FIELD OF STREAMS highlights a piece of film history as Slice of Hi-YAH! returns to look at Jackie Chan’s North American debut
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As one who is hardly a connoisseur of martial arts cinema, I must confess that my knowledge of the genre, and of one of its most popular stars, Jackie Chan, is limited — unlike our fearless leader and action junkie Ed Travis, who covered this film back in 2013. The first Jackie Chan experience I ever had came when my best friend invited me to go see the 1997 action/comedy Mr. Nice Guy. The movie was explosive and fun, thanks to Chan’s natural affability and his undeniably impressive fight skills. The Rush Hour and Shanghai series solidified his movie star status for me. Even though misfires like The Tuxedo and Around the World in 80 Days left him looking stranded, by that point, it was safe to say nothing could keep Chan down in the eyes of American moviegoers.
But unlike most other movie stars, I had just assumed that Chan’s adoration and acceptance in the states had just always… been. I had never thought of the actor as struggling to make himself known or having to really pay his dues. For the most part, I suppose that as long as there were working cameras, a script and some money, Chan would always be allowed to do his thing his own way. Upon discovery of Battle Creek Brawl, his North American film debut, I realized how this was far from the case.
In Battle Creek Brawl, Jerry Kwan (Jackie Chan) is the son of a local restauranteur, who is shaken down by the local mob in 1930s Chicago. When Jerry attempts to settle things using his martial arts prowess, the mafia is impressed. This leads to a deal with Jerry being sent by the mob to compete in the “Battle Creek Brawl” fight in Texas. In exchange for winning, the mafia promises to leave Jerry’s family alone and return his brother’s beautiful fiancé.
What is there to say about Battle Creek Brawl that the movie doesn’t say for itself? Despite the presence of Jose Ferrer as the film’s main heavy, there isn’t a lot about this movie to be taken seriously in terms of what truly good martial arts films can indeed offer. The script is shoddy and crass, while the story itself is so sloppily put together, it’s amazing how they were able to stretch this thing out by an hour and a half. And yet, one can’t help but have fun with it. For all of its flaws, there’s an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink/go-for-broke energy the movie rides from start to finish that makes it impossible not to find genuinely amusing. The movie is of course not the kind of introduction to mainstream American filmgoers a movie star hopeful like Chan would have wanted, but the actor is largely the reason the film is as watchable as it is.
The young Chan just exudes pure charm and affability in every scene. His eagerness is apparent no matter what silly act the script has him perform, and there are many of them. Reportedly, Chan had virtually no say regarding the choreography of the movie’s many fight scenes. It shows. The fight scenes feel more at home in a Three Stooges skit than they do in any film bearing Chan’s name. Still, even when asked to pretend to almost tumble or dodge a punch that doesn’t even come close to landing, the natural skill and prowess that made Chan a marvel is still apparent. At the heart of Battle Creek Brawl is a future movie star with the kind of winning persona that was destined for greatness.
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