Tag Archives: Jackie Chan

Fight Scene Friday — Yukari Oshima

by Gabriel Valdez

Arguably the most successful karate-based martial artist on film, Yukari Oshima ought to be thought of in the same breath as Jackie Chan. So let’s watch the time Chan choreographed Oshima in Outlaw Brothers.

If none of the female-led Hong Kong films of the 80s and 90s were funded as well, or marketed as broadly, as those of the men, Oshima at least stood the test of time. Half-Japanese and half-Chinese, she was able to act in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan, and – once studios largely closed out the “girls with guns” genre – she shifted into a successful career in Filipino action movies and TV as Cynthia Luster.

Oshima’s foundation is a form of karate called Goju-ryu, or “hard-soft style.” Its technique focuses on blocking with a soft body that can accept blows and striking with a hard form that mixes straight-ahead and indirect, rounded attacks in equal measure. This forces an opponent into the defensive as they have to defend more space.

The end fight of Outlaw Brothers (one of her Hong Kong films) stands out particularly well in Oshima’s career. Paired as she often was opposite Frankie Chan, the two face off – and switch face offs a third of the way through – with Jeff Falcon (armed with a fan) and Mark Houghton (armed with a sword). Jackie Chan served as a guest choreographer for the fight between Oshima and Falcon and in martial arts films, the choreographer often choreographs the camera, too. You can tell Jackie Chan’s style instantly – opponents squared to each other, the camera focusing on 90 degree two shots, 60-degree over-the-shoulder shots of the opposite performer, and close-ups to feature the performer’s expression. The beauty of Jackie Chan’s style is that he choreographs and shoots as if filming a conversation, not a fight.

Directors often stressed Oshima’s gymnastic abilities; she was able to mix strikes, cartwheels, and splits together in a way no other performer could. Of course, this also served the sometimes-exploitative elements of the girls with guns genre as well, but take a look at Book of Heroes (a Taiwanese film) for how choreographers who really let Oshima loose were able to mix her gymnastics skills into her choreography:

Oshima worked often with another performer we’ve featured: Moon Lee, whose style mixed kickboxing and taekwondo into the genre’s more classical kung fu choreographies. Lee’s harder, fast-paced style and knack for stuntwork, paired with Oshima’s softer, more indirect style and gymnastic ability, helped create some of the best – and most unfortunately forgotten – choreographies in martial arts movie history. We’ll feature the two as a pair down the road.

Fight Scene Friday — “Iron Angels 2”

by Gabriel Valdez

Female martial artists have rarely had the opportunities of their male counterparts. Even when Hong Kong saw the rise of the profitable “girls with guns” genre, producers treated these like exploitation films. Women performed martial arts, yes, but they were also trotted around in various states of undress and often needed last-minute rescuing from the male lead. There was also a certain brutality toward women in the fights that wasn’t always shown toward the men.

The Iron Angels series, also known as Fighting Madam, Angel, or Midnight Angels, exemplified the best and worst traits of the genre. It established the genre as viable on a bigger scale while introducing defining female martial artists like Moon Lee and Yukari Oshima to many martial arts fans in the West who hadn’t seen their smaller, earlier films. When the first film proved successful, however, its 1988 sequel backseated the women in favor of focusing on the exploits of Nathan Chan.

It is noteworthy that this sequel was co-directed by Raymond Leung and Teresa Woo. Women (as in the U.S.) rarely direct in Hong Kong or Chinese cinema, but Woo was a writer/director who enjoyed brief success.

We’ll focus on that sequel here, but I’ll feature a great fight from the original down the road. I want to focus on Moon Lee today because her choreography reflects the blending of kung fu, taekwondo, and kickboxing that was taking place in Hong Kong cinema at the time. Jackie Chan had originally infused kung fu films with his zeal for risky stunts. For years, he had also been bringing in foreign martial artists in order to vary up his choreography and the skills of the opponents he faced.

