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Back in the fall I attended a screening to which the knowing public had also been invited. Behind me sat a row of local film critics, who had stuck together in line and spent the wait loudly asking one another what they had seen, presumably to differentiate their presence at the Cineplex from that of the rabble. (This distinction is only plausible to those who think in terms of critic vs. rabble. As for members of the rabble, they had the nerve to go on with their evening, laboring under the delusion that they were at the movies to have a good time.)

Anyway, before the feature there was a trailer for Jackie Chan’s Rumble in the Bronx—two minutes of meticulously edited thrills and music, jaw-dropping stunts flitting by with the speed and nonchalance of bees on a summer day, punctuated by sudden halts in action, which Chan used for self-effacing comic relief. When it came to an end, or rather a climax, the audience laughed and clapped and made whooping noises, because that is the reaction any amount of time in Jackie Chan’s awesome presence seems to demand. Not my colleagues in the second row: “They should give a credit for ‘choreographer,’” someone drawled. The rest chuckled jadedly.

It must be a lonely job, being too much of a snob to enjoy Jackie Chan. Fight sequences planned out like dance steps—what would Sam Peckinpah think?

To remark that Chan performs all his own stunts is like saying that Olivier read all his own lines. Chan’s acting takes the form of doing stunts. If he really was playing James Bond, as his character, “Jackie,” sometimes fancies, this dedication to craft would be worth cooing over. But insofar as his movies are about anything, they are about the beauty, resourcefulness, and humor of the human body, preferably one that houses a quick and clever mind. The Hong Kong action-star-turned-hip-America’s-favorite-living-cartoon-character knows that in crafting a 90-minute action vehicle, “acting” is what gets you from the chase scene at the Chinese funeral to the extravagant battle in the shark-infested aquarium, so it had better be simple, brief, and perfunctory.

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Chan’s films, all of them more or less like this latest (well, less, since First Strike boasts more money and swanker locations than usual), can be accused of indulging in a certain amount of cheese, but they are never without a finely calibrated sense of scale. Where American action movies showcase the big stunts shamelessly with slo-mo camerawork, hosanna-ing music, or, in a bizarre display of thrift, by showing them twice from different angles, Chan’s ingenious combat style always serves the movie moment. Ducking to avoid a projectile takes just as long and is just as coolly photographed as, say, leaping between the steps of a collapsible metal ladder to avoid a jabbing pole. Jackie, the Hong Kong cop portrayed by Chan in his “Police Story” series, of which First Strike is the latest installment, does what it takes to win fights and cheat death; he has no time for grandstanding, and his very humility makes him a marvelously impressive—and human—hero.

About that ladder—it’s been featured in the trailer, but those few seconds don’t begin to indicate how imaginative this long and breathtaking sequence is. Chan’s dive is so quick you wonder if you really saw it. Only at the end, when less successful takes of various stunts unspool under the closing credits, does the difficulty of this trick become clear; he gets smashed up trying it over and over. His adversaries, maybe a dozen of them, poke and swing at him with long, lacquered poles (the sequence is set in a warehouse where they’re preparing the costumes and decorations for an elaborate funeral), while Jackie has only the ladder and his own body as weapon and defense.

First Strike is the fanciest “Police Story” episode. It involves, probably, a stolen nuclear warhead, rogue ex-KGB agents, rogue CIA agents, a beautiful girl who toys with sharks for a living, and a pair of jockey shorts with a stuffed koala sewn onto the front. More importantly, the cash infusion has allowed Chan to literally expand his horizons. The first sequence takes place in the mountainous Ukraine, and this location provides an exciting new adversary for Officer Jackie—snow.

Later, the action moves to Australia, where Jackie is put up in a garishly “tasteful” two-story resort penthouse with glass doors and panoramic picture windows everywhere, making for a sort of see-through daylight funhouse when he’s pursued by two enormous Russians and can’t tell the sparkling glass from the crisp antipodean air.

First Strike moves jerkily, even sluggishly, when the “plot” is in motion (as if anyone cares), but the action sequences are like a great dance performance or gymnastic display—the audience is excited and engaged by the rhythm and at the same time perfectly relaxed in the unerring hands of a master. Some of the simplest stunts are the most impressive. At one point, Jackie is cornered on one side of a small pool. Behind him is a straight drop. so he chooses to walk on water. It’s too big for one jump, but Jackie takes a hard step onto a floating pool toy, and gets enough spring to bounce off it onto safe concrete. In disguise at the funeral—it looks a lot like Chinese New Year—he catches sight of a bad guy holding the girl hostage, so he kicks him in the face. Oh, and the guy’s on a balcony, one story up. Jackie happens to be walking on stilts at the time.

If you’d like to experience The Relic but can’t get to the theater, here’s a cheap way: Get a strong flashlight and a lifelike rubber Halloween mask of a human head, the base of the neck smeared with red goo. Go into a perfectly dark room. Now, shine the flashlight around randomly. Drop the head on the floor, and shine the flashlight on it. Scream. Repeat for two hours.

The Relic isn’t horrible, it’s just made that way. I like my suspense funny (Arachnophobia) or creepy (Eraserhead), not alternately dim and gory. This movie obeys the rules of the modern suspense flick so blindly that you can tell in advance which scares are going to be false alarms (that darn cat) and which real (heads, heads, heads).

Briefly put, Penelope Ann Miller, who’s like a plain, stupid Nicole Kidman, plays Dr. Green, an evolutionary biologist at work on a DNA-identifying machine. She and her colleague at the Chicago Museum of Natural History, a Dr. Lee, are both up for the same grant, offered by a wealthy local couple. Without making the case for the worthlessness of his work or even showing why she’s a better human being, we are instructed to hate this Lee fellow and root for Dr. Green to get “her” grant. Never mind this film’s respect for healthy competition; Dr. Green seems like a whiny, selfish twit whose greed for the free money is just as developed as Lee’s. At different times they make similar jokes, thinking they’re in private, about their lust for the richies’ cash.

The big gala is set for tonight, but there’s a thing loose in the museum and it’s ripping people’s heads off. A cranky police lieutenant is called in to investigate. While the thing stalks the bluebloods and Detective Hollingsworth (welcome back, Clayton Rohner, unsung hero of ’80s new-wave teen flicks!) as he leads them dimly to safety, Dr. Whiny and Lt. Cranky team up to stop the monster before it can endanger her grant.

The museum has a million-dollar security system, but there isn’t a single 40-watt bulb in the joint. An evil policeman curses “whatever prankster created this miasma” and Linda Hunt, whose wisdom and kindliness is starting to get on my damn nerves, spreads anthropological misinformation. It’s just this sort of technical shoddiness that distresses the otherwise game viewer. For the record, the Aztecs did not eat their victims’ hearts. I think I know a little something about human sacrifice. Sheesh. CP