“Where is the map and the key?” snarls a henchman as he corners Jackie Chan at gunpoint in a Moroccan hotel room (actually a set in Hong Kong). Jackie denies any knowledge of the items, but he’s barely gotten the word out when he is attacked from screen left by another henchman who reigns down a series of brutal blows that leave Jackie gasping for breath. This henchman is “Adolph Guard #4” according to the script and is played by Bruce Fontaine, a transplant from Vancouver who has joined just about every other non-asian stunt pro in Hong Kong (collectively known as “Westerners”) to shoot what would turn out to be one of Jackie Chan’s largest and most expensive productions, Armour of God II: Operation Condor.
Oddly enough, it was a screening of that film’s predecessor Armour of God at the old Golden Harvest theatre in Vancouver (now the Imperial) that had convinced Bruce to move to Hong Kong two years prior. His timing was excellent as western faces were beginning to feature more prominently (mostly as villains) in a Hong Kong film industry that sought do gain an even larger slice of the international cinema pie with its various brands of blistering action thrillers and comedies
Having featured in the Jackie Chan-produced Inspector Wears Skirts II, Bruce quickly became acquainted with the Jackie Chan stunt team, among the best in the business. So when Jackie’s globe-trotting sequel to Armour of God announced production, Bruce was among the first picks to play one of the many obstacles between Jackie and a cache of hidden gold in the African desert.
The film went on to be an international hit and a fan favourite, and is now celebrating the 30th anniversary of its initial theatrical release this month. I’ve sought out Bruce who has since relocated to Vancouver where he’s transferred his hard-won expertise to our own film industry. Minutes within getting him on the phone, he opens up with such an overflowing treasure trove of stories and insight that I’ve had to split this interview into two parts! Without further ado, let’s begin:
How did a Canadian come to enter the Hong Kong Film Industry of the 1980s?
Bruce Lee sparked my martial arts interest, but Jackie Chan sparked my interest in Hong Kong films. [In the 1980s] I was in a martial arts school in Chinatown and I was probably the only white kid going down to the Chinatown theatre every weekend.
In 1986, I was part of the National Wushu Team that went to China for an international competition. (We) stopped in Hong Kong, did an appearance on a variety show, Enjoy Yourself Tonight. Some people said “Hey, Westerners are catching on.” Cynthia Rothrock had just done Yes Madam so westerners playing strong supporting roles or bad guy roles was kind of catching on.
Literally two years later, I made the decision to pack up and move to Hong Kong. There’s a little bit of irony because I sat in the Golden Harvest Chinatown theatre watching the prequel to Operation Condor which is Armour of God, and that was the night I made the decision. I turned to my girlfriend at the time and said “That’s it. I’m going!”
I had a friend there also. He was a roommate of mine when we were college age. He said “Yeah, you can stay at my place” so I packed up, jumped on a plane and headed over there.
Within two weeks, I was working for Jackie Chan’s company doing a film called Inspector Wears Skirts II. I guess you could say I became one of the ongoing western bad guy types, doing those roles.
For Jackie Chan’s film (Operation Condor), I had been there maybe a year and a half at that point and had done maybe a dozen or more films. They looked at all the typical backpacker types that they often audition, but they ended up going to what we ended up calling the “core guys” who were already working in film there, the non-asian types. I knew all the people on Jackie’s stunt team because we had this facility where we’d all work out. At the auditions Benny (Lai) said “Oh Bruce, you don’t need to audition. You’re already in”.
The film took about nine months. We all joked that you could have a baby in that time. I did about 65 days on that film, spread out over that nine months.
So you had time to work on other films during that period?
I did a lot of stuff in-between. There was a film called Curry and Pepper, one called Forsaken Cop, there were a lot of things that happened in between. In fact, I did one movie called Angel Terminators where they hired me. Hong Kong is a little different than here. They shot a bunch of scenes with me before Operation Condor, I let my hair keep growing which on Operation Condor I put in a ponytail. Six months later, Angel Terminator says “Oh, we gotta finish the film!” That hadn’t done anything for literally half a year. I said that I was on Jackie’s movie and that my hair was really short before. So if you watch Angel Terminator, suddenly I’ve got a mullet!
Over there, it’s very different. When they book you, you could do some work and then not work for the same project for another three or four months. Then you’d get a call saying “Oh, we’re back up and running.” That usually had to do with their movie stars. Some of those guys would be working on three or four movies at a time. There was non-stop scheduling issues. Guys like us who were way down the cast list, we just get called and it’s like “Ya need another scene? ok.”
Funny story, while I was shooting the hotel scene, Jackie walked up to me and said “I’m giving you three days off. Cory (Yuen) wants you to go to Thailand for King of the Kickboxers” He winked at me and said “Don’t screw around or get into any trouble down there. Just do your thing and get back here right away.” Cory Yuen, whom I had worked with on the movie She Shoots Straight, so we got along.
