Movie scenes that nearly killed Jackie Chan

The incomparable Jackie Chan has been thrilling and charming audiences for over four decades. His singular combination of insane martial arts skills and crack comedic timing made him a star in the frantic early days of Hong Kong kung fu cinema, but it was his eminently lovable personality that ultimately led to Hollywood stardom and his current status as an international icon.

It's also worth remembering the other quality that has set Chan apart from the vast majority of his peers over his distinguished career—his insistence on doing his own stunts, no matter how dangerous. The outtakes of his films—which often play over the end credits—have for years illustrated for fans just how dedicated Chan is to his craft, and how lucky we are that he manages to cheat death virtually every time he makes a movie. Here are ten scenes that posed grave danger to the life and limbs of one of the greatest action stars of all time.

Nearly losing an eye in Drunken Master (1978)

Snake in the Eagle's Shadow was one of Chan's first lead roles back in 1978, introducing his distinct comic touch, which came about as a way to distinguish himself from the great Bruce Lee. Speaking to Hong Kong Film Connection, Chan remembers: "When Bruce Lee acts like a hero, I act like an underdog. Nobody can beat Bruce Lee; everybody can beat me. He's not smiling; I'm always smiling. This is why Snake in the Eagle's Shadow totally changes the action film." The movie also featured rising star Hwang Jang-Lee, the "king of the leg fighters," whose powerful kicks have become legend. Jang-Lee and Chan's onscreen chemistry was fantastic, leading producers to cast Jang-Lee as the villain in Chan's followup—future classic Drunken Master, also released in 1978.

While shooting Snake, Jang-Lee had accidentally kicked out one of Chan's teeth, but Chan had apparently failed to learn his lesson. He suffered one of his first major on-set injuries when one of Jang-Lee's thundering kicks connected with his brow bone, breaking it and nearly causing him to lose an eye. While the footage of the injury itself wasn't included in the film's outtakes and doesn't seem to have been leaked over the years, all of the realism is on display in the film's legendary fight sequence. Chan himself ranks the fight as one of his favorites and in a 2014 interview, Jang-Lee was asked to rank his top five kung-fu fighters—and he did not hesitate to rank Jackie Chan #1.

Crawling over hot coals in The Legend of Drunken Master (1994)

It took 16 years for Drunken Master to receive a belated sequel, 1994's The Legend of Drunken Master. Its climactic fight sequence is appropriately legendary, but some fans may not know that it was almost very different. Director Chia-Liang Liu envisioned more of a modern Hong Kong feel to the scene, with quick tracking shots and wire work. Chan passionately disagreed, and the conflict led to Liu quitting the production with the final scene still unfinished. Although he wasn't credited, Chan himself took over directorial duties for the scene—meaning that it was his own idea to repeatedly risk lighting himself on fire.

During the fight, opponent Ken Lo shows off some furious kicking skills of his own, but it may have been the open fire pits and hot coals that posed the more serious threat. Midway through the scene, Chan—who it should be mentioned is wearing extremely loose, baggy clothing—is kicked off balance and falls backwards onto the bed of hot coals, crab-walking across its entire length and rolling to safety while dodging Lo's ferocious kicks. (Hilariously, Lo can be seen giving a cheerful thumbs-up the moment Chan's butt hits the flames.) What makes the sequence even more amazing is that the take in the finished film is the second one—Chan felt that the first take didn't have the proper rhythm, so he shot it again, because he is apparently fireproof.

Collision with a helicopter in Police Story 3: Supercop (1992)

It's safe to say that most leading men have never had their face rearranged by a helicopter, but Jackie Chan is not most leading men. An incredibly perilous sequence in 1992's Police Story 3: Super Cop has Chan's character Ka-Kui leap onto a rope ladder dangling from a chopper, then proceed to endure all kinds of hazards as the pilot attempts to shake him off—but that's not even the dangerous part. When the helicopter later lands on a moving train, all Chan has to do it avoid it as he dangles from a rotating railway apparatus.

