..

MIRACLES

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars: Jackie Chan, Anita Mui
Director: Jackie Chan
Audio: Dolby Digital 2 Channel Mono
Video: Widescreen 2.351 Anamorphic Transfer
Studio: Columbia/Tri Star
Features: 4 Trailers, Jackie Chan Talent File, Isolated Music Score
Length: 127 Minutes
Release Date: October 10, 2000

Film ****

I love Jackie Chan movies, and have been a fan for as long as I can remember. His daring-do stuntwork and sense of timing and physical comedy, for me, comes second only to my favorite film star, Buster Keaton. And no wonder...Chan has always credited Keaton as one of his biggest influences.

Though starting out rather modestly as just another stunt man in the topsy-turvy world of Hong Kong martial arts cinema, he would evolve into something much more, and take an entire industry along for the ride. In a genre that was rather rigid and formulaic (all plots were very similar, usually about the lone warrior wandering from place to place and finding trouble everywhere), Chan saw much new and unexplored territory. With Half a Loaf of Kung Fu, he spoofed all the conventions of the traditional Kung Fu movie--it was bold, funny, yet problematic...the studios shelved the project, fearing such a marked departure would be doomed to failure. It would eventually find release on the heels of Jackie's super-stardom.

Jackie instinctively knew comedy could be thrown into the mix for even more entertainment value. He also knew the fight scenes could be bigger and less choreographed in appearance. Whereas traditional fighting in Kung Fu movies meant utilizing a single style throughout and tightly structured movements where all fighters moved in unity as though being timed by a metronome, Chan began to develop his style of mixing and matching fighting styles (a terrific example is the incredible and lengthy fight scene at the climax of The Young Master), plus the use of reactions to punches rather than simultaneous moves. And finally, he would throw his signature element into the mix: using anything and everything available in a scene to fight with. Changes like these initially horrified the Hong Kong studios, who saw the martial arts picture as something sacred and reflective upon ancient values and codes of honor and self respect. And here was one of the industry's brightest, blossoming stars tearing down the pompous fabric of the art form and re-weaving it into something fresh and new. Of course, by the time Jackie Chan had earned his place as the world's number one action star, and had been credited for pretty much single-handedly saving the Hong Kong movie industry, the studios had to confess that maybe he did know what he was doing all along.

So why all the exposition? Mainly because I know plenty of people who only know of Jackie Chan through the "Americanized" releases of some of his films over the years. Titles like Rumble in the Bronx, Supercop, First Strike and others had been trimmed down, dubbed, and injected with soundtracks of hard rock and hip-hop music. And my point is, if you've only seen Jackie Chan in this form, you've never really seen Jackie Chan.

Most of his best films, sadly, are only available on DVD directly from Hong Kong in non-region coded discs from Media Asia. A few of these have been available domestically as pricey imports ($49.95). Now, thankfully, Columbia/Tri Star has released what I consider to be Jackie Chan's greatest film, Miracles, onto DVD for the U.S. market. Having owned the Media Asia version for quite some time, I have to say, I was extremely happy that CST elected NOT to change the music or dubbing for their presentation, and that their version also constituted the original 127 minute Hong Kong running time, as opposed to the international version's length of 122 minutes--not to mention a much more consumer-friendly price point. More on the comparisons between the versions in the next sections.

Miracles (a.k.a. Mr. Canton and Lady Rose) is the most ambitious of Chan's films, not only as star, but also as writer and director. It blends delightful, expertly crafted and timed comedy with surprisingly moving and tender moments, plus plenty of Jackie's famed action and fight sequences and unequalled stuntwork. As difficult as it seems on paper to successfully pull off such a blend, to watch Miracles is to know that it can be done, and done well. In fact, not only do I consider this movie to be Chan's best work, I also think it ranks as possibly the best picture to come out of Hong Kong!

Based loosely on Frank Capra's A Pocketful of Miracles (and successfully capturing the Capra spirit), Miracles is the tale of a down and out young man named Kau (Chan) in Hong Kong. Having lost almost all of his cash to a con man, he nevertheless buys a rose from a sweet elderly flower lady, who assures him it will bring him luck. It might have done just that, because before he knows what's happened, Kau finds himself mistakenly named the new boss of one of Hong Kong's biggest crime gangs!

He decides to use his newfound power to clean up the organization, turning them from a criminal outfit into legitimate businessmen, opening up a new nightclub featuring Luming (Mui) as the star attraction. But another gang constantly wants in on the business, keeping Kau from being able to put his fists down.

He also finds he can use his influence and wealth to help the flower lady in her time of need. When she learns her daughter is coming home with her fiancÚ and his wealthy father Ku in tow, she confesses she's never told her child the real story about her status as a poor street vendor. Once the truth is discovered, the wedding will probably fall through.

