A Vermont wordsmith has penned the saga that will prompt Asia's top action-movie stars, Jackie Chan and Jet Li, to work together for the first time. But The Untitled J & J Project, as Hollywood has temporarily dubbed the English-language picture that begins shooting in April, really ought to be The J & J & J Project. This designation would give a nod to the screenwriter, Lamoille County resident John Fusco.
"The film starts in San Francisco 2007 and time-travels to the Tang Dynasty," he explains in an email. "It's about a troubled kid who finds an emotional talisman in his Kung-Fu movie heroes. When he comes across a centuries-old fighting staff in a Chinatown pawn shop, he is transported to ancient China on a mission to return the weapon to the Monkey King, who has been imprisoned for 500 years."
During the prosperous Tang Dynasty, which lasted from 618 to 907 A.D., education, poetry and multiculturalism flourished. Like most of world history, this renaissance era was equally marked by a taste for combat. Fusco contends, however, that his protagonist's journey eventually teaches him "the true, nonviolent meaning of Kung Fu."
Jet Li (Hero in 2002) is slated to appear as both the mischievous Monkey King, who seeks immortality, and a character known as the Silent Monk. Chan (Rush Hour in 1998 and its 2001 sequel) will play a monk named T'sai-Ho, as well as a pawnbroker in contemporary California. The two actors reportedly have had a longstanding desire to fight each other on the big screen.
Fusco will now grant that wish, thanks to a tale that was launched five years ago as "a bedtime story for my young son," he says. "I made up a new chapter each night."
Giovanni, who turned 14 last week, shares his father's love for Chinese mythology, legends and Kung-Fu flicks. They both also adore classic novels such as Ch'eng-En Wu's Journey Into the West. Written in the late 1500s, the book chronicles the adventures of the country's most beloved folk hero, the Monkey King.
The screenplay includes the genre's typically balletic battles, which will be designed by legendary martial-arts guru Yuen Woo-Ping. He did the same for a range of hits, from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) to The Matrix trilogy (1999-2003).
"I studied martial arts as a kid, long before it became popular," notes Fusco. "It had a profound effect on my life."
He's currently pursuing that interest through a discipline called Northern Shaolin Praying Mantis Kung-Fu. "I've also been traveling to China and working closely on the martial-arts aspects of the script with Jet, Jackie and Woo-Ping. They like the fact that I don't just insert 'and now they fight' into the script," Fusco says. "They enjoy taking the physical and philosophical sequences I've choreographed on the page and jumping off from there."
Coincidentally, his own martial-arts efforts in the Green Mountain State introduced him to an actor from Burlington who has been studying Shaolin in Beijing since age 16. Fusco wants to recommend the young man, now 20, for the lead role.
Fusco anticipates spending a significant part of spring 2007 in the Far East. His Seven Samurai remake, featuring Zhang Ziyi (Memoirs of a Geisha), will begin production in Thailand at about the same time as The Untitled J & J Project's shoot gets going in the nearby People's Republic.
The latter movie will be directed by Robert Minkoff, an American best known for The Lion King and Stuart Little. He apparently is replacing Lord of the Rings Oscar-winner Peter Jackson, who was originally linked to the Fusco film.
The Vermonter is a sort of Lord of the Themes. "I believe that the secret to writing is drawing from your deepest pool of childhood passion. My stuff comes from there, whether it be Native American history, the Old West or the Delta blues," muses Fusco, whose cinematic career has addressed those topics with Thunderheart, Young Guns and Crossroads, respectively. "Kung-Fu philosophy goes back to that pool for me. When I was exactly my son's age, I dreamed of one day making a movie with Bruce Lee."
This fantasy faded with the death in 1973 of the Enter the Dragon icon, Fusco acknowledges, "but to make one with Jet Li and Jackie Chan comes pretty darn close."
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