Few film stars have willingly put themselves in danger more frequently than Jackie Chan. And, indeed, the star has built a career on combining acrobatic martial arts skills and expert comic timing with spectacular stunt work. On one particular movie, though, Chan’s daredevil attitude nearly proved to have fatal consequences.
The incident in question occurred while Chan was shooting the third chapter of the hugely popular Police Story franchise in 1992. At that time, the bona fide film icon risked life and limb for a scene in which he dangles precariously from a helicopter. But things quickly – and very nearly tragically – went awry, and Chan would certainly not escape uninjured from the ordeal, either.
Of course, though, this wasn’t the first time that Chan’s death-defying skills were truly put to the test, as the kung fu master has repeatedly suffered for his art while in both Eastern and Western cinema. Let’s look at his roll call of injuries and the film that almost robbed the world of his talents for good.
After having entered the world in Hong Kong in 1954, Chan began developing his acrobatic and martial arts skills aged just seven. Specifically, he joined the Chinese Opera Research Institute at this tender age, after which he spent ten years in training. And Chan’s prowess was ultimately rewarded when he entered his homeland’s burgeoning movie industry. In fact, by the time that he had left his teens, he’d already appeared in no fewer than 25 different films.
Thanks to the string of serious martial arts roles that followed, then, Chan was eventually tipped to be the next Bruce Lee. Yet the rising star soon proved that his talents extended beyond fighting. In particular, Chan’s ability to raise a chuckle or two has seen some draw comparisons with another cinematic legend: Buster Keaton.
But the martial artist has certainly shown that he’s willing to get down and dirty on screen, as he has carried out his own stunts in the majority of his films. Chan’s skills extend to pursuits behind the camera, too, as he’s also worked as a screenwriter, a producer and even a singer. Yes, you may not know that the martial arts legend has released a whopping 20 albums since the mid-1980s.
Yet while Chan may have been a superstar in the East thanks to films such as Project A and Crime Story, he remained a virtual unknown in the United States up until his 40s. What’s more, Chan’s early efforts to crack Hollywood went almost entirely unnoticed, with the likes of The Big Brawn and the Cannonball Run franchise seemingly failing to strike a chord with moviegoers.
However, that all changed in 1996, when Rumble in the Bronx became a U.S. box-office hit. Then, two years later, Chan enjoyed his first major Hollywood smash alongside funnyman Chris Tucker, with the duo’s resulting action comedy, Rush Hour, going on to take America by storm. And from then on, it seems that the star has never looked back.
Shanghai Noon, its sequel Shanghai Knights and two further Rush Hour installments have since all helped to cement Chan as a Hollywood star, while his role as Mr. Miyagi in the 2010 Karate Kid remake saw him land one of his highest-grossing movies to date. In 2016, moreover, the martial arts master’s half-century of service to cinema was recognized with an honorary Oscar.
But, of course, it could be considered a miracle that Chan even made it to Hollywood at all, as his early career in Eastern cinema was littered with stunts that all put him in real peril. In fact, the actor suffered a near-catastrophic injury when performing in one of his very first leading roles.
Yes, while Chan was filming 1978’s Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow, his brow bone was broken by a kick from co-star Hwang Jang-Lee – and the star very nearly lost the sight in one of his eyes as a result. However, there doesn’t appear to be any hard feelings towards Hwang on Chan’s part. In fact, he once named the fight in question as among his very favorite action scenes.
But the Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow accident somewhat pales in comparison to what occurred on Project A five years later. In the 1983 action flick, Chan’s character is left hanging from a clock tower 60 feet off the ground before plummeting six stories. And while Chan was supposed to have his fall broken by awnings, the safety measure didn’t quite act as intended.
In fact, the awnings appear to have been more of a hindrance than a help, as Chan ultimately lands in a way that looks certain to have done him damage. Yet despite doing damage to his spine in the fall, Chan carried on acting as a group of extras helped lift him to his feet.
And although the Police Story franchise may be one of Chan’s most popular contributions to Eastern cinema, making the movies sometimes left the star in pain. In the 1985 original, for example, his character, Ka-Kui, leaps onto a pole adorned with Christmas lights before tumbling through a roof made of glass and onto a shopping mall floor.