What Jackie Chan did, everyone did. This blending of styles was becoming very popular and what we think of as older, more rigid “kung fu” choreographies could become repetitive to audiences on their own. Moon Lee was one of the best – male or female – in terms of shifting into choreographies heavily informed by stunt work and non-traditional, “post-modern” martial arts.

The best fight in the entire Iron Angels franchise takes place between Moon Lee and fight choreographer Yuen Tak. It’s a condensed, no-frills fight where the two go toe-to-toe after she beats the snot out of his Lieutenant. (You’ll also see Elaine Lui there right at the end.)

It’s a shame Moon Lee and her contemporaries are rarely thought of in the same way that Chan, Jet Li, or Donnie Yen are. They were just as skilled, but no one with influence was interested enough in pushing female-led films.

This didn’t really begin to happen until Jackie Chan saw Michelle Yeoh practicing choreography for his 1992 film Supercop, and he delayed production to have the entire film rewritten with her as his co-lead. And, as we know, what Jackie Chan did, everyone did. That’s not to say things are at all equal today, but a lot changed thanks to Yeoh pushing the boundaries with her talents and Chan realizing what he’d overlooked for so many years.

Moon Lee’s film career was finishing up by this point, though she would continue to enjoy success on television. Within the parameters of what the industry allowed at the time, her career was massively successful. It’s just a shame that this still means we rarely think of her today. In the fight scene above, you can see why we should.

Fight Scene Friday — “Wheels on Meals”

by Gabriel Valdez

We’re going to start a new Friday tradition here: Fight Scene Friday. Every Friday, a new fight scene to help start your weekend.

Er, best not to think of the example that sets.

To start: one of the best fight scenes ever put to film, from Jackie Chan’s 1984 film Wheels on Meals. That’s not mistranslated – after production company Golden Harvest suffered two big flops whose English titles started with the letter ‘M’, they demanded the film change its name. Instead of renaming Meals on Wheels, however, the wheels and meals switched places.

Wheels on Meals fits the often lighthearted nature of the film, though, and the film turned out to be a success. The plot in one line? Thomas (Jackie Chan) runs a food coach with his brother in Barcelona, Spain, but gets involved in an increasingly convoluted plot involving heiresses, gangs, and a kidnapping.

Why Barcelona? Unlike today, when foreign productions jump through hoops in order to film in China, 1980s and 90s Hong Kong martial arts productions shot anywhere but – especially in Europe. The idea was to prove themselves equal to the globe-trotting adventures James Bond and Indiana Jones were having for Britain and the United States. It was also a way to appeal to foreign audiences and to introduce Chinese audiences to wonders from elsewhere in the world.

This fight scene involves the legendary Chan and one of his favorite nemeses, Benny “the Jet” Urquidez, whose background in competitive kickboxing and karate contrasted to Chan’s looser stunt and kung fu training. Urquidez explodes from a tight core, while Chan is famous for his flow and reaction. Urquidez is also shorter than Chan (5’6″ compared to 5’9″). This wasn’t often the case when villains were cast opposite Chan, especially as Chan developed an underdog comedic style that demanded visually imposing villains. Here, it all helps allow for an incredibly fast, no-frills choreography between the two.

One of the most famous details from this fight is a kick by Urquidez that blows out the flames on several candles. The original shot was meant to continue watching through the flames – Urquidez’s kick was simply so fast that it blew out the candles. They wisely decided to keep the detail.

If you’ve got quick eyes, you’ll notice two slightly jarring cuts in this video – the Chan-Urquidez fight is spliced together in the movie with another sequence involving separate characters. That other sequence is removed here and it lets you enjoy the Chan and Urquidez face-off uninterrupted.

Enjoy! We’ll continue featuring a new fight scene every Friday, sneaking in some choreography notes and a little film history where we can.

P.S. Vanessa Tottle has asked me to add a note that Jackie Chan was really hot in the 80s.