Tell us about your time on the Operation Condor set.
The scene where I (first) show up is in a Moroccan hotel. That was actually the very first scene that they shot on a set that was built in Hong Kong. At the time, that film was the most expensive Hong Kong film ever made ($115 million HKD). There used to be a joke about Jackie that Golden Harvest would just give him a blank cheque.
He took 28 days to film that scene in the hotel. Jackie has this casual, relaxed approach when he first starts. As we got towards the end, it was very frenetic. For that first scene, I basically just worked non-stop. I put in 20-something days. I wasn’t in every bit of it because some parts didn’t require me.
They packed up and went to Spain after they shot the hotel scene. I wasn’t required in Spain, along with some of the other cast members. During that time, I was taking other gigs. Sometime later ,they flew us to Morocco. Honestly in Morocco, we did very little. We hung out for a month in Morocco and I shot maybe three days total.
When we all came back from Morocco, there was a little bit of a break, then they did the whole underground fortress scene. I put in another 30-odd days speckled here and there. That’s when things kind of took a turn because Jackie was under some pressure. They hired a whole bunch of new westerners that he had never worked with. It was my good fortune that I had already worked with him on several scenes and he was comfortable with me and the other westerner in that scene, Ken Goodman. He trusted our timing.
A lot of stuff would happen while we were shooting where he would try out one of the newer western guys. If they didn’t get the timing, he would say “Bruce/Ken, swap in for them.” So we probably ended up doing a lot more action in the ending scene than we would’ve if the other westerners had been able to get the beats quicker.
Vincent Lynn (Mark) was literally hired right at the end. There’s another guy in that scene, Ken Lo, one of Jackie’s team. It was Jackie’s last-minute decision to add them in. He was quite honest with us, he said “Look, I’ve already been beating the crap out of you guys throughout this movie. It doesn’t make for a good ending if I just fight you guys again.” So we had to bring in the “bigger henchmen” so to speak.
Jackie is notorious for being a perfectionist on set. Were there particular stunts or moments that you had trouble executing?
I try to be humble. I was always pretty good about getting the timing down. I credit that to the wushu because wushu is just learning choreographed routines, it’s not really fighting. Film fighting is more like a dance. Even Jackie used to say “this is a dance, we’re partners.” Creating the illusion of a fight, but it’s more akin to a dance.
So I’ve never really had any problems myself per se. With Jackie, he was much more of a perfectionist than any of the Hong Kong guys I’d worked with, people like Sammo Hung and Corey Yuen. Not to say that they weren’t any good, but Jackie was much more of a perfectionist and I think that’s also one of the reasons why Ken and I show up a lot at the end. A lot of the pieces you see us doing, he actually tried other guys out. They just couldn’t get the timing or hit the beats. So he’d say “Alright Bruce and Ken, you’re back in”. Or sometimes you’d see moments where he’d get his own (Asian) guys to double the westerners.
One of the things Jackie did that really struck me was that they way they shoot. They don’t shoot multiple angles like a Hollywood film in that they didn’t do masters or coverage. He would say “I only need this angle. We’re only gonna overlap a move or two, gonna hit the mark exactly here. You’re gonna do this exactly a certain way.”
A lot of time, there were certain moves in the film where he’d say “Here’s my camera move” and he’d tell his team to choreograph to match the camera. As opposed to here where a bunch of stunt people make up a fight, then they’ll figure out how to shoot it. There, they would never do that. Everything I did in a film fight, I learned the pieces five minutes before we shot. I never learned an entire fight ever in all of the Hong Kong films I did.
He started inviting Ken and myself to the editing trailer, because he edits as he’s filming. He actually used to take us and say “Remember when we shot that last week?” and he’d show us on the film reels and say “That’s why I chose this angle. You know why I cut here? I cut here ’cause I knew I wanted to overlap that.”
I guess you’d have to say he was great, super technical. I think I learned more from him than any of the other filmmakers. Being given the opportunity to sit behind the monitor, I learned a ton. It was a little stressful the way it got stretched out, but I loved the guys, I was fantastic, it was a dream for me. Jackie is kind of the reason I got into film. I always thought it was strangely karmic that Armour of God was the moment where I said “I’m off to Hong Kong”.
At that time, my only experience was Hong Kong. I’d never seen western filmmaking. I was just sucking it in, but had nothing to compare it to. When I came here however, everyone was shooting masters. I didn’t even know what the concept of a master shot was. I worked on Ninja Turtles (1997 TV series) and day one, I get to set and I wondered where the camera crew was and one of the guys was like “We’re just rehearsing”. They were rehearsing all day and that was something that was completely foreign to me.
