Jackie and Woolly: Was it Worth it?

This is not a personal blog. If it was, I’d be telling you about the shoes I bought the other day, or what I ate for dinner last night (in case you’re interested, the shoes don’t fit properly, and I had seafood pasta). Or something like that. I’m not going to write about that stuff here, but you’ll probably be able to tell quite a lot about me from the fact that one of the most distressing sights I’ve seen in the last fortnight is Jackie Chan’s appearance in the latest Woolworths ad.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not naïve enough to be surprised that movie stars take the corporate quid and lower themselves to some publicity whoredom, but this one hurts a bit. Jackie Chan was a hero of mine in my younger years, and was probably as instrumental in getting me interested in international cinema as Godard or Ozu ever were (Police Story and Tokyo Story hit me with equal force around the same time). For a couple of years I’ve had a plan for a book-length study of Chan’s films, incorporating a close formal analysis of some key fight scenes. It’s long overdue, and might remain nothing more than a back-burning pet project for some years to come, partly because writing about Drunken Master doesn’t seem like a short cut to credibility for an early career academic. Whatever else I became fascinated by cinematically, Chan’s career was always worth following, either for a window into the workings of a foreign star system, or for a steady stream of astonishing action sequences. At its best, his fight choreography delivers a kinetic thrill that is hard to find in other action films. Even his lesser films (I have serious issues with almost everything he’s made since Drunken Master II) contained moments of inspired and inventive physical agility or a severely risky stunt or tightly-rehearsed bit of business. In the resolutely lightweight Around the World in 80 Days (2004), a fight in an artist’s studio descends into a mess of coloured paint that coheres when a series of misplaced blows leave a vibrant impressionist painting on a bystanding canvas. It’s a lovely moment of clarity in an otherwise shaky film, and a neat summary of Chan’s persistent amusement at the way screen violence is only ever one derealised step away from slapstick comedy.

It was exciting to watch him falling from a clock tower in Project A (1983) or re-creating Buster Keaton’s falling house stunt in, er … Project A II, but that frenetic eagerness to please, sometimes reinforced by rubber-faced gurning, was occasionally discomfiting – I was, after all, watching a man risk a serious maiming for my entertainment. Chan’s fearless/reckless willingness to take a high fall, heavy blow or near miss for the team is precisely what has been used to market him abroad and differentiate him from American action stars. Consider, for example, the US release poster for his Western breakthrough film Rumble in the Bronx (1995), with its tagline “No Fear. No Stuntman. No Equal.”

It’s certainly true that, along with the remarkable rhythmic structure of his action scenes (maybe I’ll blog more about that at a later date), this element of physical danger is what has made Chan’s films distinctive, so it’s saddening to see that extraordinary physicality, which so succinctly visualises questions of filmic authenticity and embodiment, appropriated to sell some dirt-cheap kids’ clothes.

Now, I shouldn’t have been surprised that Chan has appeared in an advert. He’s no stranger to it, having sold a lot of Pepsi, Hanes T-shirts, Kirin Beer, Visa Cards, Ultra Flex Garbage Bags, and maintained a 30-plus year association with Mitsubishi that has required him to incorporate their wonderful, wonderful automobiles into his films at every opportunity. And this is not subtle product placement. In Wheels on Meals, a car chase is halted to allow a woman to berate the other drivers. With the Mitsubishi logo in the foreground, she complains that she’d be dead if she wasn’t driving such a great sportscar, then gets in and drives off.

I suppose the Jackie Chan Woolworths ad just took me aback because of the incongruous pairing of one of the world’s most bankable film stars with one of Britain’s ailing high street chains, so it was a bit like seeing Gregory Peck schilling for Happy Shopper, or Catherine Deneuve pretending she uses Head and Shoulders. The ad also features a tired old parody of badly-dubbed “chop-socky” movies and an even stupider Karate Kid gag. To watch Chan play into a creaky cultural stereotype for the benefit of an audience whose interest in martial arts cinema begins and ends with “wax on, wax off” is surely something to sigh about.

Having said all this, I’d still rather see Jackie do a couple more appearances with Woolly and Worth than make another movie with Chris Tucker…


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