Jackie checks to see if this film
is better than a sharp poke in the eye.
It didn't take Jackie Chan long to decide he wanted to conquer Hollywood. He had his first international hit in 1978 with Drunken Master, and by 1980 he had made his first American movie, The Big Brawl, known in Hong Kong as Battle Creek Brawl. And as if Jackie Chan didn't have enough trouble early in his Hong Kong film career trying live down the silly perception that he was the "new Bruce Lee," the pattern repeated itself in America with The Big Brawl. Robert Clouse, who directed Lee's iconic Enter the Dragon, was hired to direct Brawl, and the advertising campaign made the film look like a standard kung fu revenge story. That said, The Big Brawl does allow Jackie to keep the comedy front and center for most of the movie. It's not nearly as much of a disaster as his next starring role in America, The Protector.
We should note that we watched this on an imported DVD, which as far as we know is the only way to see this movie widescreen and therefore judge the action. Unfortunately, the HK DVD doesn't have an English language track, so we ended up watching this American movie in Cantonese. We couldnt help but feeling that this somehow added to the film's charm, especially as a large number of the actors are clearly Americans.
If Jackie Chan ran an HMO.
Jackie Chan plays Jerry Kwan, the son of an immigrant grocer in 1930s Chicago. Mr. Kwan doesn't want his son to fight (this is true in about half of all Jackie Chan films), but the local mob keeps shaking down his small grocery for protection money. This leads to a rather amusing skirmish in which Jerry, as his father looks on, beats up three mob thugs while trying to make it appear as if he is the victim.
Rather than have a real plot for the first half, The Big Brawl is just a bunch of stuff that happens. Jerry has a martial arts mentor in Herbert, played by Mako. (We never noticed this before, but Mako is about 70% head. His cranium is huge. He may technically be a bobblehead. Only a complicated series of expensive CAT scans will resolve this question to our satisfaction.) Herbert helps Jerry train in scenes that are more than a little reminiscent of Beggar So and Wong in Drunken Master. Beggar So never thought of making Wong dodge dozens of flying tennis balls, however. Herbert further tortures Jerry with a treadmill outfitted with spikes (we kept thinking of the time Beaker was called upon to supply electricity to the Muppet Theater) and a practice dummy who even shares Jerry's bed.
"I'll take the guy who runs a web site."
Jerry, along with his girlfriend Nancy (Kristine DeBell, best known for the erotic Alice in Wonderland) and another barely-developed character (identified by his jersey as "Jug"), enters a local roller derby. While roller derby certainly was a sport in the 1930s, we're pretty sure that the contestants didn't wear shiny costumes back then, nor would the teams have been as sexually and racially integrated as those on display here. The race takes place around warehouse loading docks, and there are a few shriners on hand with fire hoses to keep things interesting. That, and the contestants are apparently free to club each other into unconsciousness.
In a separate set of events that will eventually intersect with Jerry's world, gangster kingpin Domenici (Jose Ferrer, who probably viewed this film as a step up from Zoltan, Hound of Dracula) sponsors a fighter in a series of popular street fights, including the climactic (ta da!) Battle Creek Brawl. Though the enormous "Kiss" ("Hard Boiled" Haggerty, a dead ringer for the large Nazi mechanic in Raiders of the Lost Ark), seen bludgeoning Lucky the Leprechaun in the film's opening scenes, is the fan favorite to win the Brawl, Domenici covertly seeks a dark horse who can best him. The reasoning? Why, so he can bet on his ringer and collect big when the odds go through the roof. This is a bit of a turnaround on the way this story usually goes; more often, the gangsters just pay the favorite to take a fall. But Domenici likes doing things the hard way, we guess, so he recruits Jerry -- who has proven himself by beating the crap out of Domenici's heavies several times -- to help out.
Is it still unarmed combat
if one guy is driving a car?
Jerry is reticent at first (especially as Herbert discourages the idea), but the promise of the fight's ample prize money, which will help fund his brother's medical clinic, brings him around. As additional insurance, Domenici kidnaps the brother's fiancee (a very young and pretty Rosalind Chao). Because she is an arranged fiancée whom the brother has never seen, Domenici provides a prostitute substitute until after the fight. We got the feeling this could have been milked for a lot more comedy -- the brother or even their father could have fallen in love with the hooker, for example -- but the situation was never explored beyond a few tepid jokes. Chao never even makes a second appearance, or even gets a close-up!
Battle Creek Brawl is set all over the U.S. We watched in some amusement as a man of few means in the '30s bopped from Chicago to San Francisco, back to Chicago, and then on to Texas, all in the span of a few days, and while training for a big fight. Further mirth was inspired by the fact that Floresville, Texas fills the role of all these locations. Since the last third of the film takes place in Battle Creek, however, we suppose it's better that it was filmed there than to ask San Francisco or Chicago to do the job.
Whoa there, Kristine - this isn't Alice in Wonderland.
With lots of incentive and the support of Nancy and Herbert, Jerry arrives in Battle Creek with a new moniker: Dragon. (Insert rolling of eyes here as Bruce Lee comparisons continue.) The fights take place on the city streets, beginning with an open elimination round during which the combatants whack each other around all at once for a set time period. Those left standing at the end of that period progress to the heats. So it is that we are introduced to a large number of gregarious characters, including one man who appears to be Ming the Merciless. Another contestant looks like what would happen if you force-fed several toddlers to Ronald McDonald. (Or, who knows? Maybe Harry Knowles got some kung-fu lessons.) One of our favorites could be the love child of Apollo Creed and the Mayor of the Munchkin City.
Dragon, of course, survives the first fight, proceeds to the final rounds, and eventually comes face to face with Kiss. Our money is on Dragon -- after all, Kiss has been known to rock and roll all night, and party every day. In what kind of fighting shape can he possibly be?
"Where are your Lucky Charms?!"
Battle Creek Brawl is a good approximation of Jackie's early HK action/comedy formula, just set in America. The execution, sadly, is a bit slack. That's probably due to the direction of Robert Clouse. Clouse will forever be remembered for making Enter the Dragon, but other than that film, Clouse's output is not very good. There are plenty of scenes in Brawl that seem like they should be really funny, but don't quite come off. And we watched the movie in Chinese, which probably made every scene at 10% more funny than it would have been otherwise. When it comes to the action, Jackie did his own choreography. It's generally good, but they are shot without much spark, so even Jackie's set pieces (a sparring sequence with Mako, and the final showdown with Kiss, which would have made Buster Keaton proud) turn out flat. There's one brief sequence towards the end where Jackie ends up in an abandoned theater with the guy who hurt Jug (Remember him? We didn't!), that steals the serious tone of Enter the Dragon for few minutes, and it's completely out of place.
After The Big Brawl Jackie went on to appear in the two Cannonball Run films and the disaster that was The Protector. What these later films had in common was that they didn't begin to exploit Jackie's strengths as a performer. But with Big Brawl Jackie almost got off on the right foot in America, even if it would be another sixteen years before he would have a hit in the US.