Who Is the Next Jackie Chan — By Friends of the Blog

Jackie Chan Legend of Drunken Master

I went out and asked various writers a loaded question: Who is the next Jackie Chan? It’s tricky because, like Charlie Chaplin, Gene Kelly, or the Highlander, there can be only one. His skills are too unique to duplicate. I was just as interested in what Jackie Chan means to different viewers, and who might best embody those meanings going forward. Without further ado:

STEPHEN CHOW
by Simon Scher

Who is the next Jackie Chan? To answer this we must first ask, who was the last Jackie Chan? When he first burst onto the international stage, his high-flying kung fu action and peerless speed were instantly compared to the father of international martial arts media, Bruce Lee. Chan did not hit the big time until after the death of Lee. So it would be hard to identify the next Jackie Chan until he too passes on or stops making amazing martial arts movies.

It has been said that Jet Li or Jason Scott Lee would fill the role, but though they are amazing martial artists with comparable skill and speed to both Chan and Bruce Lee, Jackie is still holding his spot while Jet and Jason are moving past their prime. I do not doubt that there will be another in the succession of Bruce Lee to Jackie Chan, but I do not believe he has yet made an appearance on the silver screen.

There are a number of young, talented Chinese Wushu stars simmering in the Hong Kong cinematic forge just waiting to make their way into Western cinema – perhaps it will be one of them. A strong but doubtful case can be made for Tony Jaa, but I don’t think he has the range or mass appeal to fill the slot. It will have to be a martial artist with range, language skills, and something innovative that takes the genre to a new level and in a different direction as both Bruce and Jackie did. If I had to pick somebody to pin my hopes on I would name Stephen Chow for his innovative approach to martial arts cinema, his amazing skills, and his sense of comedic and dramatic timing.

Simon Scher runs Northampton Martial Arts in Northampton, Massachusetts. He is a regular contributor to Black Belt Magazine, the biggest martial arts movie buff I know, and holds a sixth-degree black belt in Taekwondo.

JEEJA YANIN
by Himura Sachiko

Having already shot one of the best martial arts sequences in recent history, Jeeja Yanin is my pick. I enjoy her work because her background is in Taekwondo, very close to my training, but she is choreographed in Muay Thai films. As a technician, she is perfect. Her kicks are some of the most complete I have ever seen. She over-rotates every one of them, which adds power, but she does so without losing control, balance, or speed.

Her style is a controlled lack of control, which speaks of true mastery and reminds me of Jackie Chan’s abilities. He was so perfect he could afford to be imperfect. Yanin also has Chan’s streak for the kooky, striking poses and involving dance in some of her roles. Ever since I first saw her in Chocolate, she has been my idol in my own training. She is also no stranger to insane stunt scenes.

My single worry is that she’s taking time off to have a baby. It is a wonderful decision and I congratulate her on starting a family, but time off has never helped a martial arts star grow. The man who laid the groundwork for her in Thai cinema, Tony Jaa, took time away and came back a shade of his former self, making films to cash in on his name but without the remaining skills to match.

Himura Sachiko is a business owner living in Osaka, Japan. She has a black belt in Shotokan Karate.

IKO UWAIS
by Justine Baron

Jackie Chan is a martial arts legend who has graced the screen for over 50 years. Chan has managed to stand out from other martial artists by adopting his own style of light hearted comedy mixed with martial arts. He took roles like that of Wong Fei-Hung in Drunken Master, Dragon Ma in Project A, and Chan Ka Kui in the Police Story movies, to name a few of my personal favorites. He was, and still is, the quintessential example of an entertainer.

His first really successful English-speaking role was that of Keung in Rumble in the Bronx, which was a Hong Kong-made movie that was filmed in the U.S. with the intent of introducing him to Western audiences. This is where a lot of Americans, including myself, became familiarized with the man who would become a huge star outside of his home country, China. Rumble in the Bronx is actually the first movie of Chan’s that I’ve ever seen.

Not only that, but Jackie Chan was the first martial artist I’ve ever seen period. I was only about 7-years-old at the time and didn’t know who other martial artists like Bruce Lee were and, to be honest, I probably wouldn’t have cared at that age. Jackie Chan was fun to watch. He was funny, talented, and charismatic – all the qualities that would appeal to a younger, as well as older, generation. I further enjoyed watching him in other Hollywood movies like Rush Hour and Shanghai Noon. Now that I’m older, though, I prefer a lot of his Hong Kong films to his American ones. He has made over 100 films in his career. As I continue to discover more and more of his movies, I just become more impressed with his performances and the stunts that he can pull off. Jackie Chan was the man who introduced me to martial arts and, because of him, I have loved martial arts movies of all kinds ever since.

