“Rumble in the Bronx” wasn’t Jackie Chan’s first attempt to break into the western market. Fifteen years earlier, Hollywood’s search for the next Bruce Lee brought Chan to American screens via “Battle Creek Brawl”, more commonly known as “The Big Brawl”, a martial arts/comedy film that pitted Chan against a variety of fighters, including a Mongolian, an overweight “child” in overalls, and a boxer straight out of a fictional “gag” newsreel. While Chan’s American debut doesn’t come close to ranking as one of his best films, it’s still a fairly entertaining movie from one of the premier talents in the martial arts genre.
In “Battle Creek Brawl”, Jackie plays Jerry Kwan, the son of an immigrant Asian grocer in Chicago circa the 1930s. After a scuffle in an alley with some gangsters demanding protection money, Jerry’s martial arts skills attract the attention of a local gangster named Domenici (Jose Ferrer), who, as it happens, is looking for a ringer to compete in a no-holds barred fighting match taking place in the titular Battle Creek Brawl. Jerry is reluctant at first, having sworn to his uncle that he won’t fight again, but when the mobster kidnaps his brother’s fianc’e, Jerry is forced to travel to Battle Creek and fight in the last man standing bout.
“Battle Creek Brawl” was directed by Robert Clouse, best known for his work with Bruce Lee (“Enter the Dragon” and the much labored “Game of Death”), who manages a decent job despite the film having an uneven feel to it. Some scenes are overplayed for laughs, while other, potentially humorous moments are inexplicably just passed over when more should have been made of them. Clouse’s screenplay is also weak, coming across like a collection of vignettes involving people with the same names rather than a coherent, narrative story that stretches from the beginning of the film to the end.
And then there’s the anachronistic vibe of the film. Parts of the movie just don’t make any sense, like the modern-style clothes being worn by people in the 1930s, and a roller derby being held years before it was popular in mainstream America. Another complaint is the film’s setting. The cast supposedly travels to different cities during the course of the movie, but the locations make it seem as if they’ve barely gone around the block, with Chicago looking suspiciously like Texas.
While “Battle Creek Brawl” has some problems, it also has some strong points that rescue the film. A young Jackie Chan, sans many of the bumps and bruises he would later inflict on himself during his Hong Kong heyday, gives an appealing performance as Jerry. Chan’s Jerry is one of those guys who are so likeable you can’t help but root for. Chan also choreographed the movie’s many fight sequences, infusing his brand of kung fu comedy into the action, making the fights sometimes seem almost like violent ballets rather than standard fisticuffs.
Alas, this was 1980, and if Jackie Chan’s English is poor now, it was downright awful back then. As a result, Jackie’s dialogue is occasionally obscured by his thick accent, making whatever he’s trying to say a mystery to the viewer. (Although characters in the film seem to understand him just fine, probably because they read the script.) Of the supporting cast, veteran actor Mako turns in a good performance as Jerry’s martial arts instructor, and Jose Ferrer, before his days as Emperor Shaddam IV in David Lynch’s “Dune”, is serviceable as gangster Domenici. Another highlight is the score by Lalo Schifrin, which adds a nice dose of atmosphere to the proceedings.
“Battle Creek Brawl” is one of those rare instances in which an actor practically saves a picture all by his little lonesome. Although the movie have problems so big you’d have to be Helen Keller to miss them, Chan nevertheless makes them easy to ignore with his affable performance and natural athleticism. While “Battle Creek Brawl” was considered a commercial failure in the West, it still gave Joe Q. Public an introduction to a unique martial arts talent, one that would have to wait almost two decades to finally find mainstream acceptance in the States.
Robert Clouse (director) / Robert Clouse (screenplay)
CAST: Jackie Chan …. Jerry Kwan
Jos’ Ferrer …. Domenici
Kristine DeBell …. Nancy
Mako …. Herbert
Ron Max …. Leggetti
David Sheiner …. Morgan
Rosalind Chao …. Mae