IT WAS INEVITABLE: IN THE RAPIDLY shrinking world of global entertainment, Hollywood was destined to discover Hong Kong. Can a vampire resist fresh blood? Can an industry that always goes where the action is -- think how Hollywood gobbled up virtually every hot Australian director in the '70s and '80s -- turn its back on an industry whose products are even more thrill-happy than its own? Action is where the action is today, and Hong Kong, the second-largest exporter of movies in the world, has been churning out some of the most exuberant mayhem (also some of the tackiest) since Bruce Lee clenched his fists of fury.
Last week the $60 million action flick _B_Broken Arrow _b_with John Travolta and Christian Slater opened. At the helm was John Woo, revered by celluloid sensationalists for his over-the-top, balletic explosions of violence in such heartfelt and hilarious Hong Kong movies as ""The Killer'' and ""Hard-Boiled.'' Next week New Line will release an English-language version of ""Rumble in the Bronx'' starring Jackie Chan, whose comic action adventures and death-defying stunts have made him arguably the most popular star in the world.
Is America ready for this Asian infusion? On college campuses and big cities, where festivals of Hong Kong cinema draw big crowds, it is a sign of hipness to toss around such action-star names as Chan, Jet Li and Chow Yun-fat, to be up on the films of Woo and Tsui Hark and Ringo Lam. That arbiter of cool Quentin Tarantino recently presented Chan with the MTV Lifetime Achievement Award. Now under his releasing logo Rolling Thunder, Tarantino is presenting Wong Kar-wai's _B_Chungking Express, _b_a delectable Hong Kong art film. Meanwhile, Lam, whose ""City on Fire'' was a source for ""Reservoir Dogs,'' is shooting a Jean-Claude Van Damme movie, ""Bloodstone,'' for Columbia, while Fox is developing ""Replacement Killers'' to star Chow Yun-fat. Miramax is planning to release two earlier Chan films, ""Drunken Master II'' and ""Crime Story,'' later this year.
Whether these Hong Kong talents can cross over to the Hollywood mainstream is unclear, but the Hong Kong style has already arrived. The cartoon mayhem and furious editing of Robert Rodriguez's ""Desperado'' is chopsocky filmmaking in Latino drag. You can feel the China syndrome in Paul Anderson's ""Mortal Kombat'' and the Rodriguez-Tarantino ""From Dusk Till Dawn.'' There's a hall-of-mirrors aspect to this shotgun marriage of cinematic cultures: John Woo boasts that the models for his lyrical carnage are Martin Scorsese and Sam Peckinpah. Thus Hollywood is importing guys to do U.S. versions of Hong Kong visions inspired by Hollywood movies in the first place. Which came first, the chicken or the egg foo yong?
The irony deepens when you watch Woo's wall-to-wall action movie ""Broken Arrow.'' Written by ""Speed's'' Graham Yost, it pits bad-guy military pilot Travolta against good-guy military pilot Slater in a ticking-nuclear-bomb cliffhanger set in the Utah desert. Full of explosions, special effects, speeding planes, trains and Humvees (not to mention gaping plot holes), it's a preposterous thrill machine executed with impersonal efficiency. Dumb, sometimes exciting, requisitely jokey, it may well be Woo's first big American commercial hit. But the Woo signature -- that passionately nutty operatic style -- has been erased, even more than in his first Hollywood film, ""Hard Target,'' which was recut and toned down by the studio. He's successfully turned himself into a talented but anonymous Hollywood clone, and his future here seems secured. But will Woo ever be Woo again?
Jackie Chan doesn't need Hollywood success. The 41-year-old star and director, a veteran of 43 movies, is the colossus of Asian cinema. Touted as the next Bruce Lee, he turned the invincible Lee's kung fu style on its head, reinventing himself as a comic warrior, vulnerable but triumphant. Inspired by the silent clowns Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd, he leapt from cliffs onto hot-air balloons, dangled from speeding buses at the end of an umbrella, flew over cities clutching a helicopter's rope ladder. As all his fans know, Chan does all his stunts himself. And he has a small hole in his head to prove it: while filming ""Armour of God'' in Yugoslavia, he missed a leap onto a tree, hit his head on a rock, and had to have brain surgery. Most of his films end with outtakes of flubbed stunts under the closing credits.
