Our review of Miracles: The Series, published April 13th, 2005, is also available.
Everybody was kung-fu fighting. Those cats were fast as lightning. In fact it was a little bit frightening.
International superstar Jackie Chan (Shanghai Noon, Rush Hour, Rumble in the Bronx) first brought his brand of kung-fu comedy and martial arts movie magic to the attention of mainstream American audiences several years ago. Since then, Chan has become a part of the nationwide pop culture pantheon. His name is rightly synonymous with elaborately choreographed, daredevil fight/escape sequences, often times done with a lighthearted, goofball bent, with all stunts choreographed and performed by Chan himself.
For many years Chan was among the biggest stars in Asia. A former child actor and stunt man, he starred in many comic period martial arts movies. Many of these early titles are now available in the US, often under various confusing and misleading titles. These include: Eagle's Shadow Fist(1973), All in the Family(1975), New Fists of Fury(1976), Half a Loaf of Kung Fu(1978), Spiritual Kung Fu(1978), his first big hit, Drunken Master(1979), Fearless Hyena(1979), his first film as director, Young Master(1980), and Fearless Hyena II(1980). A 1980 US production, The Big Brawl, failed to be the breakout hit expected to make him a star here in America at that time, but his Hong Kong hits continued to break box office records, resulting in some of his best-known action features, including Project A (1983), Armour of God (1986), Police Story (1987), and their respective sequels. Of course, a whole generation of filmgoers had their first taste of Jackie Chan in the Cannonball Run, which, if I'm not mistaken, was on HBO twice daily throughout the entire early-to-mid 1980s and was mandatory viewing for an unfortunate demographic who didn't know any better (myself included). In any event, Chan continued to hone his acting, writing, and directing talents throughout the 1980s, and in 1989, applied these skills to his production of Miracles, a lavish period piece which, while still chock full of chop 'em /sock 'em kung-fu kickfests, pays homage to the old Frank Capra sentimental dramedies of yesteryear.
Facts of the Case
In this period action comedy, Chan stars as Cheng Wan Kuo, an impoverished country boy who inadvertently rescues a gangland boss and then finds himself thrust straight into the dangerous center of the 1930s Hong Kong crime world. Along the way, Kuo becomes the new underworld boss, battles a rival gang, engages in a few inventive fight sequences, has a few laughs, does a few good deeds, and wins the heart of a gorgeous nightclub singer (the lovely Anita Mui—Rumble in the Bronx). But is all this sudden success and good fortune related to the lucky rose a sweet old flower vendor (wittily named Madam Rose) sold to Kuo on the street when he was down on his luck? Tune in, turn on, drop out and enjoy, for only a day later, it'll all be forgotten. This is a Jackie Chan film so, of course, there are several great action set pieces, amazing stuntwork, and some humorous slapstick shenanigans, all with little real plot or lingering substance. As long as the onscreen kickfest ensues, and the high-energy hijinks and Chan-tics commence, this is pure disposable entertainment at its finest. It is only when Chan pulls away from this action and lets the cornball subplot involving Kuo's "miraculous" charade of making the poor single street vendor Madam Rose appear to be a wealthy remarried lady, all to appease her clueless daughter (sent away to school, she believes her mother is loaded) who has come home to Hong Kong with her fiancé and his wealthy, well-known father in tow for a meet-and-greet, to take center stage, that the attention unfortunately falls squarely on the lame dialogue and pandering, unimaginative morality play at hand.
I admire Jackie Chan's gifted athletic ability more than I actually like his films. I can certainly appreciate the skill and craftsmanship that goes into choreographing his elaborate fight sequences, and I surely enjoy watching them. Indeed, can you imagine how much more exciting NFL action would be on Sundays if we had an athletically creative specimen like Chan (at the peak of his prowess) racing down the field at wide receiver, juking and evading his would-be tacklers with reckless, creative abandon? Yeah, Chan would be a big-time playmaker, no doubt…but that is ultimately the problem with his films; they are consistently comprised of just two or three of these "big plays" (i.e. the fight sequences we all wait for and love), but never full of enough supplemental team effort (i.e. engaging story, believable dialogue, polished production values, and three-dimensional character development) to consistently win the big game and be successful, enjoyable, complete motion pictures. Jackie Chan flicks are regularly an example of the proverbial parts being greater than their whole, and Miracles is regrettably not the exception to this rule.
