Ask Chris #91: Why ‘Rumble in the Bronx’ Is Better than ‘Superman Returns’
Here at ComicsAlliance, we value our readership and are always open to what the masses of Internet readers have to say. That's why every week, Senior Writer Chris Sims puts his comics culture knowledge to the test as he responds to your reader questions!
Q: What did Superman Returns get right, and what did it get wrong? -- @GentlemanMonstr
A: Earlier this week, I said on Twitter that Superman Returns was the worst thing that ever happened to America. I'll admit that that might be an exaggeration, but if it is, it's a slight one. It's unquestionably the most disappointing movie I've ever seen, based on a wrongheaded idea that tries to simultaneously deconstruct and rebuild a character, failing at both and making an amazing waste of potential out of a genuinely good cast. In fact, it was so crushingly bad that I haven't seen it since I walked out of the theater.
So the hell with it. Let's talk about Rumble in the Bronx instead.
I saw Rumble when it was released in 1995, and for a 13 year-old who was into action movies, this thing was a revelation. To this day, it's my favorite Jackie Chan movie, and easily one of my favorite movies of all time, and I imagine it's probably that way for a lot of people around my age. It was, after all, the movie that introduced Chan to an American audience.
Well, if you want to get technical about it, it was a re-introduction. There was Cannonball Run, of course, but both of his previous attempts at starring roles, The Big Brawl and The Protector, had flopped, and neither one had been the kind of high-energy action comedy that we'd recognize today as a "Jackie Chan" movie. His career was flourishing overseas, but unless you had access to those movies from a local importer or were willing to go out of your way to hunt through a bin at your local flea market to find a second-generation bootleg VHS of Armour of God, you were out of luck.
But Rumble was different. It was a big theatrical release that became a big box office success in the U.S., and it made Chan a household name to what was essentially a whole new continent fans by highlighting exactly what made his signature style so entertaining.
In Rumble in the Bronx, Jackie Chan stars as Jackie Chan. Sure, they refer to his character as "Keung," but let's be honest here, it's the exact same character that Chan plays in most of his films, to the point where they just went ahead and started calling the character "Jackie" when they got around to the American releases of First Strike and Operation Condor. He's an everyman -- cut from the same cloth as John McClane in Die Hard -- except that he has the ability to beat the living hell out of anyone using kung fu, which is handy because pretty much every man would like to think he could do the same.
The first thing his character in Rumble does after he gets off the plane in the Bronx -- or a reasonably Canadian facsimile thereof -- is go into a fugue state when he sees his uncle's training dummy, doing kung fu at it with a speed and precision that let you know immediately what his capabilities are. And if there any doubt remained, it's removed fifteen minutes later in the movie's first fight, when he takes on four gang members and just demolishes them.
This is the fight that establishes not just what Jackie can do, but that he's the only person who can do it by stepping between the criminals and the people that are afraid of them, perfectly establishing him as the hero. But more importantly, it's also the last time in the movie that Jackie has a fight that seems effortless.
That's the genius of Chan's movies. Even though you know it's Jackie Chan and that he's going to win, there's never a moment where you don't believe that he's in danger. Why? Because he acts like he's in danger. And it's not just that he gets hit, it's that he hurts his hand while punching someone and dodges out of the way of a speeding truck, only to have the rear-view mirror snap off on his shoulder. Jackie Chan is a character for whom every single action has a consequence.
That makes his decision to stand up to his enemies seems even more heroic than a character like Tony Jaa in Ong Bak, who stomps through crowds of enemies without ever breaking a sweat. Even the gag reels under the credits, where we often see Jackie-The-Real-Person getting hurt while attempting Jackie-the-Character's stunts, help reinforce his fallibility. It also lends a sense of danger in his fights, which makes even a goofy street gang from a weird, Christmas-light fantasyland version of
Vancouver the Bronx seem threatening.
That's another important element to the formula: Jackie's always outnumbered. It's a pretty common trope in action movies, and martial arts movies in particular, but Chan stages that it in a way that's unique to how his characters work.
