THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Chan in missing

Getting older doesn’t mean getting better for action heroes

Jackie Chan (right), in a major shift from his usual role as action-movie star, takes second-billing to Jaden Smith in the remake of “The Karate Kid.’’ Jackie Chan (right), in a major shift from his usual role as action-movie star, takes second-billing to Jaden Smith in the remake of “The Karate Kid.’’ (Jasin Boland/Columbia Pictures via AP)
By Mark Feeney
Globe Staff / June 6, 2010

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It has come to this. Jackie Chan is second-billed to an 11-year-old. The movie is the remake of “The Karate Kid,’’ which opens Friday. True, the 11-year-old is Jaden Smith, son of Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith. But still.

Actually, it’s worse than just the billing. Chan plays the part Pat Morita had in the original. The Bible tells us that the wages of sin is death. IMDb.com tells us that the wages of aging — for an action star, at least — is getting cast in Pat Morita’s hand-me-downs.

That’s true even for an action star as buoyant and personable as Jackie Chan (age 56). To be sure, alternatives exist. Early retirement? That’s hard to accept for a man who earned $15 million and 15 percent of the gross for “Rush Hour 3.’’ Gross, remember, not profits.

Another option would be refusing to look in the mirror. That got Sylvester Stallone (age 63) through “Rambo’’ two years ago. There’s also the political route, whether it be Chuck Norris (age 70) playing First Fan in Mike Huckabee’s 2008 presidential campaign, or Arnold Schwarzenegger (age 62) successfully seeking the governor’s office in Sacramento. That said, Governor Schwarzenegger’s tenure has proven to be more “Last Action Hero’’ than “Terminator.’’ “I’ll be back?’’ Even without term limits, his poll ratings would indicate otherwise.

All movie stars face poll ratings — they’re called box office. All female stars face term limits. It’s Hollywood’s most shameless version of the double standard. The classic instance is Jane Fonda. Once she reached 54, she had two options: character parts or Ted Turner. Fonda chose to move to Atlanta.

Yet action stars face term limits, too. That’s true even when they don’t recognize the fact. (“Rambo’’ didn’t make much more than $100 million in global ticket sales.) Action stars are like athletes that way: cosmetology can do a lot, but not for muscles and joints. Verisimilitude has its limits where strength and speed are concerned. So there’s a nice, if grim, irony in the fact that the one subset of male stars that ages out of roles just the way females do is the most aggressively masculine type.

This actuarial fact of film-star life is especially hard to take with Jackie Chan. You want to use his whole name, the way you do John Wayne’s or Cary Grant’s. It’s a mark of respect, a sign of affection, an expression of his onscreen singularity. It’s especially hard to take because he’s meant more than just action. He’s provided humor and charm and, above all, grace. Chan’s long been compared to Buster Keaton, a great favorite of his. But even more than Keaton with a smile he’s been Fred Astaire with feet of fury. Alas, Astaire could get away with playing the lead in a musical at 58. Chan, two years younger, is reduced to “Karate Kid’’ and last winter’s “The Spy Next Door.’’

It took Hollywood a long time to realize what he had to offer. Did you know his first English-language picture, “The Big Brawl,’’ came out 30 years ago? Or that his second, a year later, was “The Cannonball Run’’? Yes, there he is, 10th-billed, right behind Terry Bradshaw (!) and just ahead of Bert Convy (!!). Even worse, he spends the movie mostly sitting behind a steering wheel. It took Hollywood another 18 years, with “Rush Hour,’’ to figure out what Hong Kong had long known. Chan then became a cash cow to be milked. Is it too much to mourn that something more wasn’t allowed him?

Sure, there was the language issue. But it wouldn’t be a surprise to find out Jackie Chan has a larger English vocabulary than either Brad Pitt or much of the cast of the “Twilight’’ movies. It’s also true no one ever accused him of having kept hidden a secret supply of acting ability. In his time, Laurence Olivier was a great leaper and lunger, but Jackie Chan is not now and never has been Laurence Olivier.

That said, acting chops are only a part, and often a very small part, of stardom. Last week, “Where Eagles Dare’’ was on Turner Classic Movies. (However shabbily he treated Fonda, Ted Turner’s namesake channel long ago earned him the gratitude of all movie lovers.) That World War II spy thriller stars Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood. Burton’s barely four years removed from his legendary stage Hamlet. Eastwood is still pretty callow, not much more than a high forehead and a squint that can be read as confused rather than remorseless. So? So Clint eats Burton’s lunch.

Stardom is so much more a matter of who than how or what — and Jackie Chan had the makings of a real who. Forget the amazing athleticism. The camera loves that squashed nose; the easy, lopsided grin; the eagerness to please and relaxed amiability. Other than the nose, that description could apply to Elvis Presley. And while Chan’s movies have been better than Elvis’s pictures, the comparison reminds us not to let Chan off the hook. Just as no star is in complete control of his fate, neither is any star without responsibility in shaping his or her own career.

To blame Colonel Parker is also to blame Elvis. So, too, with Hollywood and Jackie Chan. Who forced him to take Chris Tucker as a costar in the “Rush Hour’’ movies? We never got the chance to see how Elvis would have handled aging. We’re getting a chance with Chan. The action has started to be increasingly missing in his movies. What we’re coming to realize as his career winds down is the extent to which his Hollywood screen career has been a lost opportunity: a different kind of missing in action.

Mark Feeney can be reached at mfeeney@globe.com.

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