One thing I’m noticing about Jackie Chan’s choreography: he keeps his own unscripted mistakes on-screen. Obviously, there are many that can’t be kept – the unintentional hits and misses highlighted in the painful gag reels he shares during the credits. Yet when Jackie starts a kick too early and has to adjust, or adds a needless extra step or miscued move, he’ll keep it. These are minor imperfections, corrections, and hesitations, but there are enough of them to give his choreography – for all its acrobatics and complexity – an everyman feel.
Here’s what makes it work: he doesn’t keep the unscripted mistakes of the actors who play his villains. They represent an unassailable perfection, intimidating because they don’t miss a step. This reflects a concept often associated with Buddhism, and reflected through many Eastern martial arts, including the Southern kung fu, hapkido, and taekwondo in which Jackie specializes.
The idea is that perfection is something that can only be achieved for a moment. The very second you reach it is the very second you lose it. In accomplishing perfection, it now takes on a different meaning, because you can always go beyond something you’ve accomplished. Life is the pursuit of perfection, a constant moving of the goalposts further and further down the field. True mastery over anything is in realizing and understanding that you cannot master it, but rather let it flow through you. Thus, to consciously realize you are doing something perfectly is to become too aware of it; perfection slips away when recognized.
It’s a philosophy repeated throughout many kung fu films, but few choreographies represent this better than Jackie’s. His characters again and again are flawed, extraordinarily acrobatic one moment and tripping over themselves the next. Their techniques can rarely match up against those of his villains – it’s only through creativity, adaptation, and indomitable spirit that he can match them. It inverts the classic Western superhero trope – that heroes have to win all the time, and villains only have to win once. In Jackie Chan films, the onus is reversed. Since villains win all the time, it’s the heroes who only have to win once. Jackie’s opponents aren’t the villains he fights; his opponent is the perfection they embody.
It is the most often overlooked key to Jackie’s success – no matter how many times we’ve seen a Jackie Chan film, no matter how many times we’ve seen him win in the end, his kung fu is filled with so many holes and imperfections that we can never be absolutely sure it will defeat the taller, more limber, more technically perfect martial artists opposite him. Cinematically, it’s a lesson learned from Charlie Chaplin, who Jackie credits as one of his greatest influences – to root for the underdog, you’ve got to believe he really could lose.
This works because it transforms the fight into something we can understand. None of us can do the things Jackie Chan can do, so why make us root for him to do them well? There’s no tension there; we know how talented Jackie is and that he’ll always win that last fight. But we’re never asked to root for him to win. We’re asked to root for him to overcome himself in order to do it. Winning is secondary.
That personal challenge, surpassing your own capabilities, achieving that fleeting moment when you don’t master the moment at hand, but rather let it flow through you – that’s what we’re cheering for. We know how hard it is to overcome ourselves. It’s the most constant, difficult, and frightening challenge in life. Because it’s the fight we so rarely win, it’s the fight we can never be sure Jackie will win. Beating someone up – we know Jackie Chan can do that in his sleep. Overcoming ourselves…that can only be achieved for a moment. Every time we accomplish it, it takes on a different meaning, because there will always be something in yourself to overcome.
It’s what makes Jackie Chan’s choreography so universal, so meaningful. The acrobatics and flips, leaping off buildings and running up walls, are astounding, yes. Yet he’s made a career not of fighting villains, but of fighting himself and his limits in the same way we all fight ourselves and our limits. That’s why he’s transcended cultures. It doesn’t matter what language he’s speaking, we all know that fight when we see it. It’s the one that scares us the most, and it’s the one he faces for us over and over again. In that way, he demonstrated first to Hong Kong and then to a world of fans – very few of whom can leap off buildings or run up walls – how to surpass their own limitations and fears. He hasn’t pursued a career of being perfect. He’s pursued a career of being imperfect.
Since those limits and fears win all the time, we just have to win once. Then we find new limits, new fears, the goalposts move, and we start over again, better than we thought we could be yesterday.