Film Reviews

Wham! Bam! Thank You, Chan!

It's no secret that the "new" Jackie Chan releases in the U.S. aren't really new at all. In fact, they're not even showing up in chronological order: While New Line is issuing Chan's more current stuff in order, Miramax is putting out the star's relatively recent back catalogue out of order.

In 1996, we got to see Rumble in the Bronx (really 1995) and Supercop (1992); earlier this year was First Strike (1996) and the (sadly) straight-to-video release of Crime Story (1993); next year, we'll most likely see A Nice Guy (1997) and Drunken Master II (1994). The current Operation Condor is the oldest of the batch, having been originally released in Asia and to Chinese theaters in the States as Armour of God II: Operation Condor in early 1991.

With the exception of an occasional dramatic outing (such as Crime Story), Chan always plays some variation of the same character--which is why he is called "Jackie" or even "Jackie Chan" in many of his films. In each major series, he simply puts that character in a different milieu: The Drunken Master movies are traditional period martial arts; the two parts of Project A are turn-of-the-century urban Hong Kong; the Police Story films (including Supercop) were contemporary policers, at least until First Strike, which strangely spun the series into James Bond turf; and the Armour of God movies are Indiana Jones knockoffs.

The first Armour of God (1986) was one of Chan's weakest '80s films; nonetheless, it was a huge hit, thus mandating an eventual sequel. (It's also notorious as the shoot on which Chan fell from a swinging vine, hit his head on a rock and nearly died.) Operation Condor is a much better piece of work.

Chan plays a world adventurer/secret agent code-named Condor. After a comic introductory sequence clearly mimicking (and deflating) Raiders of the Lost Ark, Condor is sent to North Africa to locate and retrieve 240 tons of gold hidden below the sands of the Sahara by a division of Rommel's North African army during the waning days of World War II.

For a variety of reasons--not the least of which is the film's international marketing strategy--Condor finds himself accompanied by three women: Ada (Carol "DoDo" Cheng), a beautiful Chinese expert in Nazi history; the Teutonic Elsa (Eva Cobo de Garcia), granddaughter of the general who hid the gold; and, eventually, Momoko (Ikeda Shoko), a young Japanese hitchhiker with a pet scorpion.

The details of the plot are, as usual, unimportant. What is important is a series of inspired action, comedy and action/comedy sequences culminating with the justifiably famous wind-tunnel fight, which was almost certainly inspired by the tornado sequence in Buster Keaton's Steamboat Bill Jr.

Operation Condor is unquestionably silly, and its heroines are a worse bunch of screaming ninnies than in any Bond film. (Despite Hong Kong cinema's tradition of strong martial-arts heroines, Chan is a bit, well, old-fashioned in this regard. The Michelle Yeoh character in Supercop was a singular exception to the helpless, squealing femmes in his movies.) But the inspiration of the slapstick and acrobatics is at a higher level than most of Chan's more recent efforts; if your favorite scene in Rumble was the fight at the youth gang's hideout, you'll find plenty more of the same here.

Besides its sheer entertainment, Operation Condor is--officially, at least--mainstream American fans' first opportunity to see Chan's work as a Compleat Filmmaker. While it's long been acknowledged that nobody directs Chan as well as Chan, the three prior theatrical releases here were all directed by the star's protege, Stanley Tong; the video-released Crime Story was made by Kirk Wong. Condor--the last film on which Chan took a directing credit--is the first of Chan's official directorial efforts to get a wide release here. I say "official" because Chan is a notorious perfectionist; he sometimes claims that his directors are basically assistants doing his bidding; and he is known to have taken over and reshot much of Drunken Master II from nominal director Liu Chia-Liang.

As with Supercop, Miramax has not only dubbed and provided new music and sound effects, mostly superior to those in the H.K. version, but also has trimmed the film by roughly 15 minutes. As before, Miramax's cutting is largely more sensitive than New Line's. Most of the cuts are relatively unimportant, involving nonessential plot exposition: For instance, an early sequence introducing two of the women was not only pointless but also absurdly coincidental.

Still, there are two regrettable omissions. A very funny comic scene in the desert, in which the three women's attempts to partake of Chan's hidden water stash is misinterpreted by their captors as an orgy, has been wholly cut out. And the wind-tunnel scene has been trimmed by perhaps two minutes. In two cases, these trims disrupt the building of extended jokes.

It is either ironic or sad that Chan's American success has come so late in his career that even Miramax's older releases aren't his very best. While Supercop, Condor and Crime Story are better than Chan's more recent films, they still don't stand up to Drunken Master II or to the extraordinary run of hits he made in the mid to late '80s. What people really need to see, to appreciate Chan's genius, are Police Story, the two Project A titles, and some of the comedies Samo Hung directed for Chan. Those would silence even those who have yet resisted his appeal.

Operation Condor
Directed by Jackie Chan; with Jackie Chan and Edward Tang.