Jackie Chan: An unlikely hero

Spinning to escape his foes, a master of stunts - it's little wonder that Jackie Chan can now count Tony Blair as one of his ardent fans. The action hero who rose from a tough upbringing in Hong Kong to conquer Hollywood - and now No 10 - revealed the secrets behind his success to Suzi Feay
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Jackie Chan is likely to take news that our Prime Minister is one of his ardent fans entirely in his stride. This is after all the man who informed an American reporter: "There are billions of people in Asia ... America is a very small market." This is the man who faced down the Triads ("No more, Jackie's too big"), and is mobbed wherever he goes in China. Nothing in the West, even plaudits from a premier, is likely to faze him.

Not that Tony Blair shows very good taste in his choice of film, according to Cherie Blair, who presented Chan with the 2005 World Diversity Award on Wednesday night. Rush Hour (1998), is Tony's favourite, while Cherie prefers Around the World in 80 Days. Real fans would be more likely to choose a classic such as Police Story (1985) which culminates with one of Chan's trademark death-defying stunts: he slides 100ft down a pole festooned in Christmas lights, smashing into glass and sending out electrical sparks. Or there's Project A, where he falls down the façade of a building, with only a series of cloth canopies to break his fall. I'm very fond of Rumble in the Bronx (1995), the film that finally broke Chan in America.

Bet you never knew you could see mountains from the Bronx. (The film was actually shot in Vancouver.) Chan's "if it's broke don't fix it" ethos is what gives his ramshackle films their charm.

Just as famous as his extraordinary action sequences are his out-takes, which he usually runs over the final credits. Real fans never leave the cinema until the very end. Cherie Blair's blooper - she broke his flower garland while hugging him, then half of his award dropped off - is just the sort of pratfall he'd enjoy. Some of the out-takes, though, are horrifying - Chan howling and writhing in agony, paramedics (or perhaps just studio technicians) running in with stretchers when a stunt goes badly wrong. Given that he was such a huge star in Asia, why did it take him so long to break the West? Chan's stunts are always amazing, and his balletic slapstick is up there with Buster Keaton and the silent greats. Partly it's because the films themselves - cheap studio product - are so shoddy. Actresses who can't act, plots that would be surreal if they weren't tedious, bizarre dialogue. "You know Hong Kong movie," Chan told me. "Fighting, then a little bit of talking, then fighting ..."

But Chan was never really going to get anywhere in the West until he started being able to act in English. Like Chow Yun-Fat, his language wasn't up to much at first but Chan, a very canny operator, resolved to remedy that - with skills he learnt as a child at the Chinese Opera school in Hong Kong. It was a brutal regime, but he won't hear a word against it, or his teacher, Master Yu. Recalling the last time he saw his teacher, just before his death in 1998, Chan told me: "I sit like THIS [rigid]! Still! I go 'yes, yes, yes.' I really forgive my master and also I thank my master because right now, whatever I'm using, I learn from this school. And because of my mental training, I learn everything very fast. Even I learn how to speak English fast."

By the time he graduated, Chinese Opera itself was a dying art, and like his other "Brothers" Chan moved into stuntwork. (Samo Hung, of TV's Martial Law, was one of his fellow students). Chan acknowledges pragmatically that the world he grew up in has vanished, for good and ill. No one could treat children like that today. "Everything I learn, he force me to learn. You have to get up at five in the morning. You still asleep? POW, POW, POW! Now, you hit children, they can sue you! 500 kicks, now go! If now I'm good [it's because] they force me good. It's not learn by myself."

Chan was born in 1954, and named Chan Kong-sang (which means "born in Hong Kong"). His name at the Chinese Opera school was Big Nose, but the name he's known by today came his way when, as a young stuntman, he was being groomed to fill the space left by the death of Bruce Lee. Lee had been known as "Little Dragon", and in Chan's autobiography, I Am Jackie Chan, he recounted the debate over his new screen name. First up was Cloud Dragon, but that didn't find favour with the film boss. "A dragon in the clouds can't be seen ..." he grumbled. Child of the Dragon was no more successful. "We don't want people to think you'll grow up to be a dragon someday, we want people to say, hey, this guy's already a dragon." Hence Jackie Chan Sing Lung - already a dragon.

