While watching "The Bourne Ultimatum," it was hard to escape the influence of Jackie Chan on some of the moves performed by Matt Damon — especially in the sequence where he is leaping from building to building, and jumping through open windows.

Some may feel this kind of thing owes more to parkour — the technique demonstrated in the French action movie "District B13" and in the opening sequence of "Casino Royale." You know, the seemingly unreal ability to climb up a wall or building in leaps and bounds.

But I would suggest that Jackie Chan was doing that long before it became a street sport.

So consider this column a Jackie Chan primer, aimed at those who know him only from his American movies — the "Rush Hour" trilogy, the two "Shanghai" films or such bombs as "The Tuxedo," "The Medallion" and "Around the World in 80 Days."

Chan is a charming and funny performer, whose hijinks owe as much to Buster Keaton as Bruce Lee. And in his best Chinese films, he is an incomparable movie star in the best sense of that phrase. And his martial-arts work is astonishing.

But Chan has never really mastered English, and the outtakes at the end of "Rush Hour 3" indicate that he is sometimes given things to say without having the meaning explained — which may be why so much vulgarity permeates his American films but is never in his Hong Kong films.

Consider those outtakes as a metaphor for how Chan has been manipulated by the Hollywood system that doesn't understand him.

Chan is, of course, at his best in the films he makes in his native language, and in the less restrictive confines of Hong Kong.

He is constrained in Hollywood by all sorts of union rules that prevent him from bringing his stunt work into full force, and by directors who — despite claims to the contrary — have no idea how to film his intricately choreographed action sequences (which Chan personally choreographs, using collaborators he has relied on for years).

Camera tricks are probably necessary in the "Bourne" movies to help give Matt Damon a sense of "superhero" fighting techniques.

Damon is a fine actor but he's not a stunt man. And though he comes off well in these films, there's a reason there's so much camera movement and quick-cut editing.

But Chan doesn't need any of that. He's a stunt man and an actor — and he's also a physical comedian with no modern peer.

Notwithstanding its enormous success at the box office last weekend,"Rush Hour 3" is an example of how poorly Chan is treated by Hollywood.

Director Brett Ratner claims to be a big fan of Chan, and he also considers himself something of an expert on Hong Kong martial-arts cinema. But if that's the case, why does he continue to photograph Chan's action in shifting close-ups?

Fred Astaire used to decry any of his dance sequences that were edited — that is, broken up by different camera shots — or which didn't show his entire frame. He understood that for the full impact of his dancing to be appreciated, it had to be seen unexpurgated and with his full body in view.

Indeed, I once saw "Top Hat" in a local theater that could not adjust its screen to the format needed for this vintage movie, and Astaire's feet were cut off in every dance. It was quite frustrating.

Chan understands this as well. If you watch his Chinese films — even those he does not direct, but on which he is a very close collaborator whose opinion is respected — you can see the difference.

Also, look at the finale in "Rush Hour 3," atop the Eiffell Tower. Something's missing. And I think I know what it is.

When I interviewed Chan at the Sundance Film Festival in 1996, where he was debuting "Rumble in the Bronx" — which would become his breakthrough film in this country — he said that something he does for all his fight scenes is look around the various sets for props he can use in the choreography.

Those hilarious bits where he is using a ladder or a chair or even a jacket to confound his enemies are the result of hours of preparation and rehearsal.

But if you watch that Eiffel Tower sequence, you'll notice he doesn't have much to work with. OK, they were in France and wanted to end the film on an iconic image, but there are no props on the Eiffel Tower. The entire sequence feels flat.

Even in the climactic Big Ben sequence in "Shanghai Knights," Chan is able to use wooden planks and the clock's gears and other "found objects."

Ratner, despite the success of his "Rush Hour" movies, continues to settle for by-the-numbers plotting (even recycling the villain motif from the first "Rush Hour"), and never uses Chan to his best advantage.

And don't get me started on the obnoxious Chris Tucker.

One would hope that with the huge success of "Rush Hour 3," Chan might be able to parlay his way into a Hollywood movie that would better respect his best instincts.

But I'm not holding my breath.

Unfortunately, "Rush Hour 4," directed by Brett Ratner, is a more likely scenario.

So check out Chan at his comic-action best in "The Legend of Drunken Master" or "Supercop" (aka "Police Story 3") or "Operation Condor" or any other of his Chinese classics.

You'll thank me.


E-mail: hicks@desnews.com