In the outtake, the helicopter smacks into Chan as he's clinging to the overhang, which fails to rotate completely. This resulted in a fractured rib, broken shoulder, and dislocated cheekbone. Chan had to hang on with his good shoulder while half-conscious and wait for the crew to drag him down. But it's easy to see how much worse it could have been—the accident might have been grisly and tragic rather than just another face-breaking day on the job.

Crushed legs in Crime Story (1992)

Crime Story was a departure from the comedic tone of Chan's previous movies, being a mostly straightforward and relatively gritty, well, crime story. It's loosely based on events surrounding the 1990 kidnapping of a rich Hong Kong businessman, and it quickly sets its tone with a tense opening sequence involving several bad guys with high-powered guns terrorizing citizens on a busy street in broad daylight. Chan's cleverly-named Inspector Eddie Chan leaps into action, but the actor may not have been doing any leaping ever again had a mishap during the scene's filming gone a little bit differently.

In the finished scene, Chan narrowly avoids getting his leg crushed between two cars while trying to jump to safety. Crime Story is the rare Jackie Chan movie with no outtakes at the end, but according to Chan, his legs really did get crushed during another take—although the incident resulted in little more than severe bruises, a positively mild injury by his standards. It's just a good thing he was able to stay on his feet, or it might have been a more vital body part sandwiched between several tons of metal.

An injured spine falling six stories in Project A (1983)

The period piece Project A, in which Hong Kong police team up with the Coast Guard to fight pirates at the turn of the 20th century, is one of the first truly successful distillations of the Jackie Chan formula—pure slapstick comedy by way of blinding martial arts and insane stunt work. One of the most dangerous things Chan ever did on film appears not in the outtakes, but in the finished movie—and it may have been the first scene to give audiences the notion that Chan may be superhuman, because it just doesn't seem like something anyone should be able to live through. 

In the scene, Chan's character Ma dangles precariously from the face of a 60-foot clock tower. He strains to hold on, but loses his grip—and falls the entire six stories, through a couple of awnings and directly onto his head. The awnings may have been meant to break his fall somewhat, but watching the scene, they don't seem like they accomplish much other than to flip his body around such that he lands at the worst possible angle. 

At the risk of stating the obvious, Chan injured his spine during the stunt—but note that the camera doesn't cut away, and that as extras drag him to his feet, he continues to act. Then again, at this point, "Ma gets dragged off in excruciating pain" probably wasn't too much of a stretch.

Dislocated sternum from a fall in Armour of God II: Operation Condor (1991)

The Armour of God series sees Chan in Indiana Jones mode, chasing after hidden treasure and dealing with secret cults and hidden Nazi bases. Armour of God II: Operation Condor is packed to the brim with crazy fight sequences and stunts, but it was a reasonably simple task—leaping from a hanging banner to a dangling chain—that nearly took Chan out.

Clever editing doesn't reveal Chan's terrible tumble in the finished scene; in the extended scene, Chan actually loses his grip on the chain and plummets to the ground while panicked crew members rush to his side. He can then be seen giving a thumbs-up, but it was wishful thinking—he had dislocated his sternum, otherwise known as the breastbone, that big, hard bone right in the middle of your chest that doesn't seem like it's capable of going anywhere. It could have been worse—if he had landed differently, he might have finished the job he started on Project A and dislocated his head.

Serious burns from Christmas lights in Police Story (1985)

The Police Story series has been particularly hazardous to Chan, starting with the 1985 original, in which he executes yet another of the most insane stunts ever put to film. At the climax of a prolonged brawl inside a shopping mall, Chan's Ka-Kui jumps from a railing onto a pole covered in Christmas lights, then slides several stories—with bulbs exploding everywhere—before falling through a glass roof and smashing into the floor. 

