AKA THE BIG BRAWL
AVAILABLE ON BLU-RAY: NOW, from 88 FILMS
RUNNING TIME: 95 mins
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
Chicago in the 1930s. Jerry Kwan leads a very easy-going life with his girlfriend Nancy and his family. His father, who owns a restaurant, has ordered him not to fight, but he secretly trains with his uncle and takes part in sporting competitions to provide some extra money for his brother who runs a medical clinic. One day, his father is threatened and even assaulted by the mob to pay a part of his profits. Jerry’s defeating of the hoodlums interests mob boss Dominici who wants him to take part of the Battle Creek Brawl fight in Texas, but decides to “test” him out first….
It seems that very few Chan fans have many good words to say about his first American film, but I’m rather different. This may have something to do with the fact that it was the first film of his that I ever saw. It didn’t quite make me a huge fan – that happened when I watched that episode of The Incredibly Strange Picture Show about him – but it did get me interested. There’s no doubt that it would have been a far better film if Chan had been allowed to do his own choreography, while the period setting is hardly convincing. Yet Chan does get to show a bit more of what he can do than I think the film has been given credit for, and it does really does come across rather better if viewed as an American martial arts film that just happens to have Jackie Chan in it rather than a Jackie Chan film. Rather charming and sometimes funny, the amiable romp does suffer from a terrible story telling flaw near the end which I can’t believe they let by, but it contains some definite highlights that I feel have been ignored just because Chan had no control over the action, and I’d go as far to say that the first half of the film is really pretty good, a most pleasant action/comedy.
It was after The Young Master began breaking box office records in Hong Kong that Golden Harvest head Raymond Chow decided it was time to fashion Chan for his first American-made movie. Allocating the director of Enter The Dragon obviously seemed like a good idea. Before he landed in America just two weeks before shooting began, Chan knew no English at all, so he took a crash course to be able to speak his lines in the film. Then, once on the set, he was assigned a fight choreographer with only six years experience even though he’d trained in martial arts since the age of six, and had choreographed his own fight scenes not long after his career had began. This meant that Chan hated the action filming because it was absurdly simplistic and limiting by his standards and used very few takes. Tension grew, and eventually, after Clouse refused Chan’s idea of flipping out of a car, Chan walked off the set and went to his trailer – though he soon returned, and as some compensation he did learn how to roller skate, skateboard, and ski bare foot, things he incorporated into late films. This was also the first film where Chan’s real voice was heard, all of his prior Hong Kong movies having featured traditional dubbing of his voice for Cantonese and Mandarin releases. Shot largely in San Antonio, Texas, Battle Creek Brawl was not actually a flop – it turned a small profit – but certainly didn’t make Chan a star in the West even though his follow-up The Cannonball Run was a big success. In the UK ten seconds of groin kicks, a neck break and a double ear clap were removed for the cinema release, with only the ear clap restored to video and DVD releases until now.
Brief opening titles introduce not just Chan doing some moves as in some of his early Hong Kong movies but a few bars of what is one of the coolest martial arts movie themes in history. I doubt that any viewer doesn’t have Lalo Schifrin’s catchy whistle-led tune stuck in their mind after seeing the film. The brawl of the title is introduced and we see Kiss breaking an opponent’s back before kissing him [because he has “sudden impulses of love that take hold”] to win the title, as well as learn that Kiss is backed by one Mafia family and that the other one has to go find a new champion. Our Chan is introduced showing off to his girlfriend Nancy doing crazy stuff on some very high scaffolding like press ups. His first fight isn’t far off, and it really is a great example of Chan-style humour, the man besting three hoodlums while looking like he’s actually the victim and not really doing much in the way of actual fighting, with the kicks and so forth looking accidental. He does this because his father is watching and doesn’t want him to fight – not an unfamiliar Chan film scenario. He then dodges loads of tennis balls thrown at him by his trainer uncle Herbert who further tortures Jerry with a treadmill outfitted with spikes and a practice dummy who even shares Jerry’s bed. The scenes between the two, probably modeled on Wong and Beggar So in Drunken Master, are all great, Mako being in fine cheeky form. Herbert won’t let Jerry mess around with Nancy [two of the couple’s scenes together are slightly more sexual than would become the norm in Chan’s films and it’s even implied that they have sex, daring for an interracial romance even in 1980], but can’t resist large ladies, something that eventually gets him into trouble.
