January 22, 2018

The Jackie Chan Formula

Action directors take note:
Jackie Chan knows how to make an awesome fight scene better than anyone else in the world.

Better than Michael Bay, better than the Wachowski Brothers, and even better than Christopher Nolan. Yes, even with everything brilliant that Mr. Nolan did with Batman, his ability to direct a fight scene pales in comparison to Jackie Chan.

I recently had an excuse to revisit Police Force and Drunken Master II. And let me tell you, if the only Jackie Chan movies you’ve ever seen had Chris Tucker or Jennifer Love Hewitt in them, you have no idea how amazing Jackie Chan can be.

It may have something to with Hollywood insurance and that he’s no young buck anymore, but all of Jackie Chan’s masterpieces were made long before he became the Asian Nick Nolte.

Take a look at the fight scenes in films like Police Force, The Legend of Drunken Master, and Super Cop. They’re amazing. And there’s still nothing out there that compares.

There are a couple of tricks that JC has figured out that make his fight scenes so awesome:

1. The Nice Guy. Jackie Chan’s characters are never stoic bad-ass kung-fu masters. They are basically Asian Jimmy Stewarts — nice guys that end up in a mess and try their darnedest to get out of it. This is immensely important, but action directors always miss this. A bad-ass kung-fu master eats ninjas for breakfast. He might as well just be playing croquet. A nice guy hates to fight, isn’t that great at it, and gets beat up a lot. He has to struggle to win. And watching a struggle is much more interesting than watching a croquet game.

This is exactly why Jackie Chan likes to make fun of himself. Bad-asses never look stupid, because then they stop being bad-ass. Jackie Chan makes fun of himself so we know he’s vulnerable, and fallible just like us. That way, when he does win a fight, it’s way more amazing.

2. Room with a view Jackie Chan understands that every great fight scene is a story unto itself, and like with any story, it’s much more interesting if you know what’s going on. In contrast to the current trend to shoot action up-close with a million edits a second, JC chooses to shoot wide and edit with clarity. There are close-ups-a-plenty, but they are always used to punctuate big kicks and punches, and comic moments. And cuts always follow continuity and classic rules of spatial consistency.

3. No Cables Needed. The Forbidden Kingdom may be the exception, but for the most part JC eschews the Hong Kong action practice of choreographing scenes with cables. It’s another one those things that helps to raise the stakes. Cables soften gravity. They make a fight scene feel like it’s happening on a trampoline. Take away the cables, and it feels like a world where gravity can introduce your face to a concrete floor. For the same reason JC likes to the play the nice guy he likes to leave out the cables. When your hero is vulnerable you care a lot more about him when he’s in danger.4. Clever tricks. This is one of the biggest innovations that JC has brought to action directing. A fight scene doesn’t just involve fists and kicks, but every movable and immovable object within the vicinity of the fight. Not only has revitalized the fight scene with this, but also covertly resurrected the brilliance of Gene Kelly. Check out Signing in the Rain and imagine all of the dance scenes were fight scenes. It’s basically just a Jackie Chan film (albeit at half speed).

5. The Cornered Animal aka Beet Face. This is the book-end to The Nice Guy. While JC always likes to play the nice guy, he’s always a nice guy that by the climax of the film is pushed to the boiling point. JC knows that if you start with an awesome fight scene you have to finish with an awesomer fight scene. The first fight scene will be the nice guy scrambling for survival, and final fight scene will be the nice guy transformed into cornered animal who destroys everything in his path. You can always tell when a JC movie reaches this point because his face turns bright red ( or purple in the case of Drunken Master 2) and he gets really, really pissed.

The final fight scene in Drunken Master 2 is a great example of all of thee above, and probably the greatest fight scene of all time. Please partake:

Drunken Master 2


  1. Kohl Glass says:

    The odd thing about the timing of your post, is that the other night rush Hour was on and Chris and I got talking about why Jackie Chang works so well. A lot of the points you made were brought up . . . though not as articulately.

  2. @ohmgee says:

    great post. drunken master 2 is my favorite jackie chan film of all time! love all the fight scenes. the last one lasted forever!

    in chris nolan’s defense, he wanted them messy and confusing, like a real fight. liam neeson even says “this is not a dance.”

  3. Brandon says:

    Thanks for the comments ohmgee. I follow the “messy and confusing” line of reasoning. It’s a theory that I’ve been mulling over for quite a while. While I understand the intent, I don’t think it works. I understand what it’s trying to do — realistically depict violence, but I don’t think real life-and-death struggles are confusing. Messy, yes, but if you’re fighting for your life, you’re going to have an intense concentration, and a salient clarity about the details of each strike and dodge.

    Furthermore, from a practical storytelling, and pure enjoyment angle confusing fighting accomplishes nothing. It neither propels the story, nor gives you any fun. It’s just annoying and jarring.

    A good example of a fight scene that is realistic and still legible is the final fight scene in Rashomon. It’s ugly, brutal and messy, but it’s never confusing.

  4. Alfred Muchilwa says:

    I wasn’t that big on Jackie chan until I saw the documentary ‘Jackie Chan: My Stunts’, (1999). I can’t recommend it enough. I think all artists should watch it to understand the high level of dedication it takes to be that great.

  5. I agree jackie chan is a genius when it comes to choreography and just great smart action scenes loved all of jackies films except for the hollywood ones

  6. Just ran across your blog via twitter co-followers, and I’m loving it. Jackie Chan has always been my favorite HK action movie star, and I even found it in my heart to forgive his Hollywood dalliances for the kids.

    Thanks for the info, advice, and cool artwork!

  7. You have said what I’ve noticed since Rush Hour first came out. I grew up watching Jackie Chan films since the 80s and as you say there’s none compared. So movies such as The Matrix, though the scenes were awesome, they were all basic stuff for me, and in some cases it seems like they’re trying.
    I stopped watching Hollywood made movies of Jackie because, to me, they are not letting him be Jackie. I’ve seen his latest Chinese movies, and yes he’s not as young as he used to be, but his latest Hong Kong movies like Little Big Brother/Soldier and Shaolin with Andy Lau, he’s Jackie regardless.
    BTW, I wished Hong Kong wrote and made Forbidden Kingdom.

    • So true! I think some of this has to do with the risk averse nature of the US film industry, which is good in the sense that less people probably die making our movies, but there is an element of basic storytelling that we’re still missing.

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