There's a scene in The Protector, for intstance -- the Tony Jaa movie from 2005 where he attempts to find elephant by kicking people in the head, not the Jackie Chan flop from the '80s -- where a bunch of dudes are just running on screen and being brutally taken down. The whole thing takes like five minutes, and ends with Tony Jaa just standing in the middle of this huge pile of dudes with shattered bones:
It's a hell of a scene to watch, and as a showcase of Jaa's skills as a martial artist, it's great. There's even a lot of fun to be had in seeing just how long it goes on before it finally ends. But there's no tension to it. You know from the first opponent going down in a broken heap that it's exactly what's going to be happening to the rest of those jabronis.
With Chan, however, being outnumbered presents a pretty huge problem, because it's already been established through that he's not invulnerable. He has incredible abilities, yes, and he can take on four men at once with no trouble, but five? Ten? A dozen? After being worn down by previous fights? That has tension.
And it's why he spends a good chunk of his time running away.
Chan's action sequences are set pieces rather than just pure fights, full of thrilling escapes and characters scrambling to find any advantage that could help them survive. Rumble even goes so far as to show that literally jumping off of a building will give Jackie a better chance of survival than actually fighting against a mob of thugs.
They're also set pieces that keep growing, bringing you something new every time. The fight against four people becomes a fight against an entire gang, which then becomes a fight against an even more evil criminal organization. A one-on-one fight in the gang's clubhouse gives way to an all-out brawl using skis, bottles, refrigerator doors and pinball machines as weapons, which then leads to a man fighting a hovercraft with a sword.
The one thing I respect about Chan's work more than anything else is his dedication to doing something new every time he's on the screen. There's no denying that movies like Supercop and First Strike and Operation Condor and even Legend of the Drunken Master are built from a formula. Rumble in the Bronx is especially guilty on that front: It's not just an introduction to Jackie Chan and his style and that same character he always plays, but it throws in his frequent costars Bill Tung and Anita Mui -- who is fantastic -- for good measure. I mean really, if you can only see one Jackie Chan movie, you might as well make it this one, because it's got it all.
And if you do watch his other movies, you'll probably see the same character you're familiar with, but they never waste time showing you something you've seen before. They build a story around that character that allows him to explore something new, without compromising what's already made them great.
And that's why it's a better movie than Superman Returns.
In a lot of ways, Superman Returns was in the same situation of being a reintroduction of a character to the American movie audience, but everywhere that Rumble went right, Returns went wrong.
Rather than making something that was accessible to new audiences, they chose to do a sequel to a movie from 26 years earlier that also ignored that movie's two sequels.
Rather than building a story around a character that explored what was great about him, they hammered a character into a story that saw Superman abandoning Earth for five years with nothing to show for it, that focused on a relationship between fathers and sons rather than on Superman himself.
Rather than showing a hero that struggled, endured and triumphed and where violence had consequences, they showed a Superman who solves his problems by throwing a giant rock into space (while it has people on it) and a kid who crushes a man with a piano and then experiences no consequences at all.
Rather than a hero who's a central figure who is the only one who can stand up to a threat, they chose to give Superman, their protagonist, a rival who outshines him by being more heroic and willing to risk harm to save the person he loves. They even make him more dedicated to Lois Lane, which is essentially like having Maid Marian end up with Friar Tuck's nephew.
Rather than attempting to do something new and exciting that we'd never seen before, they steep themselves in nostalgia so deeply that it's the second movie that revolves around Lex Luthor trying to pull off a real estate scheme.
And that's just how it sucks when you compare it to Rumble in the Bronx. There's decent stuff about it. Brandon Routh was actually a good Superman saddled with an awful movie, and the same goes for Kevin Spacey's Lex Luthor. The scene where Superman saves the space plane, the one thing that even people who hate that movie admit to liking, shows how good it could've been, but it also highlights the fact that it's the only scene in the movie that doesn't completely bury the character of Superman in an effort to recreate Superman '78.
And it would've been better with a hovercraft anyway.
That's all we have for this week, but if you've got a question you'd like to see Chris tackle in a future column, just send it to @theisb on Twitter with the hashtag #AskChris, or send an email to email@example.com with [Ask Chris] in the subject line!