One often hears the complaint that American films are inferior because they are too escapist. I disagree with that contention, and I’ll go even further. The problem with most contemporary American films is that they are not escapist enough. Many try to be truly adventurous, but they nearly always fail.
Sure, today’s action films are often irrational, overblown, and ridiculous, but most are animated not by a spirit of adventure but rather one of nearly abject fear. Perhaps to compensate for an inability to create likable protagonists and believable romances, today’s American action films tend to employ incredibly dire situations that threaten mass destruction if the hero fails in his efforts. The beginning of this trend, moreover, predated the September 11 terrorist attacks by several years.
Arnold Schwarzenegger’s films, for example, have long dealt with impending holocausts, including even the end of the world, as in End of Days. Mel Gibson and Bruce Willis have moved into more serious film work, away from the plucky, comedy-laced adventures of the Lethal Weapon series and the first Die Hard film. Harrison Ford and Clint Eastwood have done movies in which the president’s life is at stake, and James Bond has been combating megavillains with increasing somberness during the Pierce Brosnan era. Vin Diesel has joined this dreary company as a scowling American superspy in XXX. Monsters such as Godzilla barge through America’s cities, and invulnerable alien spaceships attack from the skies. Meanwhile, the nation’s streets and houses have become infested by superhuman serial killers.
The basic seriousness of these films can bring some interesting insights into life, as in last year’s Spider-Man, but little of this fare shows much of a sense of adventure, let alone fun. Hence, they cannot fully inspire an audience. In general, the antagonists are too formidable to allow us the kind of optimism and confidence that true escapism requires. There’s too much at stake, and the villains have the jump on us. Moreover, these enemies of mankind seem to have few of the vulnerabilities from which the rest of us suffer, in many cases rising up for more destruction after we think that they have finally been killed. This impregnability, of course, makes their ultimate defeat nearly impossible to imagine, even though we know that they must somehow fail in the end, thwarted by the hero.
One could surmise, from all this movie mayhem, that crime and threats to the national security have been increasing rapidly in both numbers and seriousness in recent years, and that audiences are therefore eager to see it tackled and overcome by their favorite movie heroes. But crime actually was decreasing in the United States until just recently, and it remains quite a bit lower than it was during the 1980s. In addition, until the September 11 attacks there were few reasons for Americans to fear that other countries would successfully mount offensives on American soil.
The real fear that these films play to does not seem to be crime or invasion by a foreign power. It is meaninglessness.
For more than half a century, Americans have been taught relativism by the schools and media, and have had their loyalties to family, friends, community, and church eroded by a rising tide of divorce, frequent household moves, and incursions of government and the media (and often the churches themselves). “Judgmentalism” has become the major sin to be avoided. As a result, it seems that today’s American movie audiences cannot apprehend true villainy unless it assumes spectacular proportions. As recently as 1984, in John Milius’s Red Dawn, a very ordinary American teenager could bring himself to kill foreign invaders simply because “this is our home,” not theirs. Now, by contrast, nothing so ephemeral as faith or community can motivate heroism — lives must be at stake, and the more, the better.
Perhaps because he worked for so many years in the Hong Kong movie industry, a place very different from Hollywood, action star Jackie Chan doesn’t share these attitudes. His characters have almost always been optimistic — usually comically sunny, in fact — and have reflected a can-do spirit that once characterized America. His characters’ extraordinary ability to improvise ingenious means of defeating their enemies has been his stock in trade throughout his film career. His antagonists are truly enemies: thinking human beings who do what they do out of choice, not just as forces of nature in human form. And his characters almost always know what they’re fighting for: family, friends, and freedom.
Little wonder, than, that in recent years Chan has become a box-office attraction in the United States. While American heroes have largely abdicated the field, Chan has taken up the banner of escapist fun with evident glee. Now nearing 50, he still does his own stunts — which are very impressive indeed — and designs action sequences of truly mind-boggling inventiveness. Each one is a set piece designed as carefully as a Buster Keaton comedy sequence or an Astaire dance routine.
