Earlier this week, Jackie Chan was on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert. The entire interview was charming (as Jackie Chan interviews tend to be), but the highlight was when the 63-year-old actor talked about the transition he’s been secretly working toward over the past two decades. He explained how, when he finally gets around to being too old to believably punch and kick people anymore (in, like, 40 years from now, is my guess), he wants for people to accept him as a non-action actor. That’s why, slowly, over the past 20 years, he’s plotted to wiggle his way toward roles that allow him to be more and more dramatic, which is how he ended up in The Foreigner, a movie where punching and kicking take place, definitely, but also one where the exhibition of his talent for those things is not the entire point of it (like, say, Police Story or Rumble in the Bronx).
(A quick aside: Him revealing this was, at least to me, a remarkable revelation. Rush Hour, which was the first big American movie he’d done, came out in 1998. Him deciding to do that movie to baby-step his way toward a non-fighting-based action movie career in his older age is just incredible foresight and a good peek into how someone who is arguably more beloved and revered now than maybe he’s ever been becomes so. At any rate ...)
In The Foreigner, Chan plays Quan, a restaurant owner whose daughter gets killed during a bombing in London, and let me stop right there and tell you why this article even exists: We have never gotten to see this version of Jackie Chan before. Never. Not ever. The closest we’ve come—and this is going to sound so dumb if you’ve not seen the movie, but the closest we’ve ever gotten is Mr. Han, his character from the 2010 remake of The Karate Kid.
In The Karate Kid, Han also had a child who died, except in that movie it was Han’s fault (Han crashed a car he was driving; his wife and his son were killed but he survived, and it haunted him terribly) so there was no one to chase after in an attempt to extract vengeance. So he was heartbroken there, and, to that point, we’d also never seen Heartbroken Jackie Chan, but it ended up manifesting itself in that teacher-student mentor relationship he had with Dre, so it felt familiar even though it was new. Essentially, he was Heartbroken But Still Kind Jackie Chan, and for an easy example of that you can just watch that scene where he ends up having to fight the bullies who are picking on Dre, but he manages to do so without ever hitting any of them himself, just tricking them into hitting each other. (Just so we’re all on the record here: If a group of kids and early teens tries to jump me, I am absolutely punching each and every single one of them right square in the jaw.)
In The Foreigner, however, there are guilty parties responsible, and so Chan’s Quan, who we find out later is a retired highly trained military person, spends all of his energies chasing them down, and doing so in devastating fashion. I want you to picture that for a moment. Jackie Chan, who, whenever he’s been presented with the prospect of a fight in his past movies, has either tried to (a) avoid it entirely, or (b) end it by, like, putting a bucket on a bad guy’s head and then kicking him onto a couch or whatever. Now, all of a sudden he’s just like, “You’re going to tell me the names of the people who set off the bomb that killed my daughter, or I’m going to blow up your car with you inside of it.” That’s just generally incredible, but also it’s specifically interesting. We finally got Deadly Jackie Chan, which is a thing I thought we would never ever get from him. I mean, even if you just jump back the 20 years that Chan mentioned in that Colbert interview and walk forward from there through his movies, I don’t think you could talk yourself into believing we were headed toward a movie where we ended up with Deadly Jackie Chan in 2017.
In the Rush Hour series (Rush Hour, Rush Hour 2, Rush Hour 3), where he played an amicable but steady cop alongside Chris Tucker, he was Considerate But Determined Jackie Chan. (By Rush Hour 2, you could argue that he’d fully morphed into Considerate But Determined And Funny Jackie Chan, although I would definitely like to point out that even the wonderfully lovable Chan was not able to pull off the “Bitch-slap you back to Africa” line.) In the Shanghai series—which consists of Shanghai Noon and Shanghai Knights, and also somehow a third one that’s just been announced called Shanghai Dawn, and I don’t mind telling you I am already very excited for Shanghai Dusk, Shanghai Brunch, and Shanghai Mid-Morning—where he played a Chinese Imperial Guard (his name was Chon Wang) (get it?), he was Polite But Focused Jackie Chan. (In Shanghai Knights, he was even tasked with avenging his murdered father’s death and couldn’t get anywhere within even a mile of that same dark space he occupies in The Foreigner.) In almost all of the kids movies he’s in (Around the World in 80 Days, The Tuxedo, the Kung Fu Panda series, The Spy Next Door, etc.) he’s some strain of Noble If Not Unexpected Hero Jackie Chan.
In Dragon Blade, which is my favorite bad Jackie Chan movie, he played an exiled general in a lot of eye makeup, and the only part of that movie you need to know about is the scene where he fights John Cusack, because it contains the legit worst start of any fight in any movie I’ve ever watched. Just watch the first 25 seconds of this clip:
What you’re looking at there is Phoning It In Jackie Chan, and it’s the only time in any of the 50 or so Jackie Chan movies I’ve watched where I saw him be that version of himself. (For what it’s worth, Adrien Brody played the bad guy in Dragon Blade, and I think somebody forget to tell him that nobody else was trying, because he was fucking 100 percent serious in it.)
There’s a common layup joke to be made here about how the best movies of Chan’s career were the ones that he did before that 20-years-ago period when he said he started trying to transition to more substantial roles, and I don’t think that’s entirely incorrect. The Legend of Drunken Master came out in 1994, Police Story came out 1985, Supercop came out in 1992 (this is such a great name for a 1992 action movie), Mr. Nice Guy came out in 1997, so on and so forth. But, more and more, and especially with The Foreigner, it feels like that might be an argument rooted in nostalgia and athletic awe more than anything else. Because Deadly Jackie Chan is an excellent version of Jackie Chan.