Keung (Jackie Chan), a high-kicking Hong Kong cop, travels to New York City’s South Bronx to help his Uncle Bill (Bill Tung) manage a grocery store. However, Uncle Bill has decided to marry his brassy African-American sweetheart and sells the family business to Elaine (Anita Mui - uncharacteristically un-glam with a horrible haircut), a fastidious young businesswoman. Keung elects to stay and help out, and quickly clashes with an antisocial street gang robbing and vandalizing the neighbourhood. Ambushed and left for dead, his life is saved by Nancy (Françoise Yip) and her crippled kid brother Danny (Morgan Lam). Nancy is a gang member herself, but winds up falling for the good-hearted Keung much to the displeasure of gang leader Tony (Marc Akerstream). Nevertheless, Keung tries his best to band the whole neighbourhood together to face down the big crime syndicate with designs on their property.
As a devoted Jackie Chan fan one must confess to mixed emotions about Rumble in the Bronx. On the one hand, this is the movie that finally broke him in America and did so on his own terms, an authentic Hong Kong action-comedy where his early Hollywood efforts - The Big Brawl (1980) and The Protector (1986) - had failed. On the other hand, it sealed into many mainstream minds the idea that all Jackie Chan movies were enthusiastic but inept fight fests with kitsch aspects and technical shortcomings redeemed solely by the star’s amazing athletic prowess and self-deprecating good nature.
This supposedly mainstream-friendly formula was soon set in stone for Chan’s subsequent stateside outings by the Rush Hour movies, where things got Hollywood-slick and added the unholy Chris Tucker/Brett Ratner combo (shudder…). One example of how this misperception permeated the popular consciousness, arose when BBC2’s cult film showcase Moviedrome finally screened a Jackie Chan movie. They did not choose his most artistically ambitious work, nor his most technically accomplished or even his best loved. Nope, they chose Rumble in the Bronx which, make no mistake, is a long way away from his best.
But at the same time, you can sort of see why the mainstream audience embraced this the way they did. For his second teaming with hit-and-miss director Stanley Tong - or third if you count Jackie’s cameo in drag in Project S (1993) - Chan twists the old wild west plot about the outsider who bands a community together against the bad guys. It’s a plot that served Bruce Lee very well in his classic Way of the Dragon (1972), here given a typical Jackie Chan twist with the emphasis on slapstick fu and a more forgiving hero. Where Bruce would have cracked the skulls of any street punks that dared lure him into an ambush, here Jackie kicks their asses but then offers an olive branch. It’s an admirably altruistic philosophy, if a bit rich when one minute Tony is smashing glass bottles against Jackie’s body, then the next moment hooting it up at his side.
The comedy is broad and cartoonish compared with the dextrous ingenuity of Chan comedies past, and mostly centred around him clowning with Anita Mui (his ex-girlfriend whose life was allegedly threatened by HK triads at that time, hence Jackie brought her to Canada), while the romance is handled by sultry newcomer Françoise Yip. Interestingly, in contrast to his amorous exploits off-screen, Chan usually plays it chaste but here enthusiastically locks onto Yip’s lush lips.
The action and stunts are serviceable but by Jackie’s high standards, unspectacular save for that spectacular daredevil leap off a balcony. Some Hong Kong film fans have controversially asserted this stunt was actually performed by Stanley Tong, though that seems unlikely given Jackie sustained an injury from this which meant the expected fight filled climax was rethought. Instead we have a silly speedboat-cum-hovercraft chase. The American version runs seventeen minutes shorter, though most of the cuts are minor comedy scenes. The film is also notable for marking the final screen appearance by Yueh Hua, one Shaw Brothers’ biggest stars and whose groundbreaking martial arts epic Come Drink with Me (1966) featured an early appearance from the young Jackie Chan.