When I first moved to Canada, I didn’t speak a lick of English. But I was lucky to have some friendly classmates. Despite the language barrier, they still approached me and struck up a conversation. And the first thing they’d ask me? Do you know Jackie Chan?
There is just something universal about Jackie Chan movies; the choreography, the stunts, the humor. It transcends culture. But I think there is one element that sets Jackie Chan apart from all other kung-fu stars; his pain.
In most films, the hero getting hit is either a minor inconvenient or a major dramatic moment. But for Jackie, getting hit is part of the fight; front fall, back fall, the beyblade. He can make you laugh, make you gasp or keep you on the edge of your seat. That struggle is, in my opinion, what makes his character so relatable to people all around the world. It’s an underappreciated art, something stunt performers trained for their entire lives to do safely and stylishly.
So today, let’s give it the appreciation it deserves, and break down the elements of a good hit; how to act, how to edit, and how to tell a story with it. There’s a lot to cover, so let’s get right into it.
Throughout his career, Jackie really only has like… one hairstyle, with minor variations. That’s because his hair is one of his secret weapons in selling a hit. See how he whips his hair around? In comparison, when Jackie wears a hat without the hair movement, the motion feels more rigid, doesn’t it? That’s the importance of selling a hit. Overselling it, can make a slow kick feel powerful. Underselling it, can make a fast punch feel weak. His hair amplifies the impact, and amplifying the impact is the first step to a good hit.
But, it’s not just his hair that gets whipped around. During a hit, Jackie’s entire body bends like it’s made out of rubber, curving away from the impact, like a cartoon character. Even raising his arms to make the shape more obvious. This cartoon exaggeration is perhaps why Jackie’s fights have such universal appeal. It’s direct and visual. The shape of the body is even clear during Jackie’s fall. See how he always kicks his legs up to make the fall more visually interesting, selling not just the impact but also the reaction that follows. Sounds simple, but it’s not that easy to pull off. Even the best in the industry sometimes have trouble pulling it off. Heck, even Jackie himself has trouble selling it now. With his age and numerous injuries over the years, he just isn’t as flexible as he used to be. It’s part of the reasons why his later films don’t feel as spectacular. He can still fight but he can’t sell the hits to the degree he used to.
But Jackie has one more trick, and this one, it’s not limited by his age. His face. Sometimes it feels like all kung-fu stars share the same stoic face. They all have the same expression but not Jackie. Check out Jackie’s face when he frantically blocks the hits. He never forgets to act. His expression is selling the hits before the contact is even made. Building anticipation and once the hit makes contact, oof, you feel it, because you were paying attention.
When contact is made, Jackie is there to show a reaction, however brief and subtle because, alas, it builds character. When a character is consistent and relatable, we are more inclined to share the pain, making the hits just that much more powerful.
In Operation Condor, Jackie plays a more confident skilled fighter. His blocking is still frantic, but his expression looks more calculated. That’s “character”. This is what sets professionals apart from amateur stunt fights.
“Wrong shoes, wrong pants”.
When others are showing off their choreography, Jackie is there to act. Few, if anyone can match Jackie’s personality during a fight. His performance elevates each impact into a character-building moment in both hitting and getting hit, Jackie is full of characters. And if you feel the character, you feel the pain.
It’s almost cliche to say, most people prefer slow-edited action scenes, which is fair. I mean, if your edit looks like ass, how are we supposed to even know what’s going on? But there’s more to slow editing than readability. It’s also about showing the causal relationship between an attack, its impact and the reaction.
For example, here, Jackie gets hit. The attack and the impact are all in the same shot. And then, we cut to a better angle, showing the reaction from Jackie falling backward because of the impact. You can also cut before the hits, after three frames of the cut, impact, this time, the reaction lingers. In all these examples, there is an attack, creating an impact followed by a reaction of some kind, and the audience only feels the power when the entire sequence of events is over and the pace slows down.
