"We can kill each other when it's over," says Jackie Chan as the Drunken Master Lu Yan to Jet Li's Silent Monk in the new Asian-American fantasy film The Forbidden Kingdom. But when these honored veterans of Hong Kong martial-arts movies get into fighting mode, it's an open question as to whether they'll survive till the end of the shoot. (Chan ends each of his films with gruesome outtakes of the injuries he suffered doing his stunts.) For all the safety precautions taken, the two stars still have to give every fiber of their disciplined, battered bodies to get through the kung-fu scenes. It's what made them action stars to begin with: the willingness to display their physical gifts while undergoing something like physical torture. In a phrase, macho masochism.
So why is it that their careers have outlasted those of Western action stars? Chan has been in nearly 100 films since he did bit parts as a child actor. Li's been making movies nonstop for 26 years. Shouldn't their bodies, let alone their audiences, have given up by now? Steven Seagal made fewer than 20 features. Jean-Claude Van Damme had about a decade's worth of wide releases. Arnold Schwarzenegger managed 20 years of action stardom, and he's considered the gold standard.
Then there's the work. Contrast Chan's and Li's homemade, our-pain-for-your-gain, almost literally death-defying feats with those of Hollywood action stars from the same generation. Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, Chuck Norris--they all looked fit and muscular, and some had martial-arts backgrounds. But when it came time to do the heavy lifting, especially as they reached midcareer, the doubles were usually called in.
It was not that these men lacked the guts to put themselves in danger but that they worked in a system in which that sort of bravado wasn't necessary or even allowed. Hong Kong saw action realism as a badge of honor; Hollywood was the fantasy factory. And its action-film stars were such valuable commodities, they had to be handled like preemies. The studios were breeding these men for 20-to-30-year careers. Let them perform their most daring stunts? Nah, we have people who do that.
Today these one-time Hollywood studs are only occasionally doing action films, or they are working in the direct-to-DVD subbasement, or they have retired to government service. And Chan, 30 years after he became an East Asian star with Drunken Master, still has a two-continent career: Cantonese-language films at home, the Rush Hour movies here. Li, who became a Hong Kong superstar with the Once upon a Time in China series, segued to the West with hit movies in Hollywood (Romeo Must Die) and France (Fearless).
It's true that they're both a bit younger than Stallone or Norris; this month marks Chan's 54th birthday and Li's 45th. But the two stars have been training and punishing their bodies since they were kids. When he was 8, Chan went to live and learn at a draconian martial-arts school. By 11, Li was the star of China's junior wushu team; in 1974 he performed on the White House lawn for President Nixon. So Chan's and Li's real ages, in Hong Kong action-movie years, are about 108 and 90, respectively. It's amazing that these guys can lift a fork, let alone a foot.
The actors whom Chan and Li most closely resemble are the comedy stars of early Hollywood: Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd, all onstage since youth. In films full of physical derring-do, they prided themselves on executing their own graceful maneuvers and extravagant stunts. The other big silent-action hero, Douglas Fairbanks, was famous for his perilous leaps between high structures. His reckless agility, as much as his radiant smile, made him a worldwide sensation.
When sound came in, Hollywood substituted talk for action. And when action films returned in the '70s (in part because of the success of Bruce Lee's Hong Kong epics), the stuntman system was firmly in place. Most stars of today's Hollywood action pictures, cosseted in visual effects, barely need to exert themselves at all.
Meanwhile, kicking, tumbling and sweating in The Forbidden Kingdom, Chan and Li continue to practically kill themselves for our pleasure. No wonder audiences are so loyal. They believe them.