Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene Sleight of Chan

Stunts soar in Operation Condor

By Noel Murray and Jim Ridley

JULY 28, 1997:  Some of my fondest memories of childhood are of the movies I didn't see. I cowered under my blanket for years after my baby-sitter told me the whole story of Halloween when I was 8, and at age 12 I had countless fantasies inspired by a friend's recital of Porky's. And for a boy who spent Saturday afternoons playing soccer or bouncing tennis balls off a brick wall, I was especially fascinated by the lunchtime recounting of all the kung fu movies I missed on Channel 17. People who say the oral storytelling tradition is dead never sat at a lunch table with a pack of sugar-fueled sixth-graders.

If I were back in grade school, and I had just seen Jackie Chan's Operation Condor, I don't know what I would describe first. Maybe the opening sequence, in which Chan swipes four emeralds from a sacred temple and then escapes by crawling inside a big, inflatable ball and rolling down a mountain. Or maybe I'd recount his motorcycle chase through the streets of some generic Spanish city--the scene climaxes with Chan riding up a stack of banana boxes, popping a wheelie over a pier, and jumping from the airborne bike onto a cargo net hanging 50 feet above the water. And then there's the wind-tunnel scene--but I'll get to that in a minute.

Operation Condor is the fourth Jackie Chan film to get a wide release in the U.S., and it's also the oldest. It was originally released in Hong Kong in 1990 as a sequel to Chan's Indiana Jones-inspired Armour of God. As with all the recent "Americanized" Chan films, the film has been shortened, the music has been replaced, and the film has been dubbed in a close approximation of the actors' actual voices (as opposed to the "Cary Grant" voice so typical of Hong Kong dubbing).

Also, as with the other stateside Chan releases, the abridged version makes little sense. Chan plays an agent of some kind on a mission to retrieve buried Nazi gold, all the while keeping his three female companions from getting killed or stripped. None of this matters. The premise is just an excuse to get Chan in the thick of trouble, so that he can amusingly scrap his way out. Half the time, we don't even get a chance to figure out whether someone's a bad guy before Chan starts whaling on him--for all we know, these anonymous punching bags could be peacekeeping forces delivering aid to Rwanda.

What matters is the action, which is choice. Besides the scenes mentioned above, there are some other marvelous set pieces, most of them in an underground Nazi base during the film's incredible final half-hour. Chan dives through ventilator shafts and under rolling pipes, which he uses both for combat and for escape. Like some kind of video-game hero, he fights on three seesawing girders. He enters a wind tunnel--ah, the wind tunnel--which enables him to fly through the air and deliver punches at 100-plus mph.

Operation Condor is fun but no classic. After the dynamic opening, the film is sluggish (motorcycle chase notwithstanding) until team Chan gets to the base. The first hour is filled with crude slapstick and borderline racist caricatures of Arabs; the only thing that saves the depictions from being malicious is that every ethnic group in the movie is buffoonish. This has always been the dilemma with Chan's movies. For all the comic invention of his fight scenes, there's not much to sustain his films when the fists aren't flying. That's because they're designed for the worldwide market, where plot is hardly at a premium.

Had Chan come to Hollywood earlier, would his comic genius have been channeled, la Chaplin, or leveled, la Richard Pryor? Would he have made a real challenger to Raiders of the Lost Ark, or would the 1980s' emphasis on gritty action have forced him into making the martial-arts equivalent of Oh, Brother Where Art Thou? Given Chan's advancing age, we can only wonder and wish--and thank his twentysomething cultists for his recent breakthrough to American multiplexes.

This most recent generation shuffling off the sociopolitical stage--"slackers," "Gen-Xers," or what-have-you--will likely be remembered for their cavalier cynicism as well as for their enthusiasm for nostalgia. That nostalgia has evolved into a form of metanostalgia that spans across decades and is concerned with sincerity as much as with irony. In other words, it might be kitschy cool to sit through three straight Sonny Chiba Streetfighter movies--especially if you're Quentin Tarantino--but it's cooler still if the movies are something you can actually enjoy. Unfortunately, these earnest retro impulses usually work better in theory than in actuality.

Enter Jackie Chan, the great unifier. He has legitimized the desire to waste an afternoon at a kung-fu movie by bringing balletic wonder to the genre, along with artistry and a big dollop of boisterous entertainment. I expect future generations to wax rhapsodic about the Chan flicks they devoured as preteens, and to share their excitement with generations to come. Even if Operation Condor was made in a movie climate that discourages complexity, it does showcase a special kind of movie magic that Chan has mastered. He may never make a truly great movie, but at least Jackie Chan makes movies that are as cool as they sound.--Noel Murray

A Confederacy of toonces
The beguiling, poignant French comedy When the Cat's Away uses a specific anecdote drawn from real life--a Parisian woman's search for her runaway pet--to illuminate basic human truths about loneliness, the need for companionship, and the shoving aside of past generations. The writer-director, Cdric Klapisch, based his film on the experiences of a friend who lost her cat and enlisted a network of odd strangers to help find it. In the movie, that friend becomes Chloe (Garance Clavel), a makeup artist who returns from vacation only to discover that her beloved Gris-Gris has vanished from the apartment of an elderly neighbor.

The disappearance of Gris-Gris doesn't just upset Chloe; it punctures her cocoon-like routine, which has narrowed her world to a coterie of self-obsessed hipsters and the confines of her apartment. As she ventures into the streets searching for the cat, she hooks up with a series of eccentric, desperately lonely people, most of them residents of a neighborhood tagged for demolition. They alone understand how much a constant companion--a constant anything--means to a solitary person.

Chloe's walks through the city form a picaresque adventure, and with its improvised feel, vibrant dance music, and bold colors, When the Cat's Away has an offhand, feathery charm, as if neither Chloe nor Klapisch were quite sure whom she'd meet around the next corner. But the movie isn't a trifle. Klapisch's Paris is ruled by the tyranny of the new--the radio hints at political upheaval, old apartment buildings are being leveled for modern high-rises, and many of the marginalized people Chloe meets are being forced out of their homes. Displacement and missed connections are the movie's central motifs. (Notice how many people are rebuffed when they try to steal kisses, or how many characters have been served eviction notices.) The movie is held together, ironically enough, by its many uprooted, yearning, disconnected souls, who give this comic whirligig a center of sadness.

In Garance Clavel, the movie has a heroine who expresses naivet, longing, and unhappiness without being a sap about it; she's funny and resourceful, if inexperienced, and at the end she flashes a joyous smile. When the Cat's Away also benefits from a real stroke of inspiration: Klapisch cast some of the quirky Parisians who helped search for his friend's pet--especially the unforgettable Rene Le Calm, from whose apartment the real Gris-Gris escaped. Without this feisty, fixated woman, Chloe wouldn't have lost her cat or found a fascinating world outside her apartment--and we wouldn't have this sweet little summer breeze of a movie.--Jim Ridley


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