Viewing Rumble in the Bronx today is a strange experience. On release it was Jackie’s successful comeback to the American movie market, a Golden Harvest production that finally showcased what Jackie could do, the Hong Kong way. Nowadays it feels very dated, and it’s hard to believe this film did well enough to trigger Jackie’s rise to Hollywood stardom. Ostensibly set in New York City, failing to disguise being filmed in Vancouver, Canada and very Hong Kong in style and tone, there is no taking Rumble seriously, unless your disbelief can survive being suspended by a single frayed thread.
The plot races along quickly, establishing where we are, what language we’re speaking and giving a bit of character background. Most importantly, protagonist Keung (Jackie Chan) demonstrates his physical credentials in a couple of ways. Uncle Bill (Bill Tung) has a dusty wing chun training dummy in his apartment which Keung swiftly puts to use — and which for once provides a logical reason for the “power powder” effect used to make the impact of blows stand out. The next morning we get a glimpse of
Jackie’s Keung’s exercise routine. All that’s needed are some baddies to show up… and before long they oblige.
New supermarket owner Elaine (Anita Mui) finds herself victim of a street gang and Keung helps/makes things worse by fighting back. These repeated run-ins hardly vary in theme, but escalate well enough to a showdown in the gang’s hangout featuring all the gang members in their eclectically attired glory and props aplenty as Jackie goes to town. Who knows why the gang keeps so many old pinball machines or empty fridges around? All that matters is their creative misuse in the mayhem. A single ski makes a neat stand-in for the classic, slightly flexible pole as a weapon for example. The fight is capped by one of the earnest speeches Jackie sometimes makes in his movies, with Keung lecturing the gang to stop being so naughty.
Later in the film Keung’s opposition shifts to a group of nasty, swearing, mobsters, whose greater villainy is verified by committing the street gang’s misdeeds to a worse extent. Plus they actually kill people, including the film’s most graphic — albeit not shown — death. This plotline culminates in an extended vehicle chase using a very unconventional vehicle and Jackie’s dedication to action is plainest throughout this scene. We see his ankle break in slow-motion and the out-takes show he still didn’t stop, wearing a sock painted like a sneaker over the cast in order to carry on filming.
Another way Rumble carries on the Hong Kong action tradition is the use of stunt performers in supporting roles. Marc Akerstream (also credited as a stunt coordinator and stunt driver) plays street gang leader Tony while Garvin Cross (who has surely doubled for Daniel Craig at some stage) gets to ham it up as the slimiest of the gang.
While the action adapts well to the western setting, the rest of the film suffers when it stops. Even a general audience probably won’t be fooled by some New York sports team apparel or dropping in an occasional shot of a recognisable New York landmark — which aren’t located in The Bronx anyway. Jackie himself admits that after a while they gave up trying to simulate the setting, figuring the audience should be focused on the action anyway.
More distracting than the geographical cheats are the cultural ones. Hong Kong style films transposed overseas often suffer from a severe sense of dislocation and it’s pretty pronounced here. Attempts to emulate American culture are painted with strokes broad enough to be offensive if not laughed at for their absurdity. It’s as though all of the cultural reference points used were 80s b-movies and from the opening credits Rumble could easily be mistaken for one, if not for some elements like car and mobile phone models. The film also lacks the extra layer of local jokes and references that fill Hong Kong set films, leaving it blunt and obvious in the delivery of story and characters. There’s barely any subtlety in characterisations or emotions, most glaring in the use of a disabled boy (Morgam Lam) for maximum audience manipulation. A token romantic scene between Keung and gang member Nancy (Françoise Yip) is perhaps the script’s loudest clunk, although for those familiar with Anita Mui’s work, seeing her reduced to crying on the toilet at her character’s lowest moment is humiliating by proxy. Despite this, and despite her part being dubbed, she still manages the film’s best acting.
In hindsight, it seems logical to assume this film succeeded solely because the action was strong enough to overshadow its many other weaknesses, serving up wildly creative and clearly presented choreography to a new audience. For a certain chunk of Asian film fans in the west (including this one), Rumble in the Bronx was where it all started — an introduction to a new and exciting world of cinema. In spite of its shortcomings, this film has a lot to take credit for.