Thunderbolt [霹靂火] (1995)
AKA Dead Heat
Starring Jackie Chan, Anita Yuen Wing-Yee, Michael Wong Man-Tak, Dayo Wong Chi-Wah, Thorsten Nickel, Ken Lo, Chor Yuen
Directed by Gordon Chan
Expectations: Very high!
On the general scale:
Just the action:
The one-two punch of Drunken Master II and Rumble in the Bronx is an incredibly tough act to follow, and Thunderbolt is not up to the challenge! Hahahaha, but really it’s kind of a mess of a movie. This is where your love of simple entertainment and Jackie Chan come in! By all normal metrics, Thunderbolt should be a disjointed failure, but it’s actually an entertaining, offbeat gem in the Jackie catalog. I enjoyed it so much as a teen that I actually thought showing it to my grandma was a great idea, choosing it specifically because I thought other, better films would be a harder sell. What’s funny is that re-watching the film now, I can kind of understand what I was thinking.
Thunderbolt continues the trend of Jackie Chan films attempting to appeal to the wider international audience, like Police Story III and Rumble in the Bronx. Thunderbolt goes a step further by limiting the martial arts and replacing it with cars, something more inclusive in a general sense than hand-to-hand fighting. The story retains a slight Hong Kong flavor, but overall the film barely feels like a Hong Kong production. It’s also more in the serious vein of Crime Story than the standard Jackie action comedy, thus avoiding some of the inherent cultural differences in humor. This is my long-winded way of saying that I must have thought my grandma would respond better to something a little closer in sensibility to US films than something like Drunken Master II. I was trying to ease her into the world of kung fu. Hahahaha… it didn’t work.
Anyway, in Thunderbolt Jackie plays a race car driver/mechanic who moonlights as a police consultant on the illegal street racing scene. Jackie’s character is like many other Jackie heroes — a man of action and impulse — so one night, during a sting to arrest the vehicular outlaw Cougar (Thorsten Nickel), Jackie jumps into the nearest car (that of TV journalist/love interest Amy Ip (Anita Yuen Wing-Yee) and gives chase. This leads to a rivalry between the two, and that’s pretty much all the story you’re gonna get! Thunderbolt is also longer than the average Jackie film at 110 minutes, so the thin plot is stretched to the absolute limit. The action compensates for this, but not nearly enough to make you forget about it completely. Acknowledging the weak story and hating it are two different things, though, and if I had to describe the film in a couple of words, I’d go with “great entertainment.”
The car stunts feel more “Hollywood” than the raw edge of the incredible ’80s Hong Kong car work, but they remain fantastic and very fun. This is especially true of the film’s finale, featuring a full line-up of cars competing in a race. Since we only really know Jackie and Cougar, the other cars are free to crash and burn for our pleasure! It’s a blast! I’d prefer Jackie fighting someone hand-to-hand, but for what it is, it’s a great finale. The car stunts were mostly choreographed by the legend Bruce Law, who has consistently worked in the field for the last 30 years on films from John Woo, Jet Li, Jackie Chan, and many others, including Sammo Hung’s latest The Bodyguard! So if you see Bruce Law in the credits, you know you’re in for some excellent twisted metal mayhem.
The martial arts of Thunderbolt were choreographed by Sammo Hung, and they’re ripe with inventiveness and tons of “Oh shit!” moments. The first fight has Jackie protecting the honor of his young sisters, and it’s shot using a lot of well-done, chaotic handheld and close-ups. There’s a few wider shots mixed in, but far fewer than traditional HK films. I hate to be a broken record, but it immediately feels much more American in style than Jackie’s usual action. For this fight, it may have been a stylistic choice, especially since the later fights are more like the Hong Kong Jackie fights you know and love, in both their choreography and shooting style. But a larger concern/explanation for the change in the editing style (that is present in all the fights) is that Jackie was still nursing his broken ankle from Rumble in the Bronx while shooting Thunderbolt. This led to Jackie being unable to perform many of the moves necessary to film the fights, so a lot of his fight work was actually Chin Kar-Lock doubling for Jackie. The editing within the fight sequences is at least in part a way to mask this from the audience.
Huh? But doesn’t Jackie do all his own stunts? The truth is that he does almost all of them. I debated whether I should bring this up in many of my previous Jackie reviews where I’ve noticed it, but I held off till now. As much as I want to believe that Jackie is as indestructible as his Superman image, he is but a simple human like you or I. There are limits to his athletic ability. I didn’t want to talk about it previously because I didn’t want to dispel the Jackie myth for anyone who wasn’t aware. But in Thunderbolt, it’s fairly obvious in many shots so I felt I had to say something. I don’t think it diminishes Jackie’s legend in the slightest, and honestly I never really noticed till now.
Every movie is an illusion brought together by a grand team of professionals working towards a singular goal. I’d love to believe that Jackie could really fight his way out of a Pachinko parlor with as much flair and ingenious use of his surroundings as he does in Thunderbolt, but it’s just not the case. If I’m going to believe in the general illusion of movie magic, then why should a little stunt double here or there diminish Jackie’s stature as the reigning king of actor stuntmen? This reminds me of the overarching theme of Woody Allen’s filmography: the very human question of whether it’s better to be informed and disillusioned, or to be ignorant and happy. This can be asked of virtually everything in life, from the concept of religion to kung fu movies and our heroes’ stunt doubles. I don’t want to get too far off the rails, but in the case of film, I think it’s best to instead attempt to be informed and happy. Besides, it’s not like Jackie was doubled by a CG Jackie, it’s still another human performing incredible feats of athleticism!
In many creative respects, Thunderbolt isn’t a great movie. The script is far from logical, the villain is weak (especially compared to past villains), and its premise is such that it doesn’t allow for much martial arts. Despite it all, I love Thunderbolt. There’s a constant level of entertainment and charm that allows the film to coast by with ease. Every time I watch Thunderbolt, I have a blast… all while recognizing and dismissing every flaw I see. I know it isn’t logical, but neither is Thunderbolt! So buckle that racing harness and have a good time!
And when you’re buckling up, play the amazing Thunderbolt theme song! It’s one of my top-tier Jackie themes, capable of making any activity instantly more badass (just like the Police Story theme). Don’t live a mundane life… imagine you’re in a dope Jackie Chan montage!
Next up in this chronological journey through the films of Jackie Chan is muddaferkin’ Police Story 4: First Strike! See ya then!