Some of the (stunt) stuff was a little hairy. The moving mechanical platforms at the end would never meet the safety requirements that you would expect here. One of the guys was sitting on that thing and Jackie said “Look guys, be careful on this stuff”. I guess they weren’t clear enough because this particular one wasn’t tied off and the guy jumped off. The thing went flying because it had a heavy counter-weight! They had a bunch of guys with ropes off-camera pulling to make them look like they’re working mechanically. Thank Christ nobody was standing near that thing because it weighed like a ton. They were solid steel. Subsequent to that, I looked back to the stuff I’d done and figured the safety standards were not quite there compared to the west.
I will say this one thing. I made the outtakes. In that particular scene, I “connected”. I personally think (Jackie mis-stepped), but I would never say that to him. In Hong Kong, they have a way where if there’s a bad take, they’ll go “NG”, if it’s a good take, they’ll say “Keep G”. So I connected, and I heard “Keep G” and I went “you’re keeping this ’cause you’re putting it in the outtakes.” I was a fan, I knew what that meant.
I knew this gonna come back and sure enough, when they did the Western cut in 1997, I’d just returned to Canada. I was having a hard time when I first came back here, I was getting a lot of closed doors. I remember there were a couple of guys on Ninja Turtles saying “he kicked Jackie Chan in the throat!” and I thought “Aw fuck, you guys are gonna use this as fuel against me”. It came back to haunt me and there were a lot of times people would see it on TV and go “I saw the outtakes, you connected!”. It was an accident, Jackie was cool. He did kinda cough funny for a couple of days.
Bruce throat-kicks his boss, yet lives to see another paycheque in Operation Condor
I can speak a bit of Cantonese and I remember overhearing one of the girls say “should we fire him?”. He was like “No no no, it’s ok”. He was good about it and has had far worse accidents. That is one that sticks out for me and haunted me for a few years.
There were a couple of times during that fight, my buddy Ken and I have him up against a railing and he jumps down to the lower platform where we go with him. Jackie actually slipped and Ken was right there and caught him by his wrist. It actually happened a second time, Ken just caught him and I’m thinking “you could not do this on an American set”. Had he fallen off that railing, 10 foot drop then a sharp edge then another drop of 15 feet. He probably would’ve been pretty messed up if my buddy Ken didn’t catch him.
Bruce witnesses Steve Tartalia’s trial-by-machine gun fire in Operation Condor
Can you comment on the rumour that Steve Tartalia’s character (Adolf Guard #2) was killed off early due to him crashing a crew member’s motorcycle?
Steve’s a great guy, he was one of my best friends. But he was a little hard to control, Jackie kept saying “You guys are mercenaries, you’re not martial artists”. When we were filming the ending scene, Jackie was under a lot of pressure and a couple of times, Steve disappeared. Jackie got upset because we were getting ready to roll and nobody knew where Steve was.
Ken and I understood what film fighting is. At one point shortly after Jackie said that whole thing about not looking too martial-arty, I got the feeling he had directed that more at Steve. We were at the backlot of Shaw Brothers, where there’s this old 1940s gangster car. Shortly after he had given this whole little lecture about not looking like martial artists and looking like mercenaries, Steve out on the top of this old Model T, running Kung Fu routines and Jackie just got really pissed.
For all us guys, this was like the epic of our career. It was so for Steve as well and Steve still hadn’t really had a moment. In the script, Steve was supposed to be the son of Adolf and they were gonna bring this out. But Jackie wasn’t happy with Steve, was kind of getting upset.
At one point, Steve said “Jackie, can I get a moment? C’mon, please, can I do something?” and I think it just rubbed Jackie the wrong way. So long story short: Steve, because of his self-control issues, he just got under Jackie’s skin. At one point, we were getting ready to do the scene in the tunnel and everyone’s wondering who’s gonna get shot because Jackie hasn’t told anybody. Steve goes “Jackie, you’re not gonna kill me are you?” and Jackie blew, he just lost it.
He starts yelling “This is Hong Kong! We don’t always stick to a script! If I wanna kill somebody, I kill them early!” and he turns to Ken and says “I can kill you! You wanna die? I can put you up there, you wanna die??” Ken was like “No, I’d like another 20 days please.” because he’s thinking about the paycheque, right?
What Jackie ended up doing was they booked a separate day just for the scene where Steve gets shot. We all felt for Steve, but we were like “Steve, we tried to help ya, we tried to warn you”. When you watch the film, if you look at Steve’s expression when he’s walking up with the key, that’s the moment where Steve’s like “fuuuucccckkkk”. So there’s a bit of truth there.
Steve might be best known for playing “Tiger” in Once Upon a Time in China.
That was originally supposed to be me! A little backstory: Ken and I went to an audition for OUATIC and we were told that there were no fighting parts for westerners, just strictly acting. Because we were known at that point, they said “Well, why don’t you guys just audition and read some lines?”. While we were there, someone said “run a few moves” and (later) I got a call saying they wanted to give me a new part and it was this “Tiger” role and I was like “score!”.
