image A snake becomes a worm

What I will mention about Highbinders wasn’t reported on IMDB or stated on the so-so audio commentary. It was made because Jackie Chan disliked having to oscillate between Hollywood and H.K. productions. Rowan Atkinson (the original choice for the sidekick) passed on it because his adamance for rewrites was met with resistance. Claire Forlani was the fourth choice to play Nicole (after Kate Winslet, Kate Beckinsale and Sophie Marceau). John McTiernan (who directed Predator) was in talks to direct but didn’t go beyond preliminary discussions. In February of 2001, Reginald Hudlin (who directed Boomerang) was set to direct but bailed out in May due to various creative differences and financial worries (the production lacked a major distributor at the time). It was also in May that Gordon Chan joined the production of what was meant to be easier to make than a Hollywood product.

The initial premise of Lethal Weapon meets Ghost would make for better television than the Rush Hour and Lethal Weapon spin-offs. It’s like Ghost in that Arthur Watson was like Oda Mae. The exception being that he would then be like Connor MacLeod in Highlander, thus making Jackie’s Eddie Yang become the Ramírez archetype. They become enhanced versions of themselves after getting killed in sacred areas of Ireland. Their death scenes were changed because the distributor thought it was too frightening for a family movie. Instead of being a cop, Yang was an immigration officer who went undercover as an immigrant because Snakehead was killing illegal immigrants for insurance money. Yang only meets Watson after coming across a Hong Kong container headed for Dublin before teaming up to go to the destination. An unseen deleted scene featured five Sony laptops being blown up.

Another comedic scene that was removed was where Eddie finds himself outside of a Dublin hotel where he converses with a pair of elderly Irish gentlemen. As for scenes which would appeal to conventional audiences of Hollywood action movies, one deleted scene involved Eddie arriving in a Blackhawk helicopter to help The Flying Tiger squad (Chinese SWAT team) rescue someone from a hospital. He was wearing the diving suit that was seen in the nocturnal dock scene. Jackie was the only actor permitted to board the chopper, so his teammates were temporarily played by some white mannequins. The joke is that there was a weight problem. Josie Ho had a brief cameo. This is a shame because she’s, quite frankly, one of the most unique-looking H.K. actresses. Joey Yung’s role as a meter maid was also on the cutting room floor. In turn, she couldn’t capitalize on winning Best Female Singer for My Pride in 2003.

The reason is because the studio head (Albert Yeung), Joey (who recorded for his record company called Emperor Entertainment Group) and others were targets of a witch-hunt after the attack on Eric Tsang at a Kowloon Tong club in July 7, 2001. He was beaten with an ashtray, a bottle and a metal flashlight by three Triads who only left the vicinity after 5 minutes. His forehead needed 29 stitches before he got round-the-clock police protection. It was only in August that Albert was arrested because he had just arrived at the airport after the Ireland portion of filming. Another comedian who he was accused of organizing an attack on was Spencer Leung Sze-Ho. Anyway, both Albert and Joey were released on a bail that was to the tune of 2000 H.K. dollars. As for what prompted the attack on Eric, he defamed Albert’s Pink Mao Mao nightclub as a fancy front for a high-class escort agency.

There was a solid dynamic between Yang and Watson’s Yin – Charlotte (a Vietnamese wife from Canada). The story was changed to capitalize on Jackie’s animated TV series about Talismans. The difference is that the plot owes more to The Golden Child and Double Dragon. The most obvious example of this is that the Chinese boy was not meant to have an important role other than being trapped in an underwater container. Also, he was originally meant to be someone who just spoke Mandarin instead of speaking English. The reason why Highbinders is known as The Medallion instead of The Talisman was because of The Matrix, hence the black clothing in the U.S. publicity materials. Highbinders has more than one meaning – Chinese assassins, corrupt politicians and Triads based in North America. Also, the distributor didn’t want it to be confused with several novels which had similar titles.

