[PROFILE] Samo Hung and "Martial Law"
- Jackie's Pal Samo: America's Most Unlikely TV Star
By JAMES COLLINS
Now, let's see. How many short, overweight, non-English-speaking
Chinese boyhood friends of Jackie Chan have ever become stars on
U.S. television? While no definitive answer is possible, of course,
an exhaustive study of the available data suggests that the number
is zero. With the arrival of Samo Hung, however, the figure is about
to change. Hung grew up in Hong Kong with Chan and worked with him
in 23 movies. Now the actor-turned-director has turned actor again,
starring in Martial Law, a new drama that lights up Saturday
evenings on the CBS network. Despite the lack of precedent, the
series has won good ratings, and Hung has shown himself to be as
appealing as any of American TV's leading men.
Martial Law concerns Samo Law, a detective from Shanghai played by
Hung, who has been assigned to the Los Angeles police department. In
many ways it's an old-fashioned cop show, with crude plots and
characterizations--but this actually makes it a pleasure to watch,
since it provides a B-movie charge and doesn't require the viewer to
care about anyone's alcoholism or love life. What makes Martial Law
distinct, though, are its intricate, speed-of-light action sequences
and its humor. These both derive from the talents of Hung, who has
been a star of comedy-action films in Hong Kong since the 1970s. The
result is a series that will win no Emmy awards but is highly
entertaining, and whose sheer craft, at least in its choreography
and acrobatics, puts most American TV to shame.
A year ago, Hung would never have imagined that he would be
appearing in prime time. Last March Terry Botwick, a programming
executive at CBS, learned that veteran Hong Kong action director
Stanley Tong (Supercop) was interested in developing a martial-arts
show for television. That's something Botwick had wanted to do for a
long time, and he and Tong proposed such a series to Leslie Moonves,
the head of CBS Television. Moonves liked the idea. He ordered up a
pilot, collapsing the development process, which usually takes
months, into seven weeks.
The first choice for the lead was Jackie Chan himself, but he
preferred to keep making films like Rush Hour. So Tong and his
partners suggested Hung, who, as another huge Hong Kong star, was a
logical substitute. Hung took the part because he liked the
character, who is tough, street-smart and wise. "In movies and
television shows, there has never been a really good Chinese lead,"
Hung says. "So often, the Chinese look like they are very scared and
shy. I said I would try a new kind of character."
Hung, 46, who has starred in or directed more than 140 films, met
Chan as a child when they attended the China Drama Academy in Hong
Kong. There they learned acting, tumbling and martial arts. Hung was
older and would bully Chan. Even now, according to Chan, Hung treats
him overbearingly. "He is like a Hitler," Chan says. That sentiment
notwithstanding, the two are good friends. "We are very close," says
Hung jokingly. "I used to beat him up every day."
Last year, Hung and his wife Mina, a former Miss Hong Kong, moved to
Los Angeles, where Hung hoped to direct. He didn't intend to do any
acting until Tong, with whom he had worked often, proposed Martial
Law. Now Hung spends 12-hour days on the set, with the occasional
game of golf as his only distraction. The show has two crews working
at once, one shooting the dramatic sequences and the other shooting
the action. The latter crew consists of Tong and several other
veterans of the Hong Kong film industry. Hung helps stage the
fights, performs all his stunts and appears in the dramatic scenes.
Still, he says, "the biggest challenge for me is English." Before
the show went into production, he took an eight-hour-a-day Berlitz
course for about three months.
Martial Law would never work if audiences didn't like and root for
the main character. Of course, Hung's convex silhouette gives him
personal appeal and makes his twirls and vaults all the more
impressive. But he is also a fine actor, quietly funny and a little
bit vulnerable. "We had to find somebody who is good in action and
also has a heart," says Tong. They found him in Hung, America's
least likely, most refreshing network star.
Reported by Jeanne McDowell/Los Angeles