For me, Operation Condor was almost done because they were going to shoot the wind tunnel scene. But in Hong Kong, some of the production manager types can be real assholes who only think about covering their ass. There was this guy, I think his name was Paul. I said to the guy from OUATIC, “I’m wrapped in a bout a week.”. He said “We’re not gonna go to camera for a month or two.”
Well, that particular guy contacted Paul on Jackie’s crew who basically told the OUATIC people that I was booked for three months. Two weeks later, I’m wrapped and I find out Steve’s got the part. I call the guys at OUATIC and they told me what Paul said. So I went back to set where they were filming the wind tunnel scene and I basically tore a few verbal strips off of Paul and told him if I saw him again, I’d punch him out. In Hong Kong, there are no unions. It’s every man for himself. Some crazy times.
(Later), one of the guys who wanted me on the OUATIC team said “I should have just stuck with you Bruce. I’m sorry.” because Steve just presented all sorts of problems.
Jackie and Bruce get their rears in gear in Operation Condor
While credited as “Second Unit Director”, I’ve heard that Frankie Chan actually directed some of the main unit on Operation Condor. Can you shed some light on that?
I got fired off of Outlaw Brothers where I had a blow up with Frankie. I thought I was screwed because Operation Condor was next and all the westerners were on it; Mark Houghtan, Jeff Falcon, Ken Goodman, Steve Tartalia, everybody.
I had a blow-up with Frankie Chan where we yelled quite a bit at each other. Subsequently, I was let go and I was fine with it. Whatever, I can deal with it. I didn’t think I was gonna get on Operation Condor, but Benny Lai and I got along really well.
At the time we filmed the hotel scene, Frankie was directing. There’s a part where Ken and I are at the door, trying to get into this hotel room. Frankie was telling me “Do this, do that” and he blew up at me. I guess he still had issues over the previous film. Jackie comes back and asks what’s going on. Frankie says “I told Bruce do this and this and he didn’t do what I wanted”. I was like “Just trying to do what you’re telling me bud, but you just don’t like it”.
Anyways, Jackie says “Show it to me”. Then Jackie says to Frankie “Let’s wind it down a little” and totally took it apart and simplified it. Then Jackie was like “He’s fine, his acting’s good”.
Jackie did pretty much let Frankie call the shots, but everything had to be run through Jackie. If he didn’t like it, he simplified it. As we got to the end, we never saw him at the ending scene. In fact, I can’t even remember him in Morocco to be honest. So he was directing quite a bit in the beginning, but Jackie did shadow direct.
Hong Kong films of the era were often shot in multiple languages, then dubbed for each international market. What language were you speaking on set in your scenes?
We just spoke English. Every single movie that I did there, about 30 films, I never once shot with sound. Every single movie was dubbed. At that time, the explanation to me was that for every market, they dub. For the Korean market, the Japanese market, various Southeast Asian markets, they’ll dub.
Jackie used to say that he’d recoup his budget in Japan alone because he had such a big fanbase there. So he’d have a Japanese dub. In fact, we shot extra scenes that are not in the Hong Kong print in the underground warehouse strictly for the Japanese market. We actually had a bunch of hardcore Japanese fangirls that used to come to the set all the time and I’ll tell ya, Jackie is very territorial of them.
Jackie spoke English with all of us. His English wasn’t that good back then. In fact, he was very self-conscious about it. When Ken and I were there he would ask “How’s my English?”. But yeah, he spoke English the whole time with all of us. With his Hong Kong team, he’d go Cantonese and with the westerners he’d speak English.
I never, ever saw a guy with a sound boom (microphone) on that set, or any other set. I know there were one or two films at that time that got shot with sound, but we were never on any of those ones.
Did you catch the film at its premiere?
Yeah, there was a big screening they did in Hong Kong and of course, I was there. Because I was in Hong Kong for several more years, me and all the western guys went to see it two or three times. We all wanted to see the film and see how we did.
The first AD Fong and I became really good friends. He gave me all of the takes they didn’t use. He gave me literally like ten rolls of film. I could’ve cut a second version of Operation Condor with second takes and stuff like that.
Wow! Do you still have it?
Here’s the thing. Hong Kong is a very humid place. It became decayed and compromised and I regret it to this day because I didn’t really understand how it should’ve been stored. I’d left it in a corner of my room in my apartment and the humidity just got to it.
I actually used some of the footage to get (stills). I took it to a photography place and said I wanted to get some prints made. That’s all I ever ended up using it for. I probably could’ve sold it on eBay or something!
NEXT WEEK: Part 2 where Bruce discusses further JC projects, differing stunt styles in Hollywood North and inhabiting the director’s chair!