As if to point out the dearth of adventurous optimism in today’s films, the writers and director have filled his latest, Shanghai Knights, with an encyclopedic array of references to great adventure fiction of the past. Action scenes allude to Singin’ in the Rain, Safety Last, Oliver Twist, The Three Musketeers, Adventures of Robin Hood, Sherlock Holmes, the Keystone Kops, the Three Stooges, Abbot and Costello, gothic fiction, Westerns, Chan’s own previous kung fu films, and much more. A fight in a library includes some brilliant ladder work, a staple of the Hong Kong action cinema. The opening sequence depicts a robbery set in a visually beautiful rendition of China’s Forbidden City, and the climactic scene takes place during the spectacular fireworks display in celebration of Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee.
When film opens, Jackie’s character, Chon Wang (which everyone pronounces as John Wayne) is an unlikely sheriff in 1880s Carson City, Nevada, consequent to the events of Chan’s year 2000 film Shanghai Noon, to which this is the sequel. After Chon’s father, the guardian of the Imperial Seal on China, is murdered and the Seal stolen, Chon’s sister, Lin (Fann Wong), follows the thieves to London, where a nefarious scheme to assassinate the royal family is in progress. To avenge his father’s murder and help his sister (who has been jailed), Jackie travels to London with his Shanghai Noon sidekick, Roy O’Bannon (Owen Wilson), in tow.
Note the motivation. Chon undertakes this perilous adventure not to save the world, but strictly out of loyalty to his father, his family, and his king. His goal is to kill his father’s murderer and retrieve the Seal. There is an evil plot in motion when he arrives, but Chon’s involvement in it is in service of his more immediate and personal objectives. In addition, despite the harrowing situations in which he often finds himself, Chon shares Jackie Chan’s charm and is always plucky, optimistic, and basically cheerful. The kind of humble self-confidence Chan projects is nearly unique in today’s American action cinema, though it was once the norm, when stars such as Errol Flynn, Clark Gable, Douglas Fairbanks, Ronald Colman, Stewart Granger, and Burt Lancaster, cheerfully dispatched villains with equal measures of sword and wit.
Chan is known, among aficionados of the martial-arts film, for his innovations in fusing action and comedy, and the present release displays that talent profusely. Humor is present in even the most desperate situations.
In addition to all this, the filmmakers directly address the theme of escapism by making Roy the pseudonymous author of a popular Western dime novel, Roy O’Bannon Versus the Mummy, a very silly adventure in which the comical sidekick is, of course, none other than Chon Wang.
Throughout the film, fact and fiction swirl together madly. The movie’s villain is named Rathbone — as in Basil Rathbone, who played the villain in Adventures of Robin Hood and later gave what I consider the best of the many screen portrayals of Sherlock Holmes. Roy briefly goes under the false name of Sherlock Holmes, an appellation that sticks in the head of Roy’s and Chon’s ally, police lieutenant Arthur Doyle, which the latter thinks the perfect name for the detective character about whom he has been planning to write. Jack the Ripper unwisely attacks Lin, and she subdues him with swift dispatch and flips him off a bridge into a river. Roy and Chon are assisted throughout their adventure by a street urchin named Charlie Chaplin, and the film suggests that he ultimately follows them to America concealed in their baggage.
Only a dreadful churl, of course, would complain that the real Charlie Chaplin did not go to America until after making his name as a comic actor in England, or that Arthur Conan Doyle was a doctor and author, not a policeman, before writing his Holmes stories. What, after all, do such details matter when a man’s father has been killed and his sister is in danger? Such a world is more than a little crazy, which is what makes it escapist; but good is good there and evil is evil, which is what makes what happens in these stories so important to us. Escapist tales delight the mind by first delighting the heart. The makers of Shanghai Knights were quite evidently content just to thrill, delight, and inspire their audience, which is why their film succeeds where so many more ambitious ones have failed.
— S. T. Karnick, editor in chief of American Outlook, published by the Hudson Institute.