Compare this to some of Jackie’s Hollywood ventures, here, the attack and the impact are in two separate shots. Or here, the film cuts away without showing a reaction from the goons. See how the last punch feels more powerful than the rest? Removing any one of the three steps means the chain becomes incomplete, and you lose the power for the entire thing. Here, from the hit to the reaction, there are 5 shots in total instead of an immediate consequence. The reaction and the impact feel too distant, unrelated. If you edit too much, the chain of events becomes separate actions. If it’s not a causal chain, it doesn’t have the power. That’s not to say you always have to show everything. Here, Jackie’s kick connects in between cuts, deliberately removing the initial impact, delaying the audience reaction, saving it for the stunt instead. Now, that hurts!
When editing a fight scene, treat every engagement as a chain of events; the attack, the impact, the reaction, and cut it like a four-panel comic. How one action leads to another and presents it as a whole, not too much, not too little. And remember, it’s not the punch itself that hurts, it’s the reaction to the punch that gets the audience.
Beyond attack, impact and reaction, there is actually a 4th step; consequence.
How does a hit change the fight going forward? Not all hits have consequences. But when they do, it usually sends you into an inspirational flashback. Being able to feel and express pain, humanizes Jackie’s character. We empathize. It’s common to see Jackie playing an underdog, fighting an unfair fight but that isn’t always the case. As Jackie ages and gets more famous, it becomes harder for him to play a nobody and his characters also tend towards more skilled fighters. But even when he’s playing a legendary fighter like Wong Fei-Hung, he still gets hit by low level grunts. You always feel like the fights can go either way and each hit brings out some emotion from Jackie.
In Wheels on Meals, the pain builds frustration, which leads to Jackie’s attack being more desperate. Notice how as the fight progresses, Jackie blocks less and less, leaving him more open to attacks. All he wants is to land a hit. As an audience member, we feel that frustration, we relate. All this frustration builds towards this moment; Jackie calms himself down, and fights like he’s having fun. And from that point on, Jackie feints his attacks, baits his opponent, dodges instead of blocks. Pain is just another obstacle a hero has to overcome and like any good narrative obstacle, it also reveals something about the character.
In Police Story, Jackie’s pain angers him. Before, he’s mostly trying to subdue his opponent. After he gets kicked in the face, the level of violence increases. Jackie’s character would do anything to ensure justice is served.
In City Hunter, pain is a signal to Jackie’s disadvantage. Every time he is in pain, he tries something new afterward; from blocking with arms, to legs, to dodging, to using his own weapons, showing the character’s resourcefulness, but also his overconfidence.
In Project A, Jackie’s character is just a low-level cop. Appropriately, his first fight shows him getting hit a lot. Jackie takes a lot of abuse in this, even when compared to his other works. Setting up the story of a small-time police doing big things.
There is always a story behind a hit. A good hit isn’t just well-acted and well-edited, it has to be well-written. As Jackie’s career progresses, he takes fewer and fewer hits in each film, but he’s never quite invincible like many heroes. He’s always scrambling, struggling to win. This struggle through hardship, is what makes his characters, his fights, and his hits so relatable. How appropriate, for a man who started from the bottom and climbed his way to the top of the world.
In Gorgeous, pain reminds Jackie to have fun instead of fighting for a win and that’s perhaps what sets him apart from all other kung-fu stars. Others fight for the dramatic, for honor and tradition, Jackie fights for fun. Instead of traditional kung-fu, Jackie injects his own style and personality into everything, creating one of the most memorable fight scenes in cinematic history.
So, how does Jackie take a hit? And what makes it so special?
Well, he acts it out head to toe with the best his body can do. They are edited precisely and cleanly, presented as a cohesive sequence of events. They are well-written actions, revealing character traits, one hit at a time. And most importantly, they are fun. Look at that smile, look at that persistence, all that effort, and he’s the one getting punched.
Back to my friend’s question.. Do I know Jackie Chan?
Hell yeah, I do! He’s one of the most dedicated filmmakers around!
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