One could pen a compelling cast study of macho movie stars and their obsession with motor racing. Just like Steve McQueen and Paul Newman before him, clown prince of kung fu Jackie Chan mounted his pet project, Thunderbolt, hoping to translate his personal passion for Formula One racing into a unique Hong Kong blockbuster. His legendary perfectionism drove an already hefty budget further out of control and the star clashed with original director Gordon Chan over the tone and direction of the film, but the end result remains considerably more entertaining than detractors often claim. Things kick off with a manic montage of the Mitsubishi Team in training while a race car is assembled on the factory line. Jackie himself sings the rocking theme tune about staying focused and how the heart is the mark of a true winner, a song far more thematically relevant than we first suspect. Our man plays an ace mechanic-cum-racecar driver named Arthur in the English dub, but plain ol' Jackie in the Cantonese cut. Hey, he's been a cop, a lawyer, a treasure hunter and a kung fu kicking celebrity chef in his time, so why can't Hong Kong's most famous movie star lead a double life as a racecar driver?
Having graduated from a Mitsubishi Masters course in Japan, Jackie/Arthur (whose other films are so full of Mitsubishi product placement, you just know he wouldn't drive for any other team) runs an auto shop alongside his motor-mad dad (veteran director-turned-charactor actor Chu Yuan, Jackie's antagonist in Police Story (1985)) whilst doting on his cute kid sisters, Sammy (Daisy Woo Hoi-Yan) and Daphne (Annie Man Chung-Han). He's so protective he beats up a whole gang of street punks after one dares to smack Sammy's butt. One night, whilst helping the Hong Kong police track illegally upgraded cars, Jackie heroically foils the homicidal road rampage of ponytailed psychotic road racing criminal Warner "Cougar" Kaugman (Thorsten Nickel), and gets noticed by ambitious, micro-miniskirted reporter Amy (Anita Yuen). Sensing a scoop, Amy inveigles her way into Jackie's life just as Interpol agent Steve Cannon (Michael Wong) urges him to tell a lie that lands Cougar in jail. This backfires as Cougar escapes prison and exacts violent revenge, killing Jackie's dad and kidnapping Sammy so as to force him into a fatal showdown at the Sendai racetrack.
Seeing Thunderbolt on the big screen for a birthday treat as a kid instilled a fondness for this maligned effort that lingers with me to this day. Although the script betrays its stars boyish fascination with racecar driving, being full of gear-head terminology and stressing his almost zen-like way with a set of wheels, unlike Steve McQueen with Le Mans (1971), Jackie knew better than to alienate his audience with self-indulgence. Admittedly the plot is as rickety as that of a silent era serial, but played for maximum melodrama and with utmost sincerity it gets the job done and proves quite compelling. We expect Hong Kong action movies to be somewhat schizophrenic but Thunderbolt really plays tonal hopscotch, shifting gears from light romance to knockabout comedy (including an amusing dig at then governor of Hong Kong, Chris Patton) and darkly sadistic thriller. However, the film does gel together, ultimately emerging as another of Jackie's loving portraits of an enduring family unit. The whole pit crew form an extended family who pull together in a crisis.
Another of its core themes is integrity and the trouble that arises when a person fails to stay true to themselves, a message underlined by that theme tune and further bolstered by the subplot with Amy torn between her ambitions and romantic feelings. Anita Yuen was the biggest star in Hong Kong cinema at the time. Less conventionally glamorous than his usual co-stars, her girl-next-door persona adds a layer of likeability to an otherwise weakly scripted love interest. Other cast members include celebrated director (and Jackie's childhood friend) Corey Yuen Kwai as a doctor and Jackie's bodyguard, Ken Lo in his usual guise as an evil henchman. To boost box office appeal for his legion of Japanese fans, Jackie also includes Mari Eguro as the Mitsubishi boss' leggy daughter, who proves his guardian angel late in the day, cheering alongside a bevy of bikini clad Japanese beauties. While the original cut of Thunderbolt was billingual, unfolding pleasingly in Cantonese, English and Japanese, the later English dubbed version is quite poor, making Thorsten Nickel's grimacing performance seem that more amateurish and Anita Yuen sound far more whiny than her character actually is.
Of course, people don't flock to a Jackie Chan movie for the romance or subtext, but for the action. The car chases shot by Gordon Chan are indeed among the most exciting ever staged in a Hong Kong film, showcasing another facet of Jackie's talent, namely his daredevil racing skills. They pack far more of a visceral charge than the CGI enhanced antics of The Fast and the Furious franchise. However, the climactic race shot by composer-turned-actor-director Frankie Chan is disappointingly pedestrian. Elsewhere, the individual action scenes created by Jackie and Sammo Hung (reunited for this film after being estranged for eight years) are stylishly mounted. Cougar's escape from jail is a blazing bullet-fest worthy of John Woo. Sammo staged the film's two most spectacular stunt sequences, mixing stop-frame photography with bravura editing as the villains use a crane to hoist Jackie's house off the ground and smash it into his family's home. His sisters crash headfirst through glass panes and dangle precariously off the ledge, while Jackie himself is reduced to a bruised and bloodied mess. Later, the duo turn a fight at the pachinko parlour pitting Jackie against Cougar's crew and hordes of shrieking, tattooed yakuza, into a frenzied riot of candy-coloured manga visuals, climaxing with an explosion of pachinko balls. Out-takes over the end credits, of course.
Hong Kong born actor, producer and director and one of the best known figures in Hong Kong cinema. Hung's large frame belies a formidable martial arts ability, and he's best known for his collaborations with Jackie Chan during the 1980s and more recently for his US TV show Martial Law.