"I have been making films 36 years, I know everything," Chan told me in 2000. Still, years of punishment were, by then, taking a toll on that supremely fit, stocky and agile body. "I do a lot of stunts but normally I would rather stay home and watch TV and not do any deadly things because I don't want to hurt myself for nothing. Martial art, how long can I do it? Ten years, 20 years? Writing a book, computers, I can do that forever! Even 70 years old." So the move into Western-style filming - and charitable good works - was taken at just the right time. On a Chinese film set, "What health and safety?" is the watchword. Chan wanted to make a movie about a fireman: "They set up a meeting with Ron Howard, who directed Backdraft. When I look at Backdraft, WOW! It's so great. I don't know special effect. Every time I want to make a fireman film in Hong Kong, it's a real fire." He recalled burning down a row of buildings in Hong Kong - he only stopped when the owners of the last building refused permission.

Chan's gung-ho attitude led to problems on the set of American films. "They used to send a security guy, 'You cannot do that, too much fighting, you have to stop.' Now they let me do the choreographing but still, it's not like when I'm making an Asian film. I think American movies are too scheduled and too expensive. In Asia, I'm the one. I run a one-man show. I'm the director, I do the camera, I do the editing, I do the art directorship, I do everything. Making a movie in Hollywood - easy. Why? So many people helping you."

There is one topic on which, had they met, Tony Blair and Jackie Chan might well have bonded: journalists and paparazzi. Chan bewailed the effect of Western-style celebrity journalism on newspapers and magazines back home. "Every newspaper - look at Jackie, thinks he's the big star. They never write good things, only bad things. The Hong Kong reader, they like to see this sort of thing, it never happen before.

"Such a small island, six million people, we work very hard. But now, all the newspaper, writing, writing, writing, no more good people in Hong Kong. People in Hong Kong bad. Police: bad. Fireman: bad. Everybody bad - but newspaper guy good." Tony Blair, on his own small island, would surely recognise the syndrome.

World leaders and the movies

* George Bush's all-time favourite movie is Saving Private Ryan. Steven Spielberg, the film's director, and its star, Tom Hanks, are frequent guests at the White House, which is fitted with its own air-conditioned cinema. The US President and his father are also fans of the Kevin Costner baseball movieField of Dreams. Gary Cooper's Western High Noon topped a poll of the films most requested by American presidents - Bill Clinton watched the 1952 classic 30 times.

* The French President, Jacques Chirac, shares George Bush's admiration for Steven Spielberg. Last year, he bestowed France's highest accolade, the Légion d'Honneur, on the film director at a ceremony in Paris, attended by Gwyneth Paltrow and Sophie Marceau. Mr Chirac singled out Spielberg's Holocaust film Schindler's List for praise, saying: "In this difficult time, when intolerance, racism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism and fanaticism are on the rise again, it is essential that cinema ... recalls the horror of what is inutterable."

* Silvio Berlusconi is married to the former film actress Veronica Lario. The Italian Prime Minister and media tycoon met her in 1980, when she was performing in his Teatro Manzoni, and they married 10 years later. Renowned for her discretion since her husband came to power, Lario starred in Dario Argento's 1982 video nasty Tenebre, about an American writer in Rome who is stalked by a serial killer.

* Kim Jong Il

Kim Jong Il's obsession for movies led to the eight-year kidnapping of the South Korean actress Choi En-hui and her director husband Shin Sang-ok. After the couple escaped North Korea in 1986, they said Kim Jong held En-hui under house arrest and imprisoned Sang-ok for four years for a failed escape attempt. They say they were then forced to work in the North Korean film industry, and were richly rewarded. Kim Jong insists that they worked voluntarily.

Ciar Byrne