But while the glass may have not have been real, the festive lights certainly were, and Chan’s hands were left badly burned after he slid down a pole that the illuminations had turned hot. The star also damaged two vertebrae and suffered a dislocated pelvis as a result of the hard landing.
However, while most actors would have avoided stunts for a while after such a fall, Chan jumped back into action just a year later. And, unfortunately, his relentless commitment to his art resulted in another near-death experience, even though the feat in question should have been relatively simple to pull off – for Chan, anyway.
You see, during the filming of Armour of God, Chan only had to leap onto a tree branch from a nearby castle wall. But the star misjudged the jump and subsequently broke his skull when he fell onto some rocks below. A section of bone lodged itself inside his brain as a result of the accident, too, leading Chan to be taken into surgery, where doctors had to insert a metal plate into the martial artist’s head.
But two decades on, Chan seemed very willing to talk about that particular brush with death. And in a 2017 interview with Yahoo Entertainment, the star revealed why his timing may have been off during the stunt. Unusually, you see, Chan had previously drunk some beer beforehand in a scene in which his character did the same.
And Chan also spoke about the thoughts that had been going through his head immediately after the fall. He said, “I get up, I thought, ‘It’s nothing.’ I just feel my back’s hurt. Then I get up, but everybody pushes me down because my whole body was numb. By the time the numb passed, then I feel my air and I see the blood. We go to the hospital… I almost died.”
Nevertheless, Chan still didn’t appear to be put off from doing his own stunts, as he thrust himself into the center of the action in 1991 sequel Armour of God II: Operation Condor. And on this shoot, a relatively simple feat yet again ended up causing Chan some problems.
On this occasion, Chan had to jump from a banner onto a chain. As he struggled to keep his grip on the links, however, he subsequently suffered one almighty fall. And even though the actor offered the crew a thumbs-up as they sprinted to his side, this didn’t mean he had escaped unscathed; as it turns out, he had actually dislocated his breastbone. Yet as you may have guessed by now, Chan didn’t let such a setback keep him from his stunt duties for too long.
Indeed, just a year later, Chan was back jumping around on set while filming Crime Story. The 1992 thriller was a little grittier and less comedic than his previous movies, and it required Chan to leap into action for a stunt that could have cost him two of his limbs.
The near miss occurred in a scene in which a pair of vehicles end up nearly squashing Chan’s character’s legs as he tried to leap out of the way. Luck wasn’t entirely on the actor’s side, either, as when filming the stunt in a different take, he did actually end up having his legs mistakenly squashed. Thankfully, the injury wasn’t quite as bad as it sounds, and Chan escaped with only bruising.
And as Chan directed the final fight scene in 1994’s The Legend of Drunken Master, he may only have had himself to blame for almost being set alight. How did he nearly succumb to burns? Well, during an on-screen battle that is staged on a bed of hot coals, Chan’s character loses his balance and falls onto the embers. Chan was so unhappy with his first take, too, that he volunteered to film a second.
Nor would that be Chan’s last stunt, either, as he attempted yet another death-defying act in 2004’s New Police Story – a reboot of the original franchise. In the movie, Chan is seen jumping on to the roof of a double-decker bus with no driver, after which he manages to take the steering wheel. He gets inside the vehicle, you see, by jumping through a window and gaining control just before an overpass destroys the bus’ highest half. And after all the carnage, the scene ends with Chan bringing the bus to a surprisingly gentle stop – and with no injuries incurred during filming, either.
However, perhaps Chan’s most jaw-dropping on-screen feat had come by way of the third Police Story film, which had been released 12 years previously. And this stunt in particular seemed to suggest that the actor has more lives than a cat; after all, there are very few men who have been hit by a helicopter and have lived to tell the tale.
In Police Story 3: Super Cop, Chan’s character, Ka-Kui, jumps onto a helicopter’s swinging rope ladder as he attempts to thwart a gang of criminals. The villainous pilot then tries to make Ka-Kui lose his grip by swaying the aircraft wildly. Yet, incredibly, this wasn’t the most perilous moment of the scene.