I think it goes without saying that there will never be another like Jackie Chan, and maybe that’s a good thing. However, there is one other martial artist who has really caught my eye in the past few years, and that is the up-and-coming Indonesian actor Iko Uwais from The Raid movies. This guy has impressed me so much with his abilities to not only choreograph amazing fight scenes and perform his own stunts, but also to execute the choreography so perfectly, I oftentimes find myself rewinding scenes and watching them again because I can’t believe what I’m seeing. This guy has been practicing Pencak Silat since he was 10-years-old, competing in tournaments and winning titles. No doubt the intensity of his fight scenes is partly due to the amazing style of the director who discovered him back in 2007, Gareth Evans. Together, they make movies with some of the most skillful, hard hitting action I’ve ever seen. They have managed to completely alter my taste in action movies.

That’s not to say there aren’t other martial artists and martial arts movies that I absolutely love, but it’s the work of Iko Uwais that has really stuck with me in recent years. Even after the success of movies like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon – which I did enjoy – that shows how wire fu can be used beautifully, artistically, and performed almost like a ballet, I still prefer the wireless, raw, bloody, bone-crunching action given to us by Uwais. Call me weird, it’s OK. In my opinion, there’s already a ton of violence in movies in general, so if you’re going to watch a blood bath, why not enjoy a talented guy who can turn that into a well-choreographed blood bath? I am hoping that he will continue to make amazing martial arts movies for years to come, and be able to keep taking martial arts films to the next level.

He may not have the same kind of appeal as Jackie Chan, and that’s OK. In my opinion, he’s great at what he does, and that’s enough for me to wish that he has a long-lived, successful career.

Justine Baron sometimes works as a freelance production assistant on films and commercials. She has a passion for movies, and she puts her B.A. in English and Film to use by writing about movies in her free time at Justine’s Movie Blog.

YAYAN RUHIAN
by Vanessa Tottle

Leave it to me to pick the bad guy, but Yayan Ruhian is my favorite martial artist to watch. I’ve seen three of his films now, including the two Raid movies, all Indonesian movies directed by Gareth Huw Evans. It’s not odd to work with the same director over and over again; most martial arts stars stick with one until they have the cachet to control their image working in unfamiliar environments.

Yayan also choreographed those films, with Iko Uwais. In The Raid, Yayan plays the enforcer Mad Dog. He fights as if killing someone is a religious experience, an addiction of the soul. He is powerful. In The Raid 2, he plays the assassin Prakoso. He may as well be called Stray Dog. Murder is the only trade he knows, the only thing he’s good at. He is desperate and sad. In both, he brings an animal quality I’ve never seen before. He throws himself into fights with reckless abandon. He sometimes feels a step away from losing all control.

In both, he possesses a dramatic quality not always seen in action movies. This is what martial arts stars will need to display in the future. It’s not enough to just be a Jackie Chan anymore (except for Jackie Chan, of course). Or, for that matter, Arnold Schwarzenegger or Sylvester Stallone. Those days of rooting for actors and never knowing the characters’ name are over. You must be able to play a character inside a story now. While many martial artists can impress us in their action scenes, we will only remember those who impress us in quiet, emotional scenes as well.

It’s fitting that our next Jackie Chan might be an expert at playing villains, like a Silat master Gary Oldman. We live in a time of villains, of religious addict mad dogs and sad, stray dogs under thumb who know nothing else. The next Jackie Chan will speak to his time the way Chan did to his, and Yayan Ruhian speaks to this time in a way that terrifies and intrigues me.

Vanessa Tottle is earning her Ph.D. in vertebrate paleontology. She writes often for this site, and holds a black belt in Krav Maga.

