On the face of it, American audiences should be taking to Hong Kong action movies like sharks to fresh chum. Here’s an industry that for about 15 years has churned out one jaw-on-the-floor spectacle after another, with heroes that make Schwarzenegger look like a cry-baby and pacing that makes Speed play like an agricultural documentary. Yet, to date, HK classics like Peking Opera Blues or Naked Killer have found cult favor only in the video underground and among urban midnight-movie cognoscenti.

The problem isn’t just that Blockbuster rarely stocks the tapes. It may be American audiences’ insistence on a fairly conventional brand of realism. A movie like A Chinese Ghost Story soars right through implausibility into glorious excess, but folks used to Hollywood’s bland ”rides” may only see the former. More distressing is that, as Hong Kong prepares to be absorbed by mainland China on July 1, some of the island’s finest directors are hightailing it to Hollywood — and seeing their fervid talent lost in translation. John Woo’s first two films here (the 1993 Jean-Claude Van Damme cruncher Hard Target and 1996’s John Travolta actioner Broken Arrow) are downright cautious compared to the pyrotechnic frenzy of his Hard-Boiled. Now Ringo Lam has tried his hand at a Van Damme film, Maximum Risk, and while it definitely represents a step up for the Muscles from Brussels, anyone who knows and loves the director’s balletic 1992 bullet-fest Full Contact is in for a disappointment.

Credit Van Damme, at least, with wanting to hitch his much-maligned star to these guys. Maximum Risk casts him as twins, but it’s a far better film than the actor’s similarly plotted 1991 Double Impact: For one thing, Van Damme exudes a brooding, monolithic gravity here that’s the closest he’s ever come to acting.

After one Jean-Claude is killed following the opening credits, the surviving brother plunges into New York’s Little Odessa to figure out why the Russian Mob and the FBI wanted his twin dead. What he finds are colorful villains and dialogue that sits there like week-old borscht. Lam, however, stages his action set pieces brilliantly: The opening chase scene through the alleys of Nice has a teetering momentum, and a showstopper of a fight in an elevator feels brutally real-time. Too bad the lovely but wooden Natasha Henstridge (Species) makes a poor mate for our hero; two monotones do not make for harmony.

If Hong Kong cinema is to succeed here, it may be through stars rather than directors. That’s why fans have pinned their hopes on the goofy grin and flying feet of Jackie Chan. While Rumble in the Bronx finally gave him a Stateside hit last year, it’s one of the lesser films in the prolific star’s 20-year oeuvre. Much better is Supercop, a 1992 entry in Chan’s Police Story series that was dusted off and dubbed, given a new opening credit sequence and score, and released to U.S. theaters last July.

You don’t rent a Jackie Chan movie for the plot. For the record, he plays a Hong Kong detective who teams up with a dour yet fetching policewoman (Michelle Khan) to bring down a drug lord. You don’t even take it home expecting visual fireworks, since Chan’s usual director, Stanley Tong, isn’t a gifted stylist on the order of Woo, and since video seriously crops the wide-screen expanse that HK movies require to strut their stuff. You do expect mind-boggling stunts performed with a grace and wit that Astaire, Cagney, or Keaton might have envied.

Supercop‘s secret star is actually Khan, a poker-faced action queen who, like Chan, does all her own stunt work. When, in the film’s climax, she guns a motorcycle onto a moving train and joins Chan in yanking a villain out of a helicopter, you discover (a) where Brian DePalma got the ending for last summer’s Mission: Impossible and (b) that Chan’s version looks, feels, and is more real. In Hong Kong, they don’t surround stars with cocoons of special effects. They prefer bending reality with their bare feet.
Maximum Risk: B
Supercop: B