How Jackie Chan Draws Inspiration From Classic Hollywood

Getty Images
Getty Images / Getty Images

Legendary actor and martial artist Jackie Chan is known around the world for his death-defying stuntwork and his iconic blend of kung fu and physical comedy. Chan got his start in the 1970s, working as an extra and stuntman in kung fu movies (including the films of Bruce Lee) before directing his own works in China and eventually becoming a crossover star in America. But, while most of us associate him with the Hong Kong kung fu tradition or the American comedies he later starred in, Chan actually draws much of his inspiration from a very different source: classic Hollywood and silent comedies.

In the more than 50 years that Jackie Chan has been making movies, he’s been called both the “Buster Keaton of martial arts” and the “lightning-fast Charlie Chaplin of martial arts moviemaking.” Critics have compared his highly choreographed fight scenes to those of Golden Age swashbucklers like Douglas Fairbanks and Errol Flynn, and his movements to famous dancers like Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire.

If you’ve read any reviews of Chan’s movies, it’s likely you’ve seen these comparisons drawn. But you might not know that Chan himself has repeatedly cited silent film comedians as inspirations. In 1995, he told The New York Times, “I wanted to be like a Chaplin or Buster Keaton, but all the martial arts directors I worked with wanted me to copy Bruce Lee.”

When, in 1996, a critic observed that Chan seemed to draw inspiration from silent comedian Harold Lloyd, Chan replied, “Not only Harold Lloyd, but Charlie Chaplin. And Buster Keaton—I think he's the best. And [during] their time they didn't have protection—elbow pads, knee pads, or special effects computers. They really surprised me. They did all [their own] crazy stunts—that's why I learned everything from them.” He continued, “I learned a lot of things from Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire. Actually, I totally copied from Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire.”

When he started directing his own movies, Chan started working in techniques he learned from his old-school Hollywood heroes. From Astaire and Kelly, he learned choreography and framing; he’d fight using props the same way Kelly and Astaire danced using props. “When [Astaire is] dancing, it's not only dancing. He can move the light post and slide to the piano and dance with a chair. I try to use everything around me,” Chan told the Los Angeles Times. From the silent comedians, he learned comic timing and stuntwork.

In two of his films, Chan went so far as to recreate several of his favorite silent comedians' greatest stunts: Project A (1983) and Project A 2 (1987) include the most direct homages, recreating and embellishing upon scenes from Chaplin's Modern Times (1936), Lloyd's Safety Last! (1923), Keaton's Sherlock Jr. (1924), and more. Check out the compilation below to see Chan’s kung fu tribute to the legends of silent comedy. And, above, watch a few of the cinematic techniques he learned from Hollywood of the 1920s through 1950s side-by-side with the films themselves.