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Battle Creek Brawl

aka The Big Brawl

D: Robert Clouse / 95m

Cast: Jackie Chan, José Ferrer, Kristine DeBell, Mako, Ron Max, David Sheiner, Rosalind Chao, H.B. Haggerty, Chao Li Chi

In Chicago in the 1930’s, restaurant owner Kwan (Chi) is being pressured into paying protection money to gangster Dominici (Ferrer). When he receives a visit from Dominici’s henchman Leggetti (Max) and some of his goons, Kwan is physically intimidated but doesn’t pay. As Leggetti leaves, Kwan’s son Jerry (Chan) – who has considerable martial arts prowess but has promised his father he won’t fight – intervenes and leaves the goons thoroughly embarrassed and beaten by using their own moves against them.

When Dominici hears about Jerry’s prowess he believes he’s found the fighter he needs for the upcoming Battle Creek Brawl, a street fighting contest held in Texas. Dominici needs Jerry to combat the fighter backed by rival gangster Morgan (Sheiner), but Jerry  refuses at first. This leads Dominici to have Jerry’s brother’s fiancee (Chao) kidnapped and held hostage. Jerry attempts to rescue her – aided by his martial arts mentor, Herbert (Mako) – but Dominici outsmarts him; they strike a bargain though, and Jerry agrees to take part in the brawl.

Morgan, meanwhile, has persuaded Leggetti to betray Dominici and ensure his fighter’s win by kidnapping Herbert. Having made it to the final round, and facing off against Morgan’s fighter, Kiss (Taggerty), Leggetti threatens Jerry with his mentor being hurt if he doesn’t lose the contest. The only thing Jerry can do is to stall until he can find a way of saving Herbert, and then defeating Kiss.

Battle Creek Brawl - scene

Chan’s first English language feature, Battle Creek Brawl is an enjoyable, free-wheeling martial arts movie that gives the diminutive star the chance to show off his athletic skills and flash the cheeky grin that’s stood him in such good stead for more than forty years. It’s a mainly lightweight distraction, unconcerned with providing any depth to the proceedings, and in many ways all the better for it. It’s a very likeable movie, made purely to entertain its target audience, and on that level it’s a complete success.

Chan’s acrobatics are given plenty of screen time, and as ever he’s a joy to watch, the sheer inventiveness and physical dexterity of his movements proving as entertaining as ever. His wonderfully expressive features and often amazing agility are placed to the fore as much as possible, and writer/director Clouse – with a few awkward exceptions – keeps the camera focused on Chan and leaves everyone else several places behind. The clever intricacy of the fight scenes, particularly the incredibly well choreographed bouts between Chan and Mako, raises the bar throughout, and if Chan’s adversaries are a little too eager to line up and take their punishment, well, that’s always going to be a drawback when working with US stuntmen – it’s a question of timing.

The movie takes place in a strange mix-world of Thirties Chicago and Seventies Texas, with only the costumes and the cars giving an indication that the brawl itself is taking place in the same time zone as the rest of the movie (keep an eye on the Texas backgrounds and you’ll see how jarring it can be). That said, the decision to make it a period piece in the first place makes no difference to the story or the action, but the apparent acceptance of Jerry’s inter-racial relationship with Nancy (DeBell) is a refreshing change (even if it does reinforce the lightweight nature of the script).

With the script’s refusal to add any real intensity to events, the performances are necessarily lacking in substance with even Ferrer struggling to add any appropriate menace to his role. He’s more like a cuddly uncle figure playing at being nasty but in as urbane a manner as possible. As his rival, Sheiner tries to add some threat to events but he’s not given enough screen time to succeed, while Max is given the chance to take on Chan, but with predictable results. DeBell is kept firmly in the background, and of the rest of the cast, only Haggerty as the dastardly Kiss, and Mako as Herbert make any real impression.

Clouse keeps the focus firmly on the fight scenes, and keeps the action moving in ever more exciting ways, and the camerawork by Robert C. Jessup – aided by editor George Grenville – is surprisingly precise and fluid in equal measure; there’s always something going on in the frame and some of it is as interesting to watch as what’s going on in the foreground, especially during the brawl itself, where there are plenty of “bits” that enrich the fights themselves. And to round things off there’s a rich, emphatic score courtesy of Lalo Schifrin that works so well with the material.

Rating: 8/10 – almost too flimsy in its construction and execution, Battle Creek Brawl is still simple yet effective, and a terrific introduction to Chan’s remarkable agility; with an innocence that borders on deliberate naïvete, the movie succeeds by having a great sense of humour and by not taking itself at all seriously – and by showcasing some tremendous fight scenes.