Jackie Chan is 54, and as demonstrated in last weekend's No. 1 film, "The Forbidden Kingdom," he still has the comic timing and kick-'em-up moves that made him a worldwide superstar 30 years ago.


And yet a dozen years ago Chan was talking about hanging it up because he believed he was getting too old to continue performing all those dangerous stunts for his action-packed comedies.

"I'm 40, not 20-something now," he said in January 1996 during an interview at the Sundance Film Festival. "So I must change my image."

At the time, Chan was a movie star everywhere in the world except America, and he was making a last-ditch effort to achieve U.S. stardom with the film he was promoting in Park City — "Rumble in the Bronx," a Chinese production filmed in Vancouver and set in New York.

Sundance didn't give the picture much respect. It was relegated to one of those midnight slots set aside for fringe films. But when word got out that Chan would be there — live and in person — the screening quickly sold out.

During the early '90s, many of his best Chinese movies had built a small but loyal following in art-house venues around the country, but the mainstream U.S. audience remained out of reach. "Rumble in the Bronx" was meant to remedy that, backed by a big-budget ad campaign that would push a national release.

If that worked, Chan said he would stick around for perhaps another decade. Otherwise, he planned to switch gears and give up his daredevil ways.

At that '96 midnight screening, the theater was literally overflowing with fans. Chan, dressed in his trademark white jacket, was introduced to say a few words and appeared to be quite nonplused when the audience went nuts, greeting him with thunderous applause and a standing ovation — an unprecedented event at Sundance. And this was BEFORE the movie was shown!

It was the kind of reaction Chan was used to getting elsewhere in the world but not here.

Still, the next day he was saying, "Now I'm 41, so I believe (that in) a few more years I will retire." But he added that if "Rumble in the Bronx" earned him that American audience he desired, "I'd like to try (combining Hollywood) special effects with my real stunts — I want to see that happen."

"Rumble" was not an enormous hit, but it was successful enough that over the next few years he released a few other dubbed Chinese pictures and continued to build his U.S. audience. And eventually Hollywood did come calling.

Of course, his biggest stateside hits have paired Chan with American actors — Chris Tucker in the "Rush Hour" series and Owen Wilson in the "Shanghai Noon" pictures.

And even "The Forbidden Kingdom" is a gimmick film with a young American actor, Michael Angarano, in the central role as a "Karate Kid"-style teen who travels back in time to ancient China and encounters a pair of martial-arts experts — Chan and the equally legendary Jet Li (who is now 45).

Chan and Li each play two roles, and they are funny, energetic and in top martial-arts form. And the film's centerpiece, an extended, albeit contrived, fight scene is worth the price of admission.

So, thank goodness Chan reneged on his retirement plans of a dozen years ago.

And here's to another dozen years of his singular comic style.

E-mail: hicks@desnews.com