There was even a discarded tagline – Now he’s dead, he’s having the adventure of a lifetime! Given how long it took to get made, an early novelization could have made the original title stick. Jackie should have convinced the H.K. production company to let New Line Cinema distribute this movie (due to their history with him). The production was meant to last for 12 weeks but things got delayed because he wasn’t expecting the Screenwriters Guild of America strike to end so soon. Instead of oscillating between Highbinders and The Tuxedo, the former was put on ice. He should have foregone the latter because it wasn’t like he was being directed by Steven Spielberg. Also, the former was released too late to cash in on the CGI martial arts genre that Andrew Lau had instigated. Sony via Columbia Tri-Star purchased the distribution rights of the former for 20 million in December, 2001.

The story change was only brought forth after an American director was hired for reshoots. It’s similar to the fate of Andrew Lau’s The Flock except Gordon wasn’t fired and Andrew’s film was better because the film went from being a crime drama to a chiller. Like what Soh Yun-Huei typed in his critique, there wasn’t enough reshooting and recutting to gloss over the actuality that the medallion and the boy weren’t originally the center of the film’s plotting. Sony wanted supposedly scrapped scenes to be filmed but they took away others which were the linchpin. The trimming of the fights made the movie more pointless. What takes the cake is a rearranged chase sequence that gives the illusion that Yang was already a superhuman. The only upside for everyone involved was that the budget was already recouped due to selling the release rights worldwide. The sales had amounted to over 50 million U.S.$.

Sony was so dismayed with the finished result that they didn’t go ahead with advertising this bad movie with action figures and a video game, although there was an online game (à la The Matrix Reloaded and Kill Bill Vol. 1). The only positive was that the 41 million U.S. budget looked like it was filmed for twice the amount. Bey Logan (one of the writers) was right when he said that it would have been much better if Sammo Hung was the director instead of being just the fight choreographer. It has been suggested that Tony Ching Siu-Tung would have been better, but he was busy working on Hero (which began filming a month after Highbinders did). Gordon had a strained relationship with Sammo during the making of Thunderbolt (starring Jackie). Another problem is that people were expecting Gordon to work wonders with Jackie in the same way that he had with Jet Li in Fist of Legend.

Jackie was too old and the project was too magical for such comparisons to be made. Having Hung direct would have meant that people would be expecting the fights to be no better than what was constructed for Mr. Nice Guy (their previous team-up). It also made sense because he was the star of a U.S. TV series (titled Martial Law). This would mean better interviews on U.S. chat shows such as Jay Leno (whose interview with Jackie was aired on the night of the movie’s première). The fork in the road was that Gordon was slightly more successful at the box office. His biggest hit was Thunderbolt (1995). It grossed H.K.$ 45.6 million. Sammo’s biggest hit was Mr. Nice Guy (1997), which grossed H.K.$ 45.4 million. That’s politics for you. Highbinders should have been filmed in Wales because there was a Cardiff rock band named after him. Furthermore, John Rhys-Davies was raised there. I wonder how he feels about his role being shortened.

Early reports suggested that Sammo had been the director because of a misleading interview on his defunct official website. If it is true, Hung had hung Gordon out to dry by assuming a smaller role of responsibility. Conjecture suggested that arguments forced Gordon to jump ship, thus leaving Sammo to take over. Sammo was asked about how it felt to return to the director’s chair (which could well be the case of the right hand man didn’t know what the left hand was doing): “It doesn’t really feel very different. I’ve been directing for so long, it doesn’t seem like a major change. I don’t feel any new pressure working as a director again. I had to make it more general and more visual than I would with a Chinese film. I had to make the action more visually stimulating. I had to think about camerawork, timing and rhythm more than anything.”

