Like many American moviegoers of a certain age, I first encountered Jackie Chan in The Cannonball Run (1981), which featured the Hong Kong actor in a minor comedic role. Yet Chan actually made his first big play for U.S. notoriety the previous year, starring in the partially comedic martial-arts picture The Big Brawl for director Robert Clouse, who made Enter the Dragon (1973). After The Big Brawl and The Cannonball Run failed to create excitement around Chan, he returned to making films in Asia until finally conquering the U.S. in the late ’90s. Watching The Big Brawl now, it’s easy to see what 1980 audiences missed—and why they missed it. Clouse has a ham-fisted touch for comedy that undercuts Chan’s meticulously rehearsed illusion of effortlessness, and the marketing materials accentuated violence. Viewers expecting straight-up chop-socky savagery must have been disappointed by all the silliness on display. That said, The Big Brawl is a mildly entertaining adventure that makes sense within the context of Chan’s subsequent career: This flick represents an early attempt at finding the synthesis between fighting and funny bits that distinguishes Chan’s most successful films.
Opening in Depression-era Chicago, The Big Brawl—which is occasionally known as Battle Creek Brawl—concerns Jerry (Chan), an ambitious young man who dates a nice white girl, Nancy (Kristine DeBell), and works part-time in his immigrant father’s Chinese restaurant. Against his father’s wishes, Jerry trains in martial arts with his uncle, Herbert (Mako). After making enemies of a big-time gangster, Dominici (José Ferrer), Jerry is coerced into entering a huge citywide brawl in Battle Creek, Texas, where dozens of combatants box and wrestle until the last man standing wins a cash prize.
Powered by one-dimensional characterizations and predictable twists, the plot is forgettable. What makes The Big Brawl fun to watch, at least periodically, is Chan’s astounding physicality. In a lengthy roller-derby scene, he leaps and rolls like he’s made of rubber, using found objects and lightning-fast strikes to wipe out opponents. And during the brawl—which consumes a good 30 minutes of screen time—Chan runs the gamut from physical comedy to serious ass-kicking, even though the fight scenes all have a certain Hollywood falseness. Among the supporting cast, nobody excels beyond Chan and the always-dynamic Mako. However, the film has some great bursts of energy thanks to Lalo Schifrin’s memorable score. Laying Ennio Morricone-style whistles over a slinky jazz groove that would’ve made Henry Mancini proud, Schifrin locks into Chan’s playful frequency more than Clouse ever does.
The Big Brawl: FUNKY