Not counting an abortive early-'80s sojourn in Hollywood, it wasn't until late in his career that Chan appeared on U.S. movie screens. First came dubbed versions of his later Hong Kong hits (such as Rumble in the Bronx) and then a series of American productions that scaled back the fights and chases to make room for the verbal humor of co-stars including Chris Tucker in the Rush Hour movies and Owen Wilson in Shanghai Noon.
Now, in the States at least, Chan is bigger than ever -- the Rush Hour movies were hugely popular -- but he's paradoxically gotten there by becoming smaller in the films themselves. The startling and delightful action choreography, the precise and circus-like sense of bodies in play that dominated his Police Story and Operation Condor now appear only in flashes; these aren't so much Jackie Chan movies as movies with Jackie Chan in them.
Some of this is no doubt because Jackie's getting on; he turns 50 next year, and admits he sometimes uses stuntmen, whose very absence used to be his calling card. Which brings us to the latest phase of his career: special-effects action-comedy. In last year's The Tuxedo, a high-tech monkey suit turned a humble cabbie into an action hero. In The Medallion, it's a supernatural bauble that lets an already-super cop die, then come back with superhuman powers of speed, strength and regeneration.
The Medallion is the better of the two, perhaps because, unlike the ill-tailored Tuxedo, it's not a Hollywood production. Shot in the UK and Thailand by director Gordon Chan, with action set-ups by Jackie's longtime collaborator Sammo Hung, it's essentially a Hong Kong jobbie, with the British actor Julian Sands as a gangster bent on harvesting an Eastern medallion's promise of immortality. The film's strengths are, as always, Jackie's lovable screen persona, plus some swell old-school kung fu fights, a good foot chase or two, and little shudders of physical comedy by the freakishly gifted Lee Evans, the Brit who plays Jackie's jumpy partner.
Besides Claire Forlani, who plays Jackie's other partner and love interest as though comedy were the product of assorted facial tics, The Medallion's weaknesses include pretty much everything that distinguish it from the action comedy Chan perfected: a few hard-drives' worth of computer-assisted action sequences and a spool of special-effects wire work, both of which make Chan's still-amazing physical prowess play second fiddle to the visual effects.
Maybe such gimmickry is considered a box-office necessity in the post-Matrix world, or maybe it's just a career extender for old Jackie. But it's no coincidence that Chan is both funnier and more credible when he's falling down than when he's floating. In comedy and action, as in physics, gravity rules.