Hong Kong's U.S. success -- With ''Rumble in the Bronx'' and ''Broken Arrow,'' foreign filmmakers Jackie Chan and John Woo win over an American audience

By Chris Nashawaty
March 08, 1996 at 05:00 AM EST

Fifteen years ago, Jackie Chan got his first shot at conquering America. The Hong Kong martial-arts star, famous in his homeland for his stunt-crazy action films, was itching for U.S. success, but what looked like a golden opportunity became a lesson in humility, Hollywood-style. The year after his American debut in 1980’s The Big Brawl, Chan turned up in The Cannonball Run, Burt Reynolds’ abysmal 1981 rally-car romp in which Chan, as a painfully stereotyped Japanese racer, played second fiddle to such Vegas-tier talent as Dom DeLuise. ”The problem is everybody wanted to change me,” says Chan. ”It broke my heart.”

These days, Chan is breaking bones — and box office records. His action film Rumble in the Bronx, which opened Feb. 23 and grossed $9.9 million its first weekend, became the first Hong Kong-style action movie ever to open at No. 1 in America. And the film it knocked out of first place, the John Travolta-Christian Slater military thriller Broken Arrow, was directed by Hong Kong action auteur John Woo, whose resume of slick bullet-riddled exports such as The Killer, Hard Boiled, and A Better Tomorrow and apparent gift for big-budget action have made him one of Hollywood’s most sought-after directors.

What’s this one-two punch from the East all about? Cult-film droolers have been spouting off about Hong Kong as the next cinematic hot spot for a long time now, and bootleg-video geeks like Quentin Tarantino, whose films draw freely (too freely, say some) on the genre’s hyper-adrenalized style, are buffs as well. But not since a boom in kung fu films 20 years ago during the peak of Bruce Lee’s popularity has any Hong Kong film figure cracked the U.S. market; in fact, even the best Hong Kong films haven’t until recently been widely available.

”The time is ripe all of a sudden,” says Woo’s producing partner, Terence Chang. ”It took several years for those films to get over here and get the attention of Hollywood. Now things are happening at the same time.” You can say that again: New Line just acquired two more Chan films, the recent Asian hits First Strike and Thunderbolt, while Miramax will roll out two Chan classics, Crime Story and Drunken Master II. And Tarantino has launched Rolling Thunder, a mini-distribution label at Miramax that will release Wong Kar-Wai’s Chungking Express later this month.

”The times have changed,” says Chris Pula, marketing chief at New Line, which snagged Rumble after it became the highest-grossing homegrown film of all time in Hong Kong, and saw Chan’s unusual action-hero stats (he’s 5’9” and 41 years old) as a breath of fresh air. ”There isn’t a need for another action hero” in the U.S., he adds, ”but Jackie’s not an American action hero. He’s not some seven-foot Aryan wall of muscle.” In fact, Chan’s calling card is the self-deprecating humor he conveys on screen. And New Line has also played up the fact that he does his own stunts, whether it’s falling through plate glass or water-skiing behind a hovercraft with just sneakers on his feet.