I don't mean to sound like a total cranky critic here though. From the very beginning, I was really impressed with Chan's direction and his assured grasp of shot composition. Chan directed this surprisingly well, with a deft hand at framing the non-action, talkative sequences and managing the somewhat elaborate dance numbers. On a purely visual scale, Miracles is a surprisingly well-photographed film. The costumes and set design are stylish and impressive, full of bright colors and wonderfully authentic period detail. The acting is adequate and fine, with plenty of decent performances, all things considered. And when those anticipated stunt showcases finally do begin, my oh my. You'd have to be a hardened, elitist fool not to appreciate the sheer intricacies of the precise design to Chan's fight choreography. The visceral energy of these scenes is truly something special and is almost reason enough to slog through this mediocre, mind-numbing material. Like Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, and Harold Lloyd before him, future generations of movie lovers and students of the cinema will study and analyze these kinetic sequences, and appreciate Chan's gems of daredevil mastery within the annals of film history.
Inexplicably, this film turns into a comic melodrama when Chan and his bumbling cohorts in crime put their shady connections to admirable use, helping the poor old flower vendor pull off her façade of wealth. At this point, the movie slows to a talkative, plodding pace and loses most of its early energy. The action sequences become too few and far between, with nearly an hour-long lull between fight scenes during the middle exposition. Chan-style smackdown gives way to cheesy melodrama mixed with corny humor. In the end, Miracles plays more like a talkative morality play, with bumbling Keystone Cops-like capers thrown in for good measure, and too little of those Jackie Chan magic moments to ultimately redeem the numerous misfires.
Miracles is presented on DVD by Columbia TriStar, uncut, with a fine 2.35:1 widescreen transfer featuring 16x9 enhancement. Overall, the image quality is pretty good. The black level is solid and the flesh tones are natural. The colors are particularly vibrant and rarely bleed, highlighting the stylish lighting used effectively throughout the production. Of course, there are some scratches, speckles, and grain evident in the source print used for this release, along with occasional softness to the picture, but these moments are never overly distracting, even to the discerning viewer. Also, Columbia TriStar did a very nice job with making the yellow subtitling clear and easy to read, and it never obstructs the onscreen proceedings.
The audio mix, on the other hand, is a bit disappointing. You can select either Cantonese or Mandarin Dolby Digital Mono 2.0 sound. Surprisingly, there is no dubbed English language track. The mono sound is just as underwhelmingly bland as you'd expect. When the action erupts onscreen, you'll never forget for once that you are listening to a mono presentation. A nifty opening gangland shootout, complete with ra-taa-taatting tommy guns and the screeching tires of out-of-control cars, sounds totally flat and subdued, leaving you longing for a more expansive soundscape that a Dolby Digital 5.1 remix would have afforded. As it stands, the mono mix has decent clarity with little sound distortion, although I did encounter a noticeable hiss that became somewhat annoying at times. Overall, the sound mix is not on par with the superior visual transfer.
Miracles is also lacking in the extras department. You get an isolated audio track of Siu Tin Lei's score. There is also the usual brief talent bio. Finally, there are theatrical trailers for Miracles, Gorgeous, Who Am I, and Gen-X Cops, all Jackie Chan productions. And of course, there are the trademark outtakes that run over the end credits, just so we can see all of Chan's agonizing missteps and stunt bloopers in their full painful glory.
It's fun to watch Jackie Chan take on hordes of henchman with a ballerina-like agility. However, there are better Chan films that showcase this skill on a more consistent basis. In essence, Miracles devolves into a Jackie Chan chick-flick, an anomaly if ever there was one. Still, if you have seen all of Jackie's other films and still want more, then by all means check this DVD out. If you can get past the flimsy, sappy plot that just plain drags at times with its overlength, then you may garner more entertainment mileage out of it than I did, and may even find yourself pleasantly surprised and charmed by Chan's change of pace. All others, you have been warned.
Jackie Chan and his Miracles are hereby acquitted of all charges. It may be a substandard DVD in several areas, and I may not personally like most of this film itself, but what can I say. The world truly is a better place with Jackie Chan running amuck and committing it all to celluloid for our edification, and who knows, he may still make an all-around good film before he gets too old and flabby and starts popping up on horrible American network television shows with Arsenio or a Wayans brother as his crime-fighting sidekick. We can all hope for miracles, can't we?
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