The sequence concludes, you see, with Chan losing his grip on the ladder and landing on a moving train full of cactuses. The star was supposed to avoid the dangerously close helicopter, meanwhile, via a rotating railway pipe. However, it’s fair to say that things didn’t go exactly as planned.
In particular, the pipe didn’t completely turn as it should have, and Chan was struck by the helicopter as a result. Thanks to that accident then, he shattered his shoulder, dislocated a cheekbone and fractured a rib. The semi-conscious actor even had to cling to the pipe using his other shoulder while waiting for crew members to get to him.
And Chan recalled the traumatic experience during an in-depth interview in 1997 with Douglas Thompson. He told the journalist, “And the helicopter came along, and boom! I was out, totally out. It always happens, this kind of thing. It makes me very angry. What an experience! I had nowhere to go.”
In a 1997 interview with Indiewire, Chan also implied that he wouldn’t attempt such a stunt again. When asked about the U.S. directors with whom he wanted to work, the star replied, “Oh, there’s too many… Spielberg… James Cameron. Because I want to learn bluescreen! Here’s where I can use half bluescreen, half computer, so I don’t have to do stupid jumps from ten stories to the helicopter.”
Nevertheless, the actor was keen to emphasize that his chopper-jumping days weren’t entirely behind him, adding, “But I’ll still jump. Maybe 20 feet [down] though… but with the bluescreen I still do the jump but more safety! Ten years ago, I said, ‘Yeah! Jump from helicopter.’ But [it’s] a different kind of thinking now.”
That said, Chan wasn’t the only person to injure himself during the Police Story 3 stunt. Director Stanley Tong also suffered a broken shin, as he had had to replace another actor in the risky scene. But despite the accident, Chan and Tong still decided to work together again.
In fact, the actor and director duo have worked on no fewer than five movies since that ordeal nearly three decades ago. And Chan hasn’t exactly taken it easy during their collaborations either. Not only has he swum with sharks and plunged onto a moving hovercraft while shooting said films, but he’s also launched himself off another building.
And in a 2017 interview with The Straits Times, Tong explained how he had managed to convince Chan that he was worthy of his trust. In particular, the director revealed that as a former stuntman himself, he would often provide a demonstration of certain on-set exploits beforehand. Tong added, “[Chan]’s such a big star and action choreographer that I can’t be just sitting there pointing my finger and telling him what to do.”
Tong revealed, too, that he only had only taken the reins of the third Police Story film after he had had the idea for the helicopter scene. He continued, “I rewatched all of [Chan’s] films and racked my brains to come up with something new for him to do. If I couldn’t bring something different to the table, I wouldn’t have dared to accept it.”
Yet even despite the injuries that Tong and Chan incurred while shooting the swinging helicopter stunt, Police Story 3 lost out in the Best Action Choreography category at the Hong Kong Film Awards. Instead, that honor went to Once Upon a Time in China II. There is some consolation on offer for the actor and director, though: the helicopter sequence does boast one high-profile movie obsessive as a fan.
Yes, in 2015 Quentin Tarantino chose the stunt when asked which movie moment he would put in a time capsule. He told The Hollywood Reporter, “That’s a sequence that aliens would watch and be amazed by. That could actually give you an understanding of cinema in all of its bells and whistles and movement.”
Meanwhile, Chan has since cut back on his action movie duties now that he’s well into his sixties. In 2017 he told Vice, “I watched history. All my friends who are action stars – after a certain age, they’re gone. How many action stars are still around in the film business? There’s always a new action star coming again and again and again. When I was 30-something, I knew already.”
Chan continued, “So, I’ve been preparing what I’m doing for my future. In the last 20 years, if you follow my movies in China and America, you can tell [that there are] different characters, different scripts, different action [and a] different kind of acting. I’ve been preparing for so long – slowly, slowly, letting audiences accept me [by thinking], ‘Even if Jackie isn’t doing action or comedy movies, we still get to see him.’”