Sylvester Stallone is a phony. Bruce Willis is just a wimp. And don't even mention Jean-Claude Van Damme, that . . . that . . . Belgian waffle. In the pantheon of movie action heroes, there is only one true god and his name is Jackie Chan.

At least that's what the folks at New Line Cinema, the distributors of "Rumble in the Bronx," would like you to believe. A cheerfully rambunctious film in which Chan plays a tourist from Hong Kong who unwittingly lands in the mean streets of the South Bronx (played by the city of Vancouver), "Rumble" opened this weekend at 1,500 theaters across the country. If it does well, rest assured, you'll see more of the 41-year-old Chinese actor soon. Miramax has two of his earlier slam-bangers, "Drunken Master II" and "Crime Story," already waiting in the wings.

If not, well, it's home to Hong Kong, where Chan's affable little-guy persona and his reckless sense of derring-do have long since elevated him to superstardom. "Very funny thing," says Chan, who speaks a kind of telegraphic English. "In Hong Kong, we also have Bronxlike area. Very tough. But wherever I go, they treat me like very good friend. Even if they are very bad triads {gangs}, when they see me, it's Hi, Jackie. How are you? Any new films coming up? Be careful. Don't hurt yourself.' Not like Bruce Lee.

"People want to beat up Bruce Lee. If they can beat Bruce Lee, they are famous. But nobody wants to beat me. A child loves me. Girl loves me. Old mother treat me like son. Even triads treat me like part of them. I am role model of the children."

And what do they like so much about this diminutive actor with the friendly, if altogether unprepossessing, face? His pluck, his humor, his acrobatic agility and the fact that he does all his own death-defying stunts. The guy in "Rumble" who leaps from the rooftop of the parking garage to the postage-stamp balcony 40 feet below on the other side of the street is none other than Jackie Chan himself. No trick photography here. No doubles. No hidden wires or harnesses. Just pure aplomb or outright foolhardiness.

In "Project A" (1983) he dangles from a clock tower -- not unlike silent movie clown Harold Lloyd, who is one of his inspirations -- then plummets through two canvas awnings, hitting the ground noggin-first. In "Police Story" (1986) he eludes the bad guys by hooking his umbrella handle on the window of a passing bus. Later he dives out into the atrium of a department store, slithers down several 70-foot strands of Christmas lights and comes crashing through a glass ceiling in a blizzard of sparks.

Chan, it appears, will do just about anything to please his fans, even if it means painful bruises, smashed digits, broken bones and a hole in his skull the size of a quarter, the last of which he incurred while filming his 1986 feature "The Armor of God."

"Feel," he says, guiding a reporter's hand to a hard lump on the right side of his head under the thick thatch of black hair. "That prostate."

Beg pardon?

"Plastic implant. You know. Prostate."

Er, prosthesis?

"Ah, yes. Prosthesis. Got in Yugoslavia," he replies with a smile as warm as a sunbeam.

Just so audiences know Jackie Chan doesn't fake it, his films end with a series of outtakes, showing all the mishaps and flubs that occurred in the line of duty. Midway through "Rumble" you see his spectacular jump from a bridge onto a passing Hovercraft. In the outtakes, you see him crumble to the deck of the boat in agony: He has just broken his ankle. (Chan, in fact, finished the shoot in a cast painted to resemble a sneaker.)

Chan says that wasn't the worst of it, though. No, the really hard part was the sequence in which he water-skis, barefoot, behind the speeding Hovercraft. "I don't know how to swim," he says. "Swimming pool, okay. But not in sea. It is very tough. You know why? It is December. Zero below in Vancouver. Very cold and I have to go into water by myself."

He shivers at the remembrance of it all. "We did not have good planning. We should do in summertime. But because we shoot scene by scene, summertime we are doing something else -- motorcycle chasing scene. By the time we are ready to film water-skiing, it is winter. Everybody on boat wearing big coat. To stand up on water on two feet, boat must go 75 miles per hour."

