Onstage at the Toronto International Film Festival, Jackie Chan describes his first visit to the United States. "I speak no English at that time — I do not even know how to order breakfast. Everyone know ... you know the story?"
"No," says the audience, almost in unison.
"No? Wow!" The 58-year-old action star is being feted in TIFF's "Mavericks" program, but most of his fans in the audience are unfamiliar with this anecdote. In his imperfect English, Chan begins: "When I first in U.S., my company ... they want me to only speak English. I was first there in U.C.L.A. in hotel, I sit there, I was hungry, I don't know how to order breakfast ... I went down to the lobby, I see — ah, in the morning, everybody went on the line for the breakfast. And I look inside: 'How can you order?' I don't know how to order! And I go back to the room to practice: 'Milk, egg, bacon, toast ...'" — he extends fingers to enumerate each item.
The story continues, as Chan describes practicing the simple refrain of "milk, egg, bacon, toast" over and over for two days before summoning the courage to head to the hotel restaurant. "The waiter: 'What you order?' I said, 'Milk, bacon, toast, egg!'" Chan closes his eyes and flashes a beaming smile, pausing for maximum comic effect. Then, Chan assumes the role of the waiter: "How would you like your eggs?"
The audience laughs, and Chan's eyes widen in exaggerated terror. "Egg!" he exclaims. From his facial expressions to his animated gestures to his wide-eyed naivete, the real-life Jackie Chan comes across like a character in a Jackie Chan movie.
Earlier this year, the world's most famous martial artist made headlines by announcing his retirement from "big action movies," and his intention to focus on straight drama — or, in his words, to become "the Asian Robert De Niro." That declaration might seem awfully unlikely to stick, but then again, Jackie Chan is getting to an age where it's no longer easy to crawl across fiery coals (as he did in Drunken Master II), or fall from a clocktower and land on his head (as he did in Project A).
Still, there will be one last extravaganza: Chinese Zodiac, opening worldwide on December 12. At his TIFF event, Chan shows several trailers, in which, among other feats, he races down the side of a mountain in a rollerblade suit.
"When you fight on the screen, it looks like it's a real fight, like you could get hurt," observes moderator Cameron Bailey.
"Oooh ... hurt too many!" says Chan. "Because at that time, we don't know special effect, we just know: one shot, camera, boom, pa-pa-pa-pa-pa ..." He waves his fists in the air. "This day — boom-kah! Ka-ka-ka-ka!" — he twists his hands in such a way as to suggest fast editing — "Is so easy this day!"
Chan, who began his career as a stuntman in two of Bruce Lee's films, first attempted to become a leading man by playing Lee-like tough-guys. When Chan scowls and strikes a heroic pose, the audience laughs. "I'm not this kind of person! I'm just me!" His breakthrough came with 1978's Drunken Master, where he subverted the kung-fu genre by adding humor. "Every night, we say, 'How can we different than Bruce Lee? Okay: opposite Bruce Lee!' When he do, aahh!" — he mimes a punch — "then I do, owww!!!!" — he mimes shaking his fist in pain. "Everything opposite. Bruce Lee never get hurt — I get hurt!"
Though he was a star in Asia throughout the '80s, most Americans first encountered Chan via Rumble in the Bronx (1995). On the publicity trail, he summersaulted onto Leno's couch, did kung-fu tricks for Letterman, and immortalized his nose in cement outside Mann's Chinese Theater. In Asia, he could be cheeky and Chaplinesque, but in America, he excelled in the role of a small, smiley, slightly confused foreigner.
He solidified this persona in Rush Hour (1998), playing the culture-shocked straight-man to Chris Tucker. Tucker, who is also at TIFF, makes a surprise appearance onstage with Chan, and more or less reprises his role. "I said to Brett Ratner, the director, 'Does Jackie speak English? How'm I gonna do this movie? He didn't say one word to me, did he like me, did he want Wesley Snipes, does he know who I am?"
Chan is also seemingly in character. "The whole time when I see him he just keep talking! I don't even know one word out of your mouth!"
In the west, Chan has a peculiar kind of celebrity: not exactly an object of worship, difficult to accept as "the Asian Robert De Niro," but regarded with affection by practically everyone. Perhaps this is because more than most stars, his cheerful, slightly goofy onscreen persona seems virtually indistinguishable from his offscreen one. He's the kind of celebrity whose very name causes people to smile fondly, as if remembering an amusing coworker, classmate, or relative.
At 58, Chan may be the most famous Asian entertainer in the world, but in Hong Kong — the territory where he was born, and the one that first embraced him — his popularity has recently cooled. In 1999, his squeaky-clean image was punctured when he fathered a child with a former Miss Asia, and in 2006, he drunkenly interrupted a concert and cursed at the audience. His close relationship with the Mainland Communist government, and his controversial suggestion that "We Chinese need to be controlled," led to him being voted one of Hong Kong's "least trusted" public figures in a Reader's Digest poll.
But those stories are difficult to process seeing him onstage at TIFF, flashing his Jackie Chan smile and singing Edwin Starr's "War" on request. He's Jackie Chan. And on this afternoon, everybody likes Jackie Chan.