""Rumble in the Bronx,'' a Stanley Tong-directed action comedy, is a good introduction to the affable Chan persona. Set in a Bronx surprisingly flanked by mountains (it was filmed in Vancouver, B.C.), Jackie arrives for his uncle's wedding only to find himself defending the family grocery store from a gang of improbably dressed bikers, who become allies when a gang of mobsters in search of stolen diamonds pose an even bigger threat. The comedy is broad, the inner-city Americana hilariously off-base, and the English dubbing may prove disconcerting to U.S. audiences. But the cheesiness is part of the fun; when Jackie lets rip -- leaping 26 feet from the top of a parking garage onto a balcony, or womping on his enemies like a percussionist playing a drum set -- ""Rumble in the Bronx'' is escapism of a cheerfully daffy order. This time, he only broke his ankle.
This is Chan's second assault on the American market. In the early '80s he came to Hollywood to appear in ""Cannonball Run'' and ""The Protector,'' but the experiment didn't take. ""I lose face,'' he explains. ""It doesn't work. I big star in Asia. In Hollywood nobody knows me. I go back to Asia to my own work.'' This time it's not stardom he wants but the opportunity to learn the world of special effects so that he will have a future as a director after he retires from acting. ""On American movie, the actor stand against blue background and do something and when the movie comes out there's explosion in the air. I ask, "How they do that?' I only know the physical stunt.''
Hollywood has discovered the Hong Kong cinema at a moment when it's in serious decline -- ticket sales in the British colony have plummeted 30 percent since 1992. Local audiences have become sated by a flood of improbable, slapdash productions. Unlike Chan's movies, shot over a period of six or eight months, many of Hong Kong's 200 movies a year are cranked out quickly and incoherently. The take-the-money-and-run attitude is exacerbated by the uncertainty of 1997, when the colony reverts to the mainland. Even the triads -- the Chinese organized-crime gangs who are heavily involved in Hong Kong's sometimes violent film industry -- are starting to pull out of the business.
One bright light of Hong Kong cinema is ""Chungking Express's'' 38-year-old Wong Kar-wai, the hottest new name on the film-festival circuit. Tarantino calls him ""the most exciting director that's come along since I've been a professional filmmaker.'' The only thing ""Chungking Express'' shares with more commercial Hong Kong productions is the speed of its making: three months, from conception to screen. Funny and playfully stylish -- with a verve that recalls the French New Wave -- this lyrical tale of two cops, pining for women who've left them and falling for women who avoid them, evokes the yearning and loneliness of the Hong Kong fast-food culture. Wong's nocturnal, cramped, neon-lit Hong Kong, awash in Western pop music, resembles the streets of ""Blade Runner,'' re-dressed for a larkish study of missed connections. This is Wong's home, where he plans to stay whether it's communists or California moguls knocking on his door. As he once told a reporter, explaining the workings of his triad-infested industry, ""It's better to deal with a godfather than an accountant.''
His compatriots in Hollywood take a more accommodating, pancultural view. Woo feels ""honored and happy'' that young filmmakers have copied his style. ""In the film world, we're all like a big family. We learn from each other.'' Chan cheerfully concedes that some Hollywood action movies have borrowed his moves. ""Even Stallone, he say: "Jackie, when I don't have an idea, I just watch your videotapes.' Yeah, he did! But I copy many American movie. Everybody copy somebody.'' The danger in this absorption of Hong Kong talents into the maws of Hollywood is homogenization. In the Cuisinart of big studio production, will the wild flavors of Hong Kong survive?