He imitates the howl of the wind -- "Whooooosssssssh!" -- and the sound of the icy water -- "Ffffffffsssssss." Then he squinches up his face, whipped by the invisible sea spray. "Brrrrrrrr!" His teeth are chattering madly.

"I get very tense. I fall down. Speedboat pick me up. Go back in water. Do scene again and again. Lunchtime, everybody else eat. I take hot shower. Then go back in water. Not one day. Ten days." He flops over on a couch in mock exhaustion. Chan is as shameless a performer off-screen as he is on.

Is there any stunt he wouldn't do?

"I'm not so crazy I jump down 20-story floor," he says categorically.

Fifteen, maybe?

"No." The tone is firm.

Three?

He is beginning to waver. "American house different from Hong Kong house. Sitting more tall. Okay, we compromise. Two story! I would jump two story, if some car coming down the street for me to land on." A Kick in the Teeth

This is Chan's second attempt to conquer America. The first occurred in the early 1980s, when Hollywood tried to sell him as a successor to Lee in such films as "The Big Brawl," "The Protector" and "The Cannonball Run." Accustomed to directing himself and choreographing his own fight scenes, he was at the mercy of other directors, who failed to sense his uniqueness and misused his talent for combining comedy and karate kicks. Chan barely made a dent in the national moviegoing consciousness.

"They tell me my punching and kicking not power enough," Chan recalls. "They say, You punch the guy, he still standing there. After double, triple kick, he still standing. Even when he is knocked down, he get right back up.' I say, That is because I don't want to show real fighting scene. My idea is like a dancing thing. Rhythm, rhythm, rhythm. That is important.' They say, No, what Americans like is power. Americans like Pow! Ouch! Zap!' I say, Okay, easy, let me try again.' They say, No, we don't want investment anymore.' "

He adopts a crestfallen expression, just to make sure that the magnitude of his disappointment is understood. Words sometimes fail him, but mime never. Limber as his body is, his face is more limber yet.

"When I come to America, I have full confidence I am going to be big star. I buy big house in Westwood," he goes on. "But first film doesn't work. Second doesn't work. Third! Fourth! I don't have the face to go home. Finally, after year and half, I sell house, go back to Asia and my Asian films. I tell myself Asian market best. I no like American market. Crocodile Dundee get famous here. Van Damme, Schwarzenegger. Not me. What can I do? I know I cannot get in."

"Jackie writes, directs and produces most of his movies, but in Hollywood, he had no creative control," says Matthew Jones, a Chan enthusiast who programs the Hong Kong festivals for the Biograph Theater in Georgetown. "The difference between him and other action stars is that he's not afraid to show defeat, to be scared, to run away when he has to. Watching him lose is usually better than watching him win. And he's funny -- that's the key -- even in those scenes where you're worried about his well-being. In Hollywood, he was just a hired gun."

(Because of the release of "Rumble," the rights to most of Chan's earlier films are temporarily unavailable. But Jones has secured one -- "Snake in Eagle's Shadow," the feature that first established Chan's beleaguered little-guy persona -- for this year's festival at the Biograph, which opens March 29.)

"In the West, the hero is a hero all the way," notes Peter Chow, a New York-based movie producer who also programs Chinese film festivals. "But in Jackie's films, the hero suffers. If the film is 90 minutes long, the first 75 minutes definitely show him getting the short end of the stick. Only in the last 15 minutes does he win. It's going to be interesting to see if Middle America will accept that."

Sex, the other component of American action films, is noticeably lacking in Chan's exuberant tales as well, although many of his young female fans, especially in Japan, view him as a heartthrob. When he let it slip out in a 1985 interview that he was dating somebody, the revelation drove one distraught Japanese girl to suicide. The following year, another Japanese girl downed a vial of poison in front of his office in Hong Kong after proclaiming her wish to bear his child. As a result, Chan, who is married and has a young son, is careful to keep the details of his personal life as private as possible. His on-screen romances are held to a minimum.

