Short Subjects

Jackie Chan is the Richard Clayderman of movie stars--he's popular all over the world, and a cult favorite even in this country, but for the mainstream American audience he needs a letter of introduction. For Clayderman, that letter was the TV ads for his albums; for Chan, star of dozens of martial-arts/comedy actioners from Hong Kong, it's Rumble in the Bronx, his first wide-release star vehicle in the U.S. (though he was a supporting player in both of The Cannonball Run films).

To some extent, Rumble in the Bronx is a scam. It's being touted as Jackie Goes to New York, but most of the picture was not shot in New York, but in Vancouver, British Columbia--and looks it.

It's also being touted as a Chan film in English, but most of the actors, including Chan and his two leading ladies, seem to be speaking Cantonese, and are dubbed as clumsily as in any chop-socky film you've ever seen. So the East-meets-West possibilities hinted at in the title go unexploited.

But Chan devotees may not mind Rumble's tacky margins; they may indeed see them as a sign of authenticity. And those new to Chan films will likely be too drop-jawed with amazement to notice anything but the star. His popularity is not for nothing--he has the grace of a dancer, the agility of an acrobat, the timing of a Mack Sennett clown and the warm, genial smile of a matinee idol. All this comes packaged in a relaxed, humorous, self-deprecating screen persona, with a Barnumesque sense of showmanship which drives him to perform some of the most hair-raising stunts in cinema history, always, supposedly, without benefit of a double.

Directed by Stanley Tong--the Hong Kong action veteran who helmed the terrific Chan vehicle Police Story 3: Super Cop--Rumble finds Chan coming to the Bronx to attend his uncle's wedding, and somehow running afoul of, first, a street gang, and then the mob. The plot has a jumbled, chaotic feel, like a kids' game of cops and robbers, but the audience with whom I saw the picture was howling too loudly at Chan's hilarious, breathtaking, dazzlingly choreographed antics to follow the story closely anyway. The pauses for talk between the set-piece brawls are of no more importance to a film like this than the bits of talk between songs in a musical.

City Hall: Directed by Harold Becker; with Al Pacino, John Cusack, Bridget Fonda, Danny Aiello, David Paymer, Martin Landau, Tony Franciosa and Richard Gant. Rated R.

Okay, so in Rumble in the Bronx you get to see Jackie Chan leap from building to building, over wide alleys and defeat scores of foes single-handedly. But for a New York movie with some real improbabilities, try City Hall. Here is some of what we are asked to swallow:

A middle-aged, Greek-American mayor of the Big Apple (Al Pacino) has a young deputy mayor from--get ready--Louisiana. Hizzoner Pacino met this kid--get ready--three years ago at some function in D.C. and handed him this plum job.

Ken Lipper, the former deputy to Ed Koch who wrote the original draft of City Hall, is a native of the Bronx. The best theory of why Lipper, or some member of the salvage team--Bo Goldman, Paul Schrader and Nicholas Pileggi--brought in to work over the script, chose to give his young hero this background is to relate the story to All the King's Men (the kid's dialogue is full of references to Huey Long). If so, it was a bad idea. The makers of Dunston Checks In didn't struggle to remind their audience of King Kong.

The plot has the Noo Yawk Louisianan (played rather sheepishly by John Cusack) probing a scandal that involves the stray-bullet killing of a black child because he suspects that it may lead back to his boss. Yeah, right, just what a deputy mayor would do.

At the film's beginning, swift, urgent scenes seem to capture some of the turbulence one imagines must go on within the title edifice. City Hall doesn't hit a real groaner until the mayor, against the advice of his staff, decides to speak at the black kid's funeral. Not only does he speak, he wins the hearts and minds of the congregation with a dynamic, gospel-style rant about his Periclean vision for his city.

From this scene on, the film quickly slides into silliness. Now and then, director Harold Becker (of the superb 1979 drama The Onion Field) makes a wan effort to generate a bit of suspense by showing Cusack, sometimes in the company of a bored-looking Bridget Fonda, bustling about looking for clues.

The supporting characters would be overrated by the term "cliche." David Paymer, as the mayor's mensch of a chief of staff, wears a yarmulke, can judge at a glance how "kosher" a city document is, and is named--get ready--"Abe Goodman."

The real raison d'etre of the film is to provide a showcase role for Pacino. His performance is indeed showy, but it's also heavy, unreadable and, at times, embarrassing. The actor's essential brilliance is unmistakable, but so is his inability to get a grip on the role.

But who could? Even the writers don't have the nerve to make this mayor either a buffoon or a villain. Based on the film's content, he's either one or both. Yet it seems that somehow we're being asked to see him as he sees himself--a lonely, heroic figure. So, what could have been a fast, funny, down-and-dirty dish of city politics is instead a startlingly sanctimonious, sentimental and pompous melodrama of self-justification.

A few quick notes: Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision, Frieda Lee Mock's documentary portrait of the designer of the Vietnam War Memorial, among other stirring (and controversial) public works, plays this week at Valley Art Theatre in Tempe.

The film version of Clifton Taulbert's novel Once Upon a Time ... When We Were Colored, the directorial debut of actor Tim Reid, will have a single screening at Harkins Cine Capri at 7 p.m. Tuesday. The cost of tickets--$50--is steep, but it's a benefit for the Special Friends Program of Arizona Planned Parenthood, and Reid is scheduled to attend. (More info: 277-7526.)--M. V. Moorhead

Rumble in the Bronx:
Directed by Stanley Tong; with Jackie Chan, Bill Tung and Anita Mui.
Rated

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