NO ONE
by Chris Braak

Jackie Chan sat at the crossroads of a very particular combination of cultural factors – as a direct successor to Bruce Lee, whose influence helped change Hong Kong cinema from one that relied on elaborate special effects to one that focused much more on physical virtuosity; as an actor he sort of “broke through” in the U.S. in the 80s and 90s, when the kind of star-powered action vehicle was still going strong; and as a product of the Beijing Opera School, which taught a very performance-focused form of kung fu. And I’m not sure that this combination exists right now; American cinema is bifurcated between low-budget, very “acting” films and high-budget, elaborate-effects heavy movies, neither of which are geared to showcase (nor do they particularly require) the kind of virtuosity that Jackie Chan brought to his movies.

The star-powered vehicles are largely a thing of the past as well. It seems like Tom Cruise is maybe the last Hollywood star trying to work this way, and his movies aren’t doing so well; even the lower-budget martial arts stars are either abandoning that kind of movie (Jason Statham, for example, just doesn’t seem interested in them right now) or never quite made it with American audiences (David Belle is in his forties, now, and past his prime; Tony Jaa never seemed to catch on, and seriously I did my part, I saw Ong Bak in the theaters; who else? Stephen Chow seems to have abandoned the martial-arts-star movie.)

The kinds of actors who are working now as martial arts stars in the U.S. are either second-string, low profile guys (like Scott Adkins) or they’re old.

So where would the new crop of actors come from? Well, the thing is that there is nothing like the Beijing Opera School in the U.S. or any of the Anglophone nations where we get our actors (England, Australia, Canada). Nothing. And while that doesn’t mean we couldn’t get Asian actors with the kind of background in both performance and spinning flip-kicks if we wanted, it does govern the kind of movies that actors are drawn to, and thus the kind of movies that get made, and I think this is going to crowd out the virtuoso-martial artist movie, and therefore crowd out the virtuoso martial artists.

Furthermore, we’ve got to accept that American movies don’t select for virtuosity. “Martial arts” provides the background for a lot of actors’ workout routines, sure, but those are exactly what they sound like: workout routines. They’re about building big muscles and washboard abs, not developing that kind of grace and agility that only being sold to the Beijing Opera when you’re 12 years old and spending your formative years leaping over tables and whacked with bamboo sticks can provide. This is both limiting, in terms of what those actors are going to do onscreen, and also antithetical to the essential nature of kung fu: “cosmetic” kung fu is not kung fu at all.

In my opinion, we’re not in a place right now in American cinema that’s got room for a new Jackie Chan. I think we might be ripe for it, definitely I would be in favor of a new wave of popular, virtuoso martial arts movies; I expect they’re going to have to come from somewhere other than the U.S., though, and I don’t see anything quite like that on the horizon.

Chris Braak is a writer at Threat Quality Press. He practices Hung Gar style kung fu. His new play, Empress of the Moon: The Lives of Aphra Behn, will open at the Capital Fringe Festival in Washington, D.C. in July.

NO ONE…WAIT, NO, SOMEONE!
by Carter Churchfield

Many people name martial artists like Jet Li, to which I respond NOOOOO! You are missing the point if you consider actors like him. Jackie Chan is comedic, his predecessors were Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, not Bruce Lee. One of his contemporaries was Chris Farley. People are so blown away with Jackie Chan’s agility and physicality that they don’t make the connection that he is doing slapstick comedy. The Question becomes who is doing advanced slapstick these days, and I can’t think of anyone on this side of the pond. That’s my two cents.

[After asking Carter if there was anyone popularizing martial arts films the way Jackie Chan did as a director, she did add the following. -Gabe]

How about the Wachowskis? Sci-fi/kung fu crossovers weren’t common until after The Matrix.

Carter Churchfield is a tour guide/jack of all trades/international mercenary who is a horror aficionado/famed pigeon wrestler/diamond smuggler. She doesn’t know it, but it’s a high school performance of hers that got me interested in theatre and filmmaking in the first place.