"I don't want to hurt any fans again," Chan explains. "If in my movie I have love now, it is very quick. Barely touch. Barely kiss." Shadow of the Dragon

Chan's parents worked at the American Embassy in Canberra, Australia -- his father as a cook, his mother as the maid of the ambassador's wife. But Chan says children were not welcome on the embassy compound. So in 1961, when he was 7, he was enrolled in the Chinese Opera Research Institute in Hong Kong. For the next 10 years, in what amounted to a kind of indentured servitude, he underwent rigorous training in tumbling, singing, dancing and a variety of martial arts. (The voice you hear warbling under the credits of Chan movies is often his.) The Draconian school days ran to 19 hours.

By the time he graduated, however, it was evident that there was no future for him in Peking opera, a dying art form. Chan turned to Hong Kong's burgeoning movie industry instead, first as a stuntman, then as a stunt coordinator and finally as an actor. By common consensus, his early films were rotten. In 1975 he was tapped to fill the sandals of Lee, the American-born kung fu phenomenon who had died two years earlier at 32. Chan, physically slight and naturally affable, proved a poor replacement for his fierce-looking predecessor.

It wasn't until 1978 that Chan hit upon the winning persona of the eager underdog and exploited it in both "Snake in Eagle's Shadow" and "Drunken Master." He was a sensation. His price skyrocketed. (He currently gets $4 million a film.) Even more to his satisfaction, he suddenly had the clout to shape his movies exactly the way he wanted.

"For long time, I try to be Bruce Lee," admits Chan. "Act very serious. Angry. I have no choice. Director say I have to. Rolling, action, big punch, aaaaaeeeeeei! Even my name on poster say, Jackie Chan, second Bruce Lee.' I know this is wrong. There too many Bruce Lee. Every movie in Hong Kong same thing. I know I have to do something else. I am not superhero. I always happy-go-lucky. My personality is ha-ha-ha.

"So with friend of mine, producer, we decide to change all the fighting scenes. When Bruce Lee kick high, I kick low. When Bruce Lee go like this {Chan frowns}, I make the funny face. When I punch someone -- yeow! -- I show pain and rub my hand. Movies come out. Very big success. Make me very happy. So I continue to do comedy things."

He flashes a pumpkin's grin. "I just natural comedy!" The Big Push

It may be that Jackie Chan's time has come at last in the United States. Hong Kong films are riding a crest of popularity -- their influence visible in such American features as "Reservoir Dogs," "Pulp Fiction" and "Die Hard With a Vengeance." Recently, Hollywood imported Hong Kong director John Woo to lend his bloody, superkinetic style to "Broken Arrow," which is currently raking it in at the box office. "With the opening up of China and the emerging importance of the East, I think American attitudes have changed greatly," says Willie Chan (no relation), the actor's manager for the past 20 years. "Fifteen years ago, Americans were not so receptive to foreign films or foreign stars."

Several big-shot American movie critics have already championed Jackie Chan's cause, comparing him to Jim Carrey, Clint Eastwood, Buster Keaton and even Gene Kelly. (Just as Kelly introduced everyday props into his dances, Chan likes to use improbable objects -- a shopping cart, a pair of skis, a refrigerator door -- in his fighting sequences.) While the plots of his films may be idiotic and the dubbed dialogue clunky, Jackie-Be-Nimble can do no wrong.

"You want to run through glass the way only he can," gushed Quentin Tarantino when he presented Chan with the 1995 MTV Lifetime Achievement Award. "You want to fight 25 guys, lose only up to the last moment, and then take them all on the way only he can. . . . If I could be any actor, I would have the life Jackie Chan has."

Tarantino, of course, doesn't buy that many movie tickets, so New Line has been aggressively spreading the word on Chan's behalf. For almost a month the actor has been trotted around the country like a budding starlet. He has hit comic book conventions, the Sundance Film Festival and "Late Show With David Letterman." For the premiere of "Rumble in the Bronx" at Mann's Chinese Theater in Hollywood this month, Chan was escorted by 100 motorcyclists in Hell's Angels attire. And everywhere, the press has been called out to meet "the world's most popular movie star."