Fortunately, the glass was fake, so Chan at least wasn't sliced to ribbons. But the lights had heated up the pole significantly, causing him to sustain serious burns on his hands—better than the alternative, which was to let go and likely fall to his death. The hard landing also dislocated Chan's pelvis and injured two vertebrae in his spine, both serious and potentially paralysis-inducing injuries on their own. At least the stunt looked great in the finished film, because there was no way they were getting a second take.

Dodging billboards and shards of glass in New Police Story (2004)

Since the old series obviously wanted him dead, Chan could have been forgiven for heading into the 2004 reboot New Police Story with some trepidation. But in characteristic fashion, he threw himself into the film's kinetic action scenes with gusto—including one insane sequence that seemed positively designed to produce a horrifying outtake, but which somehow did not.

In the scene, Chan's character (also named Chan this time around) is pursuing a gang member who diabolically distracts him from the chase by gunning down the driver of a loaded double-decker bus. Chan leaps onto the roof of the out-of-control bus, which proceeds to cause massive property damage while the hazards come at him fast and furious. Billboards, shards of flying broken glass, and plenty of other vehicles get in on the action as Chan manages to board the bus (by throwing himself through one of its windows, of course), which promptly has its top half removed by an overpass. He's then able to bring the vehicle to a gentle stop by ramming a truck driven by a gang member at full speed. 

It's easy to spot about a hundred things that could have gone wrong during the filming of this sequence, any one of which could have resulted in Chan literally losing his head—but if it weren't crazily dangerous to shoot, it wouldn't be a proper Police Story movie.

Sliding down a 24-story building in Who Am I? (1998)

"Who Am I?" is actually the title character of the 1998 film of the same name, an amnesiac who is given the moniker by African natives in a humorous misunderstanding. He winds up in the middle of international intrigue, working with a CIA agent to solve a mystery surrounding missing scientists while dodging hitmen in scenic locales. One of those locales is Rotterdam, the Netherlands, which is home to one of the world's more unique skyscrapers, known as Willemswerf. It features a distinct sloping glass facade that runs down one entire face of the 24-story building, and in the film's climactic scene, "Who Am I?" must escape hitmen by sliding down the entire length of the facade. Chan accomplished this stunt by…literally sliding down the entire length of the facade, unassisted, with no harnesses or other special equipment, exactly as seen in the film.

That this stunt was even attempted is insanity. There really was no middle ground; either it goes off without a hitch, or Jackie Chan dies. The slide takes nearly 45 seconds to complete on film, with Chan alternately sliding on his back, scrambling on his feet, and going face-first on his stomach before ending up feet-first again in time to come to a bone-jarring halt and catch himself from flying over the edge at the bottom of the facade. It should be noted that Chan wrote and directed Who Am I? and that it took him two weeks to work up the courage to attempt what may be the most dangerous stunt ever put to film.

A cracked skull requiring brain surgery from a fall in Armour of God (1986)

It wasn't some crazy display of daredevilry, but a completely routine shot that resulted in Chan's closest brush with death to be captured on film. While shooting the original 1986 film Armour of God in Yugoslavia, Chan was required to jump from the wall of a castle to a nearby tree branch, a maneuver that he would normally be able to pull off while sleepwalking. But his timing was just a bit off, and that was all it took—he came crashing down onto the rocks below, cracking his skull and sending a piece of it into his brain.

Speaking with Parade, Chan mistakenly remembered the injury as having happened while filming Armour of God II, but it's easy to see how he could lose track of which shoot tried to kill him in which way. "It was actually just a simple stunt, jumping from a slope," he said. "But I was seriously injured and had a surgery to my brain. I still have a metal plate in my head and can feel the indentation from the impact." 

It seems like the kind of thing that might put an action star out of commission for good, but the near-fatal injury simply became the highlight of Armour of God's outtake reel—and over the next two decades, Chan would continue to risk it all for the enjoyment of his millions of fans.