Published September 30, 2002
In olden times, if you can remember back so far, Hollywood would use its wonderful technological wizardry in order to persuade us that the heroes in the movies were virtually superhuman in strength and agility. Nowadays, at least to judge from Kevin Donovan’s The Tuxedo, the idea seems to be to use a hero — Jackie Chan — who really is virtually superhuman in strength and agility in order to persuade us that technological wizardry is wonderful. Welcome to the postmodern age.
Mr Chan has always been pretty uncritical of his scripts, only asking of them that they give him plenty of opportunity for leaping about and fighting in the intervals of cracking jokes. But as a Hong Kong action star, he prided himself on doing all his own stunts. On arriving on these shores neither his hands nor his feet were faster than the speed with which he adapted to American cinematic fakery. And having cheerfully assented to wires and trick photography in the Rush Hour films and Shanghai Noon, he obviously had little standing to resist them in Tuxedo, even if he had wanted to.
And he could hardly have wanted to, given that the whole film is designed as a paean to technological trickery. As an ordinary guy (“Not every Chinese is Bruce Lee,” he says reproachfully on being expected to know martial arts) called Jimmy Tong, Jackie Chan becomes chauffeur to the glamorous secret agent Clark Devlin (Jason Isaacs) and is transformed into, well, Jackie Chan when he puts on Devlin’s high-tux techsedo, invented by a government agency to give its agents Bond-like powers. Fortunately, he has a sexy, brainy female sidekick, Del Blaine (Jennifer Love Hewitt), from headquarters who effortlessly defeats and disables men twice her size with the tricks she has learned out of a US government manual on unarmed combat. “OK,” she says to herself as one such approaches her: “Chapter six of the training manual: unarmed assailant, frontal attack; begin.”
At least beating up the plug uglies by following the manual looks a little less like magic than the robotic tuxedo, though it is scarcely more believable. Of course, the waif-like girl who is omnicompetent as fighter, thinker and lover against all sizes and weights of men has become a convention of the contemporary cinema, as much taken for granted as white hats for the good guys and black for the bad used to be in old-fashioned westerns. Together these two have to prevent a horribly cruel and sexist British bad guy called Diedrich Banning (Richie Coster) and his nerdy assistant, Dr. Simms (Peter Stormare), who has been turned to ill-doing by his inability to get a date, from monopolizing the world’s supply of bottled water.
No really. These latter two, obviously representative of the patriarchy, have also invented a kind of mutant water that makes people so thirsty they literally shrivel up and blow away, so everybody’s soon going to need bottled water really bad too. There are also some exotic bugs whose breeding habits are somehow going to bring about the world’s water crisis, but I forget exactly what the rationale of these is — apart, I mean, from providing the occasion for Jimmy and Del to infiltrate a top secret laboratory where they are having a black-tie party so that Jimmy’s tuxedo can go up against another tuxedo with similar powers. “Oh!” says one combatant to the other, “you’ve got a good suit as well!” It certainly gives a new meaning to the idea of the well-dressed secret agent.
Having taken away the only reason for watching a Jackie Chan movie, namely the authenticity of Jackie Chan himself, what have the filmmakers given us in return? Teenage wish-fulfilment of a kind increasingly familiar in action pictures these days. In XXX, for instance, the charm of the scenario lies in the idea that lazy, undisciplined slackers like, well, moi, can wander in off the street and instantly outperform the highly trained secret agents that were the role models of yesteryear. Mr Chan now lends his own highly disciplined physical skills to a similar imposture: that enough of the right technology can render skill and discipline unnecessary. Isn’t this, by the way, an attitude which was recently being talked of as having made American intelligence gathering in many dangerous parts of the world less effective than it should be?