Reading that extract makes me think that the 30 minute segment on E! news would have been more entertaining with him as the director, especially if there was a showreel of past glories. Elsewhere in the interview, he made it clear that he makes commercial movies instead of art films (making him no better than Wong Jing). Gordon expressed a similar sentiment about himself before doing damage control akin to how Terence Chang was the spin doctor for John Woo during his brief stint as a Hollywood film director: “The biggest challenge has not been the creative process, but the management, finance and approach of the whole package. If anyone asks me, the most heartfelt experience wasn’t artistic, but the career challenge it posed for me. Having Sammo there helped me a lot. He also managed to goad Jackie into pushing the envelope where the action was concerned.

None of this matters because moviegoers were more interested in Ronny Yu’s Freddy vs. Jason, Open Range and Freaky Friday in that order. I left out S.W.A.T. being the number 2 movie at the U.S. box office, because it needs to be singled out that moviegoers were more interested in seeing Colin Farrell as a S.W.A.T. member than seeing Jackie donning the get-up. The critiques couldn’t have helped matters much. The comparisons to either Johnny English and Rowan Atkinson clearly indicate how much of the film was conceived with him in mind. Having a fellow fortysomething would have added to the chemistry and provided a different type of foil than what was done in the latter-day U.S. J.C. movies. Intriguingly, the only time that Jackie had an older sidekick in a U.S. movie was when he teamed up with Danny Aiello in a 1985 James Glickenhaus potboiler titled The Protector.

As for Bey, he had come a long way since working as a line producer on Guns & Roses (which was originally titled Maple on Fire when it was filmed in Paris and Birmingham). He remarked that Highbinders would have been a better movie had it been filmed entirely in Ireland. Tara Leniston, who played an Irish nurse, claimed that Jackie loved the Irish people but wasn’t too keen on the Dublin rain that delayed the shooting. The Irish locales were recreated in Asian locations. Because they could only use Dublin Castle for 60 days, a replica was built inside Bangkok’s Thunderdome Stadium. If Jing was the director, he would have filmed everything in Ireland. Also, atmosphere encourages the way that people think (especially for the cast). As for Tara, she called every film industry person in the phone book and heard of a casting for Highbinders. She auditioned, won the part and left South Korea to go to Ireland.

On her return from filming, she received a call from the director’s assistant to say her role had been enlarged and they needed her for more shooting. This was followed by an offer to sign up with the JC Group. On a similar note, Claire’s character initially wasn’t supposed to be a martial artist until she complainingly asked why that wasn’t the case. A month before shooting began, she spent two days per week being trained by a former JC/SH castmate – Benny “The Jet” Urquidez. It must have been a source of greater agitation when the sound of cats comes on in a prelude to her fight with Nikki Berwick (who would have gotten bigger roles if this movie was a hit). It was reported that Claire’s kissing scene with Jackie was his début as an on-screen kisser despite the fact that he had already kissed in Heart of the Dragon. One of her removed scenes is where Eddie and Nicole are holding hands while suspended on a chain.

When we see the couple storm the castle in an attempt to rescue the boy, many fans were probably reminded of a similar finale being done much better in Jackie’s Armour of God. This leads to why he never thought about working with a new director like in the nineties when almost every film of his was by someone who had never directed him before. At the end of the day, Jing’s Money Maker is a better remake of Ghost because he made a comedy with zero drama. Also, he is an easygoing director. A writer for The Guardian, Kathy Sweeney, noted that Gordon sounded like a tyrant during a romantic scene between Jackie and Claire. The other lesson to be learned here is that if an American film company purchases the distribution and editing rights, they may as well be the production company. Really, what Sony did was no better than what Dimension was doing to H.K. movies.

I know that some people are confused by the Screen Gems logo card which precedes the movie. Screen Gems is a TV and animation company owned by Sony. When reshoots were underway, their services were required so that the special effects could be improved. Ironically, the original cut had over 400 CGI shots. After the post-cut meddling, the released version had over 300 shots. Columbia TriStar Home Entertainment became Sony Pictures Home Entertainment in 2004. This triumvirate of companies reminds me of Dimension being owned by Miramax which was owned by Disney, hence why either of the two latter companies were blamed for the dire distribution of H.K. movies; but even Miramax didn’t demand reshoots to Hero. In what can be perceived as an about turn, Jackie disclosed on a Japanese chat show that he wanted to play Tom Cruise’s role in The Last Samurai.

