The American reissues of Jackie Chan films have met with declining box-office success since Chan burst onto the scene in 1996 with Rumble in the Bronx. The year-old Mr. Nice Guy, the latest Chan opus to be recut and redubbed for Americans, should reverse the trend. No one can fault the way New Line's publicity department delivered for Chan during Rumble's rollout. But it's easy to blame whoever controlled the film's editing: The cutting made a lame plot even worse, and a few of the movie's best punch lines were removed, presumably in order to make Chan conform to the traditional image of a "serious" action star. (Of course, this made virtually no sense to anyone who had followed his Hong Kong career; it's akin to removing all the jokes from Blazing Saddles in order to sell the film as a "serious" western.)
Since then, New Line and Miramax have alternated releases of Chan's newer and older films respectively, with a varying degree of sensitivity to just what makes him special. Miramax's Supercop was the least butchered, in part because the original film was the best of those to be given the American treatment. (Miramax totally blundered the scheduling of the American release, however, and the film did surprisingly little business.) Mr. Nice Guy, in contrast, has barely been trimmed at all: The film was made with international audiences in mind in the first place. Set in Australia, the movie has far more English than Chinese dialogue, and the exposition is handled more swiftly and gracefully than in most of Chan's recent work. Even more important, it is the best of Chan's recent films since at least Rumble, and probably since Drunken Master 2.
As has become the recent custom, Chan's character -- a Melbourne-based TV chef -- is named Jackie. (Chan actually did train as a cook before his acting career took off.) While leaving the studio one day, Jackie rescues Diana (Gabrielle Fitzgerald), a free-lance TV journalist being chased by murderous thugs. Diana has videotaped a meeting between two gangs squabbling over a stash of cocaine. While the gangs are at each others' throats, they both go after Diana to retrieve the incriminating evidence. The tape ends up with friends of Jackie's, so the bad guys (led by Richard Norton as druglord Giancarlo) kidnap Jackie's girlfriend, Miki (Miki Lee), and hold her hostage. Jackie, Diana, Jackie's assistant (Karen McLymont), and a cop named Romeo (Vince Poletto) have to find the tape and save Miki.
That's more of the story than you really need to know: It's just an excuse for Chan to run, leap, kick, fly, swing, and scramble all the hell over the place, while getting the shit kicked out of him by the usual gang of beefy Anglo stunt guys. No one is supposed to worry about the details of the plot, which is just as well, considering the sparse attention it's been given by the filmmakers. The issue of the tape's whereabouts simply disappears halfway through; worse yet, the tape, when we briefly see it, turns out to be the best-cut multiple-camera-angled video ever shot in real time on one hidden camcorder.
This time around, New Line appears to have the action sequences almost entirely intact, with no punch lines removed. They've trimmed something like 10 minutes' worth -- mostly little pieces of exposition and bits of arguably unnecessary dialogue. The new score is sometimes better, sometimes worse than the original; the faceless J. Peter Robinson, who did similar chores on Rumble and First Strike, provides effective generic action music, lifting a bit from The Rite of Spring, of all sources. (And he cuts out a dissonant sax solo that was particularly groovy in the original version.)
Mr. Nice Guy has no single stunt as spectacular as the balcony leap in Rumble or the helicopter work in Supercop -- which is just fine. What it does have is a greater percentage -- just the sort of thing that Chan'll be able to keep doing for another decade if he doesn't kill himself first, trying to please fans who demand bigger, more dangerous stunt work. The shticks here include an unfinished construction site, a huge inflatable King Kong, power tools, a trolley, a water hose, and a truckload of Pepsi cans. (Pepsi receives two very unsubtle product placements.)
Only the climactic sequence is a disappointment. In classic American action-movie style, Mr. Nice Guy ends with about a dozen minutes of sheer mechanical destruction, as Jackie routs the bad guys with a gargantuan earthmover. Sure, lots of stuff gets smashed up real cool, and finally the filmmakers blow everything up real good ... but who cares? It could be Mel Gibson driving the machine, or Estelle Winwood, or the guy who plays Urkel, as easily as Chan.
One has to give credit for much of Mr. Nice Guy's quality to Sammo Hung Kam-Bo, who is Chan's only peer at directing Chan. Sammo is one of the few creative figures in the Hong Kong industry whose impact and body of work are in the same exalted league as Chan. He grew up with him in the Chinese Opera Research School, became (in effect) his brother, broke into the film industry first, helped him repeatedly in his early career, and had undeniable influence on his filmmaking style.
Sammo co-starred in and directed several of Chan's best films during his run of brilliant work in the 1980s, including Wheels on Meals, Dragons Forever, and Heart of a Dragon. The two have had rifts recently; the Hong Kong release of Mr. Nice Guy represented Sammo's comeback after several lean years. (Though that's not the phrase you'd generally use for a man with Sammo's substantial physical presence. He gives himself a brief, very funny role in Mr. Nice Guy; he's the one the bad guys call "fat boy.")
If Mr. Nice Guy does better than other recent Chan films -- as it deserves to -- it should encourage distributors to start mining Sammo's large back catalog of wonderful films, even those without Chan in them.