More Than ‘The Next Bruce Lee’

If Jackie Chan didn’t exist, the Hong Kong movie industry would have invented him. But even so, it still took several tries and even more years before the pieces fell into place to fill the martial arts throne suddenly vacated by Bruce Lee’s death in 1973.

Since hooking up with major Golden Harvest in 1980, Chan’s pics have grossed over $70 million (HK$500 million) in the territory alone, excluding hunky revenues from other East Asian markets like Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand.

Plus, after a couple of years of good, but hardly boffo, B.O., Chan trampolined back in style early last year with “Drunken Master II.” In 24 days and in six East Asian territories, “Master” swaggered to a commanding $22.5 million gross. In Hong Kong alone, the chopsocky powered to an all-time record of $5.2 million.

On the eve of his 40th birthday, Chan, being honored at CineAsia as Actor of the Year, served notice he’s not ready for a rocking chair just yet.

His long involvement with Golden Harvest has a poetic resonance. Set up at the start of the ’70s by former Shaw Bros, exec Raymond Chow, Golden Harvest found financial security and a gateway into international markets through a handful of Bruce Lee pix. Following Lee’s death in 1973, the Hong Kong industry went into shock as its only major international star exited the stage.

Golden Harvest, then still engaged in a bitter war of survival with the giant Shaws, found a substitute bonanza with the Hui Bros.’ local comedies. However, despite a succession of Bruce Lee clones during the mid-’70s, no one emerged to fill the legendary sandals.

Enter producer-director Lo Wei, who had helmed Lee’s “The Big Boss” (called “Fists of Fury” in the U.S.), and “Fist of Fury” (called “The Chinese Connection” in the U.S.) for Golden Harvest, and who later set up his own company. Like every other producer in Hong Kong, Lo was on the hunt for the next Lee when he spotted a 21-year-old Peking Opera school grad who had been marking time in chopsockies under the stage-name Chan Yuen-lung (“Main Dragon Chan”). Following an appearance in “Hand of Death” (aka “Countdown in Kung Fu”), directed by a young John Woo, the acting hopeful visited his parents in Canberra, Australia.

In 1976, Lo hauled him back to Hong Kong, signed him up, re-christened him Sing Lung (“Become the Dragon” – a reference to Bruce Lee’s Chinese name), and launched him in English as Jackie Chan.

Chan made some eight movies with Lo over the next five years, but none really broke through.

Lo loaned him out to producer Ng See-yuen’s Seasonal Film Corp. to make “Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow” and “Drunken Master” (both 1978). Released in 1978, “Drunken Master” grossed almost $1 million locally, taking the year’s No. 2 spot just behind a Hui Bros, pic and busting records in Malaysia and Singapore.

Ng realized that, with the swing towards Cantonese-lingo comedy since Lee’s death, any pretender to the legend’s throne would need to combine that element with martial arts.

That comic-boyish screen persona, forged in the two Seasonal pics, has remained Chan’s strength in the 15 years since he finally broke with Lo (in a bitter contract dispute) and set up camp at Golden Harvest with “The Young Master” (1980), which he also directed.

From the time of “Dragon Lord” (1982), his third stint as star and director, Chan’s films have never been far from the territory’s annual top grossers.

Chan’s durability through every changing B.O. fashion in the ’80s and ’90s is based on his strong bond with local audiences. Unlike the majority of action stars, auds know it’s really Chan doing stunts and taking risks.

Just in case anyone has any doubts, since “Police Story,” Chan has featured botched takes during the final credit crawl. On at least one pic (“The Armour of God”), he almost killed himself during a stunt. On many others (including his latest, the U.S.-set “Rumble in the Bronx”), he’s been injured.

In recent years, Chan has turned directing chores more and more to associates like Stanley Tong, one of an army of longtime co-workers who make up the Chan caravan.

Chan has also been an active presence behind the screen, exec producing artier fare through his company Golden Way, such as Stanley Kwan’s “Rouge,” and heading the Hong Kong Film Directors Guild.

Pressed for a philosophy on his life and career, Chan recently opined, “I believe I’ll leave my name in movie history. That’s enough.”