Dominici tests Jerry to see if he could be an ideal entry into the Battle Creek Brawl, which means doing things such as getting Jerry’s two opponents in a roller blade racing competition to attack him in another real fun set piece with almost a Rocky feel to it. And Jerry even fights two other Chinese guys in a short but sweet scene where he even does some stuff with a training bench. I’m convinced that Chan was allowed to choreograph this bit himself, probably after much persistence. Just look at it, it’s much more in the Chan style than anything else in the film. I always wonder what on earth is so bad about this movie up to this point, but then Jerry is forced to train for the tournament because Dominici has engineered the kidnapping of his sister-in-law – and things sadly do go down hill, despite a supremely funny introduction to the Brawl where a woman sings the American national anthem totally out of tune and then has to speed it up faster and faster because the combatants start fighting even before any of the matches have began. The Brawl is a major let down, even allowing for the expected slowness. While he does do some cool leaps and moves during his three battles like an incredible back flip off a wall where he’s also able to kick his opponent as he lands, Chan is lumbered with just fighting big brawny wrestlers which severely limits the excitement, even though this tournament is so free for all that one combatant is able to get in a police car and drive it at his opponent. Some gangster family jealousy adds nothing, there’s a second kidnapping which just seems stupid, and the first kidnapping is left completely – and I mean completely – hanging at the film’s close.
There’s lots of Chan knocking down opponents in slow and pedestrian fashion, though a fight in a cinema isn’t too bad and anticipates the bonkers one in City Hunter. You’ve just got to appreciate that this is not a Hong Kong movie. In the end it’s director Robert Clouse’s filming of the action with just one camera that lets things down probably as much as the choreography so that not enough is made of some of the moves, though of course that’s the way it was done in the majority of Hong Kong films until the likes of Chan and Sammo Hung began to do their own fight staging. While one of the hoodlums likes to cut up faces with razors [off screen], the gangster stuff is mostly played lightly, Dominici’s crass, frank mother being an especially amusing highlight. You probably wouldn’t get either some rather racist remarks nor some extremely racial stereotypical fighters if the film were made today, though the former is no doubt realistic. Otherwise a few old cars, costumes and slightly redressed exteriors hardly convince us that we’re in the American of the ‘30s, while a sub theme about differing generations of Chinese assimilating or not assimilating into the American way of life is raised and then forgotten about after a while. Take for example Nancy’s inability to understand how Jerry’s brother can marry somebody he’s never seen. Considering how it initially seems like it’s going to play a major part, a bit more could have been done with the cultural aspect without getting in the way of the action and the comedy.
Chan’s appealing and rather noble screen personality is already in evidence – I love the way that, for instance, he can’t drink a toast insulting his irritating father who doesn’t like anything that he does. But his awkwardness with the language does show, and it’s distracting that the rest of his character’s family speak English really well. This would have only made sense if Jerry had just recently come to America. Rosalind Chaoh has an amusing moment or two as the uncultured tart masquerading as the kidnapped bride, while once again Jose Ferrer, an excellent actor whom few seemed to know what to do with, seems happy to just have fun and take yet another paycheck as Dominini. Schifrin’s fine score sometimes adds some elements of the jazz of the time to his typical action cues, and I still hope that we’ll get to see it released one day. Battle Creek Brawl is fundamentally flawed, but it most definitely has its pleasures and I feel that those Chan lovers who [partly understandably] hate or at least dismiss it ought to give it another go. He’s made far far worse films, after all.