Like many people in the world, I am a big fan of Jackie Chan films, particularly the ones he had significant direct creative involvement in (whether it be directing or being the stunt director, etc.). One of the earlier memories of my childhood was watching Rumble in the Bronx with my father on VHS, and it’s a movie I own on DVD to this day. Its fight choreography still holds up really well in 2021, but one element definitely does not: the gang that Nancy and Tony are members of. Let’s look at why that is for a minute.
Yes, yes, yes, this film isn’t exactly one that is supposed to focus on plot as realistic or “credible” in any way, and its structure exists solely to justify Jackie Chan doing crazy acrobatic wing chun in New York. However, one of the faults of this movie is absolutely shoving its plot in your face over and over again, and unlike in classics such as Police Story, the plot of this one doesn’t hold up in comparison. One of the reasons is that the gang is just full of seeming cartoon character stereotypes, a deliberate simplification of real world issues and politics that directly impact how and why people are recruited into gangs. Rumble in the Bronx goes even further to distort that reality almost completely, something that Keung (Jackie Chan’s character) addresses directly, giving a whole speech to Tony and the gang and calling them the “scum of society” towards the film’s climax. This characterization draws on the assumption that gangs exist to just enable criminal behavior, and the nuances of it are obfuscated to the point of irrelevance.
Why is this problematic? Well, especially in 1995 when there was marked increase in gang recruitment as joblessness rose and in a post-1992 Rodney King incident in the US, touching on gang issues was a sensitive issue that… honestly, few in America took seriously or critically. Instead, we had liberal and conservative pundits and politicians almost uniting against minority communities to implement a “tough on crime” attitude that permeates society to this day. As a Marxist, this era in American politics does not strike good memories, and this film is a perfect example of why simplification makes me more unnerved than anything else. I understand that this movie isn’t here to critically analyze the nature of gang violence, but its outright dismissal to even try to be coherent and realistic interferes directly with its characterization and ability to draw empathy even to our lead characters. Instead of having the life of vice be a potential vehicle to draw empathy towards Nancy, it’s just “I just want to do what I want” and that’s just bad- there’s no examination as to the conditions of New York’s economy, nor the detestable state of living that most of the city lives in. Keung doesn’t even address or think of the apartment he gets to live in from his uncle, spacious enough to do entire gym routines, wing chun practice, and full workouts in.
This is certainly not the worst depiction of gangs in America, but even this overly simplistic type of approach ends up as a wasted opportunity when it could have been used to make the characters better and more relatable. After all, there’s a lot of other elements that this film gets right, particularly in its physical comedy and intense fight scenes, but it makes particular scenes such as the baseball-with-glass-bottles torture scene lack some impact since there’s no real commentary with it. While the ridiculous mafia element can be drawn on decades of Hollywood stereotypes, the same cannot be said at the time with the depiction of New York style gangs in this movie. Despite my many childhood memories of this film, I still wouldn’t list it anywhere close to my favorite wuxia, stunt, or even Jackie Chan movies- but it could have been, had it just taken some extra steps that made it more than a Jackie Chan stunt film. Perhaps that is my true problem- the depiction is cartoonish enough to not feel realistic, but it still tries to root itself in realism enough so that the gang isn’t a non-threat. This film never quite picks a side and suffers for it, and as its central plot device (until the final 20-30 minutes), you can’t sit and ignore it.