Book Review: Jackie Chan’s rule to live by? “Never Grow Up”

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Like most early but not “earliest” adapters — I found Jackie Chan’s action comedies at the insistence of friends into Asian cinema.

A top tier stunt man, martial artist and Keaton-esque clown, it took a while, a few tries and then some, for him to break out in the West. But once he did, Asia’s biggest action star became the world’s darling, an impish dynamo who wore his working class roots with pride, and never palmed off a stunt on others he wasn’t gutsy enough to do himself.

The outtakes at the end of every Jackie Chan movie showed just how often those stunts could go wrong.

He lists the major injuries he’s suffered to every part of his body in “Never Grow Up,” his second autobiography (the first was “My Life in Action.). From his back to his neck, cheekbones to teeth and all points in between, Jackie Chan has broken, wrenched, concussed and dislocated them all.

The new book is an “as told to” autobiography, built around his decades of anecdotes, the mealtime/drinks-after-work conversations he has with his large entourage and overheard by his longtime publicist, Zhu Mo.

So “Never Grow Up” isn’t a researched and verified biography, but more a “How I remembered it/What I learned in life” recounting of his upbringing, his harsh martial arts schooling, rough and tumble crawl to stardom and how he used and misused that stardom over the decades.

The former Chan Kong-Sang is 65 now, sanguine about his shortcomings and forthcoming in ways aimed at a “Learn from my mistakes, kids” narrative.

I’ve interviewed him several times over the years, and always found him to be a star seeking to come off humble, but prone to bragging (with cause), relentlessly cheerful but not shy about the hard life and hard falls he took to get where he is.

Not bitter, but still a guy with a bit of a chip on his shoulder, which he freely admits in this new autobiography.

“Never Grow Up” has him questioning, again, his lack of enthusiasm for elementary school, which landed him in a martial arts/acting-tumbling China Drama Academy for ten years.

He was functionally illiterate for much of his life, and even now says he freezes up at autograph sessions in China (tougher write than English).

He was scared to death at many of the stunts he and his team cooked up for him, and once he had control of his screen projects, would put off dangerous falls and the like for days and days, working up the nerve.

He’s always loved gambling and drink, and wasn’t always the nicest guy to date, and owns up to it all freely, though one suspects he’s protesting a bit too much here.

He mistrusted his Taiwanese movie starlet wife, the mother of his son. But he was the one caught cheating.

He spent money freely, and confesses to being petty and greedy and acquisitive in the extreme for much of his life — holding grudges against shops that wouldn’t serve him when he was poor, lavishing presents on friends, family and colleagues, building schools in China with his charity foundation.

There’s a bit of star worship in reverse here and there — Stallone confessing “Whenever we run out of (action beat) ideas, we watch one of your movies,” reciting, at length, his honorary Oscar presentation (Tom Hanks honored him that afternoon).

He doesn’t name names much — avoids insulting those who treated him badly in his early years, when Hong Kong was hellbent on making this smiling joker “The New Bruce Lee.” He skims past his biggest global hits, so no fun or digging Chris Tucker or Owen Wilson anecdotes.
He befriended Stallone, visited Cameron and Spielberg on the sets of their blockbusters, but continued to do his work with lesser lights, cashing the checks as he did.

There are blurbs on the back of “Never Grow Up” with those directors and producers, and those co-stars singing his praises.

That’s where Zhu Mo’s book of “listening” to Jackie Chan shows us how it falls short. Too much of a tough life is handled with kid gloves, there’s too little about working out the stunts, etc., taking a shot at working with very young John Woo EARLY on (some of it covered in “My Life in Action”).

There are too few confirming or contradictory voices laying out the “real” Jackie Chan — insecure, driven, brave and canny (Chinese filmmakers always have to worry about how their words will play back home, and with the overlords in charge).

At least he doesn’t trot out his weariest anecdotes — the one about how he was supposed to be filming, hanging off the side of the World Trade Center as a window washer on 9/11, etc.

“Never Grow Up” (Simon & Schuster, $26) is thus a pretty good book, but more a stepping stone for a better book which somebody not quite in awe of their subject will be the one to write.

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