Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases, premieres, current events, or occasionally just our own inscrutable whims. This week: Jackie Chan has two new movies, Vanguard and Iron Mask, headed for release. To honor the occasion, we’re recommending a few of his best vehicles.
When the hero of a Jackie Chan movie heads to a construction site with a full half-hour left on the clock, it produces a form of giddy, idealistic hope: Maybe, just maybe, it will segue into a TV episode’s worth of nonstop props-based mayhem. Mr. Nice Guy doesn’t reach that platonic ideal, but it still sends Chan through a delightful series of obstacle courses leading up to a climactic construction site free-for-all, featuring all the beams, boards, pallets, and temporary doors a slapstick athlete could ask for.
Following the success of Rumble In The Bronx, North American audiences were treated to a crash course in Chan’s brand of action-comic dexterity, as several studios wide-released a variety of his recent hits and catalog titles. Mr. Nice Guy had less of a lag than some, arriving in the U.S. a year and change after its 1997 Hong Kong debut, with 13 minutes trimmed out by New Line Cinema. (A recent Warner Archive Blu-ray includes both the original cut and the New Line version.) Regardless of timing, it was a turning point in Chan’s career: This was his first action film written and shot in English (it’s set in Australia), and his last wide U.S. release before Rush Hour took him to another, more Americanized level of stardom.
Compared to the Police Story films (two of which preceded Mr. Nice Guy in America as Supercop and Jackie Chan’s First Strike), Nice Guy feels like a palate cleanser. Although Chan does eventually drive a massive piece of construction equipment through a building, most of the other stunts are smaller scale, in part because he isn’t playing a, well, supercop. He’s a mild-mannered TV chef (named Jackie, naturally) who has a chance meeting with Diana (Gabrielle Fitzpatrick), a journalist on the trail of a hot story. She’s pursued by gangsters who know she has a video of them murdering a street gang leader. As she and Jackie escape, the incriminating tape gets switched with one of Jackie’s TV recordings, putting the gangsters on his tail.
How and why this tape includes cinematic cuts to various angles is never explained—and the story has plenty of more obvious convolutions, too. It doesn’t much matter, though, as the ins and outs establish a simple formula to generate set pieces: Jackie goes somewhere seemingly safe, a bunch of chintzily dressed gangsters show up and swarm him demanding the tape, and he’s forced to fight his way out. Director and fellow martial artist Sammo Hung (who also has a running-gag cameo as an unlucky cyclist) choreographs the action with such a light touch that even the occasional bombast feels whimsical, like how a mayhem-heavy chase scene revolves around a horse-drawn carriage. As ever, Chan turns his affability into a weapon; when he stumbles into Diana’s peril (which, in the New Line cut at least, happens hilariously fast, at the seven-minute mark), he’s absorbed into the action effortlessly, even though he never looks as if he particularly wants to hurt anyone. (In the first extended fight scene, he spends a comical amount of time trying not to fire a gun.)
The only disappointment is the grievous lack of a full-on kitchen fight sequence. In a less entertaining movie, casting Chan as a chef without ever contriving a reason for him to balance on an avalanche of rolling pins or using a baking sheet as a shield would be malpractice. Mr. Nice Guy zips by almost too quickly to notice.