What follows is an amazingly funny and moving tale, as Kau tries everything in his power to create the illusion that Madame Rose is in fact a wealthy socialite. With Luming's guidance, he fixes her up and provides her with a luxurious hotel suite and a husband (ironically, the same con man who ripped him off at the beginning of the picture!). But what begins as a simple good deed grows more and more complex. The local police inspector, who had been hounding Kau about gang related activity, wants to meet with Ku about an investment--he could easily blow the whole scheme! How Kau relentlessly tries to keep the inspector away becomes one of the film's finest running gags. And that's only the beginning.

I haven't even mentioned the action while describing the story...but don't worry, there's plenty of it! There are multiple fights between the rival gangs, with Chan doing some of his trademark risk-it-all stuntwork. The climax takes place in a giant rope factory, and may be one of the finest all-out fighting and prop scenes he's ever created. The action is fast, furious, hysterical, and jaw dropping, and indicative of the kind of scenes that only Jackie Chan could create.

This picture is not only a triumph for Jackie as a storyteller and action coordinator, but is also his finest moment as a director. Most of his credit as a director has been for his ability to conceive and choreograph amazing action sequences, and rightly so, but with Miracles, he set out to prove that he could make a "real" film as well as anybody. He succeeded. The camerawork in this movie is impeccable, from the gloriously beautiful and complex tracking shots that infiltrate the nightclub and move around to capture every aspect, from the construction to the rehearsals to the behind-the-scenes dealings. On top of that, the way he uses his camera to capture and enhance his fight scenes was also quite new, and the rope factory climax is where you'll appreciate it most. But more than just a technical achievement, Miracles proved that Jackie Chan could work with story and characters as well. He knew how to get the most out of every scene, and capture its genuine emotion simply and subtly, without resorting to melodrama.

Any way you want to look at it, Miracles is a superb film: entertaining, funny, touching, and peppered with amazing action set pieces. It's a film that has something that will appeal to just about everybody, and proves Jackie Chan's creative talents extend far beyond the fighting and stuntwork that have made him a worldwide name.

BONUS TRIVIA: Anita Mui, who later re-teamed with Jackie for Drunken Master II and Rumble in the Bronx, is one of China's biggest pop stars (think: Madonna) and does her own singing for the "Rose, Rose" production number.

Video ***

Right off the bat, Columbia/Tri Star's presentation of Miracles offers two technical improvements over the more expensive Media Asia version: it's dual layered, and it's anamorphically enhanced. Both transfers seem to have been struck from the same source material--in comparing the two, I noticed the occasional bit of debris or scratches occurring in the same spots--but the CST version suffers no compression artifacts. There is no grain or shimmer inherent in the picture, and the coloring is much improved, with more natural looking images and less fading. Red roses look like red roses, not slightly washed out versions of red roses. There are minor inconsistencies from shot to shot...again, likely the fault of the souce material. Some scenes feature terrifically sharp images, others suffer a bit from a little softness and murkiness. Noticeable, but hardly a distraction. Though a lot of Asian cinema suffers from lack of proper preservation, CST's technical considerations for this DVD make this one of the better looking Hong Kong pictures I've seen on disc.

Audio **

I wish I could continue trumpeting the CST version here, but unfortunately, Media Asia wins this round. Both discs offer choice of Cantonese or Mandarin soundtracks (neither with dubbing), but that's where the similarity ends. While the MA version features new and very good 5.1 mixes that uses all channels effectively and offers plenty of dynamic range and clarity for both music and spoken words, this CST release uses simple 2-channel mono mixes. Though dialogue is not really an issue here with a foreign film, I couldn't help but notice a few places where the spoken words dropped way down in order to bring up the music, thus keeping the audio at an even clip throughout. This film boasts a terrific musical score, along with Anita Mui's number, but all of it comes across much thinner here than I would have liked. The results are still listenable, but overall, a gigantic step backwards in quality from the previous issue. In all fairness, the original soundtrack to the film was a mono mix, and CST's version is probably the more faithful, if less spectacular, of the two. The ideal version of this movie would feature CST's video transfer and Media Asia's audio one.

Features **

The disc contains trailers for this movie, plus Who Am I?, Gen-X Cops and Gorgeous. Plus, though unbilled, there is also a talent file on Jackie Chan and an isolated music track. For some reason, the disc defaults with this track on and no subtitles, so you'll have to do a bit of adjusting prior to starting the movie.

Summary:

Miracles pretty much lives up to its name: it's a near-miraculous combination of action, drama, comedy with a terrific core story and wonderful characters. Jackie Chan brings all of these seemingly conflicting elements into a seamlessly entertaining and beautiful movie, one that will have you laughing out loud, reaching for your tissues, and marveling time and time again for two hours. Movies don't get much better than this. Though I missed the 5.1 mix of my older version, CST gets the kudos for a better (and anamorphically enhanced) video transfer, plus offering the 5 minute longer Hong Kong version of the film, which is sure to please fans.