On a positive note, The Medallion benefits from its Irish setting (despite the fact that Thailand substituted for most of the interiors and some of the exteriors). The movie was initially set in Australia. EMG (i.e. Emperor Multimedia Group) changed their own minds after learning about Ireland’s tax breaks at an Irish-hosted reception during the American Film Market in Los Angeles circa 2000 spring. The hosts were Roger Greene (of the Screen Commission of Ireland) and Kevin Moriarty (of Ardmore Studios). It’s just as well that the location changed, because John Woo’s Mission: Impossible II (2000) was set in Australia. Meaning it would have been easy for people to have dismissed JC’s movie as a copy. First Strike partially took place in Australia, and Mr. Nice Guy had the distinction of being an Australian JC movie (New York was the original location but economically deficient), so ennui would set in.

Jackie was initially hesitant about Dublin because he was worried about terrorist attacks courtesy of the I.R.A. If he still said no to Ireland, and Highbinders took place in Scotland, it would be easy for critics to dismiss the film as riding the coattails of Highlander. On a negative note, it would have been better if it had been directed by Alfred Cheung (the main producer). He was one of the five writers but the most important one being that it was him who had envisioned the project. The success of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon convinced him that Chinese cinema needed Western banking. He had more experience working with Sammo. They’ve directed each other and worked with each other in other areas. Also, Alfred was on better terms with him. Directing Highbinders would would have allowed Alfred to redeem himself after failing to release the English language remake of Green Hat.

What’s also a downer is something that went down during the casting process. The U.K. casting agents suggested Winston Ellis, but Bey didn’t want to work with Ellis again*. This confirms what I suspected – Ellis sabotaged Darren Shahlavi so that he wouldn’t be in Black Mask. On a more upbeat note, Anthony Wong (who played a Brit named Lester Wong) abbreviates his experience: “Western crews are absolutely professional. From costume fitting to make-up, they pay attention to every detail. My character has to look like a British gentleman and they made sure I had precisely the right hat to put on. In Hong Kong, I think the crew would have just given me any old straw hat. Their lack of attention to detail shows they have no respect for my profession or the audience.”

It’s a shame that not much attention was paid to the soundtrack. In retrospect, somebody should probably have licensed songs from the aforementioned Welsh rock band named after Sammo. On a more downbeat note, the directorial Chan was the one who persuaded the actorial Chan to do a fantastical martial arts movie (since Gordon was chosen at Jackie’s behest): “I told him he had to because Hollywood uses so many special effects. Otherwise it would be like fighting with one hand tied behind his back. People have often said his Hollywood films are where the best of him never happens, but we wanted to make it happen. He didn’t want something that only pleased the East or the West.

On that note, The Medallion failed to please either. On a final note, Gordon evaluated his messy experience in a way which suggests that he is washing his hands of it: “We are basically using the budget of a small film to shoot a big-scale U.S. film. We were in agreement from the very beginning – that this was going to be a Jackie Chan film. My role was to assist big brother Chan in realizing his vision. I am not here to do what I want to do. That was clear from the beginning and I was more than happy to do it that way. I am in no position to judge the film. We had some disagreements to begin with, but the final film is the product of a lot of subsequent discussions.”

* He mentioned this when he was on the Temple of the Unknown forum. For the July 1992 issue of Martial Arts Illustrated, Bey had described Winston as an all-round nice guy in the prelude to his interview with him. Speaking of, Winston mentioned that he had auditioned for Jackie’s Operation Condor by doing a mock fight with the stunt director. He didn’t specify who the stunt director was, and he doesn’t talk about his experiences on the making of the movie despite the fact that he won the audition. Ironically, he spent way more time talking about the making of The Cyprus Tigers (the Phillip Ko Fei movie was why Jackie considered him after Vincent Lyn brought Winston to the Golden Harvest studio).

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s