All of this would be unnecessary, not to say slightly humiliating, in Hong Kong, where his most recent film, "Police Story IV -- First Strike," grossed a record $1 million in the first two days of its release. But for the American public at large, it's still Jackie Who?

Says Chris Pula, the president of marketing for New Line, "We have an abundance of action stars and action vehicles that exist for much cheaper on video shelves. So why choose Jackie? He's not a 6-foot-7 wall of muscle. He's hardly the classic picture of what's good-looking. And he's 41 years old! We've had to find a reason to market him. And the hook is, Jackie is a comedic-balletic-fighting stunt machine. This is not traditional action as American audiences have seen it before. We really want people to be aware of his kick-ass charm."

Pula talks about his marketing strategy nonstop for 40 minutes. Then he apologizes for his prolixity, noting, "Look, we've all worked for stars who, if it wasn't your job to promote them, you really wanted to fail. Just to teach them a thing or two. But if this movie doesn't sell, I'm going to hate it for Jackie's sake. I mean, the guy is great."

Joy Al-Sofi, on the other hand, admits to mixed feelings about the wide release of "Rumble." As the president of Chan's American fan club, she wants the man she calls "a virtuoso of the human body" to succeed here, but not if it means he has to remake himself to please American tastes. "We want him to be successful on his own terms," she states firmly.

Al-Sofi founded the fan club a year ago in Portland, Ore. It has 430 members and its own Internet address (ChanFansUS@aol.com). Running it out of her house has become a full-time job. Before you form any hasty conclusions, however, you should know something: Al-Sofi is a lawyer in her forties with a 23-year-old daughter. She was nurtured on the films of Bergman and Fellini.

"This is a fluke. I always frequented the art houses for movies. No one could have paid me to see a Jackie Chan movie," she says. "But I happened to catch a trailer for Police Story III -- Supercop,' which is set in Malaysia. Well, I love Malaysia, so I went to see the movie. And it changed my life. I'd never seen anyone so committed to his art as Jackie. I started watching every Hong Kong movie I could find. I'd go to a matinee for $2, then come back again at night and pay full price. I began collecting posters."

She is not without a sense of irony about her unexpected midlife obsession. "The fan club is not just for kids," she points out. "In age, the membership ranges from 9 to 70. We have several people in their sixties. I think you could say that Jackie transforms the boundaries of what we might consider as our usual peer group." One Last Chance

Grueling as the promotional tour has been, Chan looks on all the ballyhoo with good-natured pragmatism. "One day, I give 62 television interviews. Every day I talk more than 10 hour English. Really helps me."

He waits a beat. "At least my English is improved."

Then he acknowledges his deeper concern. "I don't want to lose again." He knows that if he's going to take America by storm, it's now or never. He's at a time in his life when muscles begin to lose their elasticity and bones snap more easily. The killing stunts can't continue indefinitely. Age has also made him increasingly aware of his oeuvre, although he doesn't use such a highfalutin term.

"I just want audience to know my movies, appreciate my movies," he says. "I break my arm. I break my leg. I almost die. Now, all the efforts I put into movie I want to present to audience. Even for free. New Line say you have to pay money for ticket. I say, No, for free.' I don't care about money. I care about film.

"Time before, I come to Hollywood to be biggest star in America. Now I totally change. I realize there is no big star in United States. Too many stars already -- Michael Jackson, Dustin Hoffman, Stallone. Everybody big star, so nobody big star."

Chastened by life and art, bruised and misused, spilled and chilled and very nearly killed on occasion, Jackie Chan pulls his head down inside the collar of his white turtleneck sweater.

"This time," he says, peeking out with a twinkle, "I will be happy to be small-potato star in United States." CAPTION: Hong Kong movie superstar Jackie Chan takes another crack at the U.S. market with "Rumble in the Bronx." CAPTION: Jackie Chan in scenes from "Rumble," including his frigid Hovercraft ride, left. CAPTION: The smaller they are, the harder they brawl: Jackie Chan today and in 1980's "The Big Brawl." His little-guy persona sets him apart from other action film heroes.