

After "The Police Story" sequels, Chan made "Rumble in the Bronx," directed by Stanley Tong, who worked with Chan on the third and fourth installments of the cop series. The 1995 actioner, shot in Canada, topped the Hong Kong boxoffice charts with HK$57 million and remains one of the top five grossing local films a decade later. But more importantly, the film's success finally made good on the promise Golden Harvest and Raymond Chow's made to him: The Golden Harvest-New Line joint-venture was released nationwide on more than 1,700 screens and grossed $32.4 million, making it the most successful Hong Kong production to be released in America.

After "Rumble" the Brett Ratner-directed "Rush Hour" (1998) gave Chan his first Hollywood starring role, and the three-part series would eventually gross $850 million worldwide -- though Chan never hid his discontent with the series, believing the film's humor and the action didn't suit him.

That mix of humor and action changed starkly with the release of "Shinjuku Incident."

"Audiences were shocked," he says. "This film marked me as an actor, not just an action star. It was a transition I had to make."

He may be an actor, but he's still fundamentally a star -- as the passers-by make clear, staring at him with undisguised admiration. He shrugs them off, unfazed after so many years.

He grins his trademark grin. "Let's go into the cabin there," he shrugs. "There're too many girls."