GINA CARANO
by S. L. Fevre

12-1-1 record in professional Muay Thai. 7-1 record in MMA (undefeated against fighters who didn’t get suspended for steroids). Here’s her debut. All 38 seconds of it. Arguably the best stand-up fighter MMA’s had, man or woman. One of the only actors who began her career as a competitive fighter. When she was filming a fight scene for Haywire, Michael Fassbender slammed her head into a wall too hard. She retaliated by breaking a vase over his million dollar face. (He told MTV he could tell it was coming a second before it happened, and that’s when he knew it would be a great fight scene.)

Cause I’ve met cats who hit harder than actors like Chris Pine and Zoe Saldana and there’s a plague of mainstream actors who think a few weeks of training make them look like secret agents. Carano’s knocked people out and she’s been knocked out. When she kicks someone in the head, I can believe she just gave them a concussion.

S. L. Fevre is an actress, model, and martial arts movie fan who lives in California. She kickboxes for fitness.

MICHAEL JAI WHITE
by Kyle Price-Livingston

With the concurrent rise of superhero movies and Mixed Martial Arts, audience expectations for martial arts films have changed. Where once we looked for grace, speed, and agility, we now seek bone-shattering strength and brutality. The Jackie Chan of the future will need to demonstrate a mean uppercut, a working knowledge of submission holds and the self-confidence necessary to wear tights without embarrassment.

There is, to my mind, only one actor who can currently pull that off: Michael Jai White. At 46, White is perhaps a bit old to be considered “the next” anything, but he works consistently, looks the part, and even plays the Jackie Chan role in Skin Trade, an upcoming film which is basically a photo-negative of Rush Hour. He is, at the very least, the prototype for the next generation of martial arts stars.

All you need to know about Kyle Price-Livingston is that he’s the sort of guy who – when he posts about giving a chipmunk CPR – you think about it for a second, consider to whom it happened, and figure, “Yeah, that’s reasonable.”

ZHANG ZIYI
by Gabe Valdez

Insofar as his unique physical performance and comedic presence, there is no next Jackie Chan. It’s a ludicrous question, which is why all these fantastic writers have been so game in answering it. To me, the next Jackie Chan is someone with demonstrated box office appeal who uses his extent of unique training to bridge cultural gaps, to make social commentary on his own culture, and to further popularize martial arts films by making people look at them in a way they never have before. Having been baptized in fight choreography against the icons of the previous generation only helps his credibility.

There is only one answer for me: Zhang Ziyi. Proven box office, name appeal in the East and West. Like Jackie Chan, she was trained from youth in a separate field from martial arts (dance) that lends her a quality that’s unique from every other martial arts actor on film. As anyone who’s seen Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; House of Flying Daggers; or The Grandmaster can attest, she has a dramatic ability most actors – martial arts or otherwise – can only dream of. She’s worked with directors Zhang Yimou, Ang Lee, and Wong Kar Wai in films that have revolutionized the operatic approach to kung fu cinema, and are simultaneously very popular in China and yet incredibly subversive in their themes.

And you can’t beat her resume – fight scenes opposite Jet Li, Michelle Yeoh, Chow Yun FatTony Leung, Maggie Cheung, and alongside Takeshi Kaneshiro. She’s also starred in a movie with Jackie Chan (and if you ask me, Brett Ratner’s biggest mistake as a director has nothing to do with X-Men 3 and everything to do with giving us a Zhang Ziyi-Chris Tucker fight scene instead of a Zhang Ziyi-Jackie Chan fight scene in Rush Hour 2).

Most importantly, she can communicate a scene dramatically through her movement quality in a way no other actor has demonstrated. This has made directors change how kung fu is filmed.

Gabe Valdez writes the movie blog you’re currently reading. It’s read in over 90 countries and has featured more than 20 different writers. I hold a black belt in Taekwondo and analyze fight choreography regularly. I’ve most recently written on zen philosophy in Jackie Chan’s choreography and the mythical choreography in Troy and Serenity.

Bits & Pieces — Fight Choreography as Philosophy, Jackie Chan

Jackie Chan Chinese Zodiac

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.