Not many celebrities are at a point in their career when they have just made the most expensive film in local cinema history and are nonplussed about its box office – but that is exactly where Jackie Chan is right now. At USD$65 million, his latest period action epic ‘Dragon Blade’ is record-breaking, but ask if he feels any pressure from making good on that investment and he shrugs it off as if it just doesn’t matter.
“I don’t make movies to earn money now,” said Jackie, who brought the entire East-West cast of Hollywood stars John Cusack and Adrien Brody, K-pop singer Choi Si-Won and up-and-coming Mainland actresses Lin Peng and Mika Wang to Singapore for the press tour of ‘Dragon Blade’. “I made this movie because to me, it had a very important message of peace that needs to be heard across the world.”
In the movie, Jackie plays General Huo An, the Commander of the Silk Road Protection Squad whose goal is to keep the peace in the region amidst 36 warring nations fighting for a piece of the land. Framed for treason, Huo An and his men are sent to the border city of Wild Geese Gate to rebuild its walls, and there becomes its de facto ambassador of peace particularly with people of different tribes and languages itching to get at each other’s throats. In the same way, Jackie hopes that the movie can be an ambassador in the real world to impress upon nations and leaders to “turn foes into friends, and war into peace”.
It was these eight words in Chinese that Jackie found most resonant about writer-director Daniel Lee’s script, which he said took seven years to complete. “Daniel and I have been talking about the movie for as long as he had conceived it,” explained Jackie. “But the script only really came together after I had finished filming CZ12, and that was when we started preparing for the shoot itself.”
Production however turned out to be a creature of its own, as hundreds of extras, thousands of animals and just as many props were created just for the movie itself. To make it even more challenging, filming took place on location in the Gobi Desert, and Jackie described a punishing schedule of early morning drives which would take at least two hours and late night shooting which would last about two hours before midnight of the next day. It didn’t make it any easier that temperatures were soaring in the day and dipping below zero at night – and that’s not even counting the occasional sandstorms which would force a halt to shooting.
Even as he described how tenuous making the movie was, Jackie doesn’t claim that credit for himself, no matter that he was juggling multiple roles on this movie, including actor, action director and producer. He reserves that praise for the production crew, whose dedication was truly something to be admired. “I wake up at 5 – 6 am to get to the [Gobi] by about 8 – 9 am for rehearsals and staging so that we can start shooting the first shot at about 11 am every day, but the crew would already be getting ready by 2 – 3 am without fail.”
On the other hand, he makes it clearly known that he thinks the actors have it the easiest, because they are the last to come on the set and the first to leave after the day’s shooting is done. Responding to Lin Peng’s claim that it was her most difficult role to date, Jackie said that what the actors had to go through was nothing compared to what the production team had endured. “Basically, all you need to do is come to the set, then someone does your hair and makeup and costume for you, then you appear in front of the camera, and then you’re resting,” he said. “But you don’t see that all this while the crew are getting every single thing ready so that you can just show up!”
Adrien said that it was his childhood and adolescent fantasy to work with Jackie; in fact, his participation in the movie came about when he reached out to Jackie. “I happened to be in Beijing and I texted Jackie ‘Hi Jackie. This is Adrien Brody. Are you free to meet?’ And he replied ‘Who is this?’”said Adrien. “I thought, okay he’s such a busy man that he didn’t read his texts properly… But when we finally met up, he showed me the text he got from me, and the first half of it was completely garbled up.” It was at that meet-up that Adrien expressed his interest to collaborate with Jackie, and Jackie, in the midst of casting for ‘Dragon Blade’ offered him the villainous role of Tiberius.
Having spent most of their careers in Hollywood, John and Adrien said that they were utterly impressed by the spirit of the production team on this movie. “Sometimes in America, we tend to take it for granted,” said John. “What we loved about being here is the crew, the actors and the director [Daniel] wanted to be right there all the time, and that shows how passionate they were about the shoot.” Jackie revealed that the credit was also John and Adrien’s, who would come by every night without fail to his hotel room to talk about their characters and give their suggestions on how to make the movie better.
Yet in separate interviews, both John and Adrien credited Jackie for being the heart and soul of the film. Despite the advancement of technology, ‘Dragon Blade’ sees Jackie doing what he does best – good old-fashioned hand-to-hand action – which he acknowledges would probably be called stupid by today’s standards. Jackie’s commitment to realism shouldn’t come as a surprise, but even in this day and age and at this stage of his career, it is quite something to find that Jackie is still doing the way his audiences have grown up loving about him.
If there is one thing different then, it is a changed sense of purpose. Whereas he would compete in the past for the box office crown with other veterans such as Sammo Hung, Jackie reiterates that such motivations no longer mattered to him anymore; instead, Jackie wants his movies to have a positive impact on society. Just as his earlier ‘CZ12’ sparked the return of wartime relics to their native countries, Jackie hopes that ‘Dragon Blade’ may even be seen by terrorists where they are so they may lay down their arms and believe in the message of peace.
It’s a lofty dream no doubt, and one that only Jackie can afford be so singularly concerned about despite his 'Dragon Blade' being the most expensive Chinese movie to date. Then again, the actor, who celebrates 54 years in show-business in another two months, has really nothing else at this point in his career that he needs to prove to anyone.
Text by Gabriel Chong | Photos by Linus Tee