Thursday, February 17, 2005


Somehow, I missed the Super Bowl Halftime Extravaganza. Instead, a friend popped in a semi-bootleg copy of Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior.

Of his many virtues, Tony Jaa can crack skulls with his elbows and seriously get vertical. The man has the screen personality and acting skills of a chunk of concrete, but he's got the action chops (so to speak), and I'm sure he'll develop into something worth watching. There's a five-minute chase scene in which, among many things, he slides underneath a moving car.

Great stuff, but derivative, I'm afraid. Of the Man. Of the all-time greatest action star (and my favorite movie star) ever, a man whose on-screen exploits will never be topped because nobody will even attempt to copy the insanity of his stunts and fights. Of course, I speak of Chan Kwong-Sang, better known to us mere mortals as Jackie Chan.

(Wife, who likes Mr. Chan as well, is chuckling as she reads this. "I knew you couldn't go more than a month without writing about Jackie," she is thinking. "Jackie, Jackie, Jackie! Enough!" This is just the first Jackie post. There will be more. Many more. Including the autograph episode.)

There's more to this than simply the wacky exploits of a crazy movie star. All I know about writing relates to Jackie Chan, though most of it I learned elsewhere first.

One way to travel

Here's the derivative part. In Winners and Sinners, a movie in which Jackie guest stars, he tracks down a couple of baddies who've stolen something or other from someone or other in a park. The problem is, they're in a car. Jackie's on roller skates.

To give chase, Jackie hangs on to moving cars, trucks, motorcycles. He leaps over fallen bicyles and other detritus. He barely avoids crashing about, say 80 times. He flies through red lights and barely avoids oncoming traffic. As the chase alights a Hong Kong expressway, a VW Beetle crashes, impeding Jackie's path. It happens so quickly, there's no way to avoid hitting it. So, of course, he flies over the Volkswagen (don't ask how), landing on his feet and continuing to give chase.

Now this is the important point. This should be the highlight of the scene. It's an amazing stunt. But it's not good enough for Jackie. He's flown over the crashed car, and is hanging on to moving one. He's in the middle lane. The crooks are getting away, though, because Jackie can't get to their lane. He needs to get to the outside lane. He has to get to the outside lane. But there's an 18-wheeler blocking him.

Even Jackie can't leap over a moving semi. The camera shoots to a close up of his face: he's looking at the ground, beneath the truck, face intense with purpose. The shot shifts to the pavement underneath the moving tractor-trailer, and back to Jackie, who's looking ever-more-intently at the space below the 18-wheeler, and you think,No. No. He's not going to do that. He's not going to do that.

Naturally, Jackie does do that. He pushes off the car he's hanging onto, and skates underneath the moving semi. You can tell they speeded up the film when he did the stunt, but still. I get goosebumps thinking about it.

How does this relates to writing? Simple: Jackie keeps raising the stakes. It's not enough for him to chase down the baddies on roller skates, jump over automobiles, and put his life in danger. He's got to skate underneath a moving tractor-trailer. (And I could name a dozen additional examples from his movies.)

The same goes for writing fiction -- a writer must constantly raise the stakes. A work of fiction has to keep taking chances, whether it's making each scene more vital than the last, testing characters' resolve, or pushing the limits of the writer's abilities.

A valuable lesson learned courtesy of Mr. Chan.

At least that's what I told a faculty member at a writer's conference when she queried about my "Rumble in the Bronx" T-shirt. I'd been drinking vodka, with Red Stripe as a chaser, not a good combination at any age, much less at 37. She was drunk enough to concur that one, can, indeed, learn about writing from my beloved Jackie. She was not drunk enough, however, to confer any compliments upon my stories that she'd read earlier.

N.B.: Is there something seriously wrong with the comment system? I've barely been able to post to other blogs the past 24 hours. Too slow, doesn't load, error messages. Feh.