LONDON, England (CNN) -- He's the butt-kicking, karate-chopping, kung fu superstar who rose from nowhere to conquer Hollywood in a spectacularly visual style.
With his compact but wiry 5-foot, 9-inch frame, Jackie Chan seems to pale into insignificance when compared with muscle-bound Hollywood tough guys such as Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jean-Claude Van Damme.
But combining extraordinary athleticism and an acrobatic style, Chan could probably take them both on in a fight and emerge victorious.
Best known to western audiences as star of the Rush Hour trilogy, Chan is a prolific actor who has made more than 100 films spanning three decades.
But success did not come easy for Chan, who made a string of flops in the early 1970s in Asia.
He struggled for years to break out of the shadow of Bruce Lee, the undisputed kung fu king of the time -- even appearing as a stuntman in two of Lee's films.
But in 1978, Chan landed his first hit in Asia with "Snake in the Eagle's Shadow." This was quickly followed by "Drunken Master," which catapulted him to fame, and he suddenly became one of the highest-paid actors in the industry.
Chan is credited with creating a new film art form, with his comedic take on martial arts, reminiscent of Buster Keaton's slapstick style.
"He totally reinvented Hong Kong cinema," said Renee Witterstaetter, author of "Dying For Action: The Life and Films of Jackie Chan."
"He created a new film art form, mixing humor with martial arts," Witterstaetter said. "It was so different and unique."
Although a household name in his native Hong Kong and most of Asia, Hollywood seemed largely oblivious to his talents.
It was not until 1994 when he made "Rumble in the Bronx," which grossed $10 million in its opening weekend and made it to number one at the U.S. box office, that Chan finally cracked Hollywood.
Soon big-budget hits such as the "Rush Hour" series and "Shanghai Noon," followed.
"Rush Hour" was Chan's first movie to break $100 million at the U.S. box office, earning $141 million, according to the box office tracking Web site, Box Office Mojo. "Rush Hour 2" made $226 million and "Rush Hour 3" has earned $137 million so far.
His current cinematic venture sees him paired with longtime friend Jet Li in "The Forbidden Kingdom" in their first movie collaboration. Set in a mythic, ancient China, it is described as "The Wizard of Oz with lots of martial arts."
The martial arts dream team have already seen "Kingdom" debut at No. 1 with $20.9 million in ticket sales last weekend, but Chan says the reason it took him so long to work with Jet Li is because he didn't like the Hollywood scripts they were initially offered.
Chan, 54, is also quite candid about the fact that he doesn't like most of the Hollywood films he has made. He revealed to CNN: "I didn't really like 'Rush Hour.' In America, everyone likes 'Rush Hour,' but in Asia nobody likes it.
"They like talking too much in America but in Asia they like to fight more in the films."
After the film wrapped in 1998, he wrote on his Web site: "When we finished filming, I was very disappointed because it was a movie I didn't appreciate and I did not like the action scenes involved.
"I felt the style of action was too Americanized and I didn't understand the American humor."
Chan has certainly come a long way from his impoverished childhood in Hong Kong, where the story has it that his parents were so poor, they nearly sold him to a British doctor for less than $100.
However, his parents instead enrolled him at the China Drama Academy, a talent school of hard knocks with a draconian regime that included training in music, acrobatics and martial arts that lasted 18 hours a day. Beatings were commonplace.
Children were made to perform headstands for hours on end and Chan describes being forced to run, arms outstretched, carrying two full cups of water, with strict instructions not to spill a drop. With his parents now living in Australia, Chan stayed at the school for ten years and was adopted by his Master.
Undoubtedly, the academy's grueling regime would later stand Chan in good stead, turning him into an incredibly driven and disciplined stuntman turned actor, who always choreographs and performs his own stunts.
As a consequence, no insurance company will underwrite Chan's productions, which are legendary for his death-defying super stunts. They include water-skiing barefoot behind a speeding hovercraft, jumping off a building and swinging from a hot air balloon.
Chan holds the Guinness World Record for "Most Stunts By A Living Actor."
He also holds the record for the most number of takes for a single shot in a film, having shot over 2900 retakes for a complex scene involving a badminton game in "Dragon Lord."
Unsurprisingly, Chan has suffered a litany of injuries in the course of his film career. Over the years, he has dislocated his pelvis and broken his fingers, toes, nose, both cheekbones, hips, sternum, neck and ribs on numerous occasions.
When filming "Police Story" in 1985, he suffered second-degree burns to his hands and palms after sliding 100 feet down a pole festooned in Christmas lights.
Many of the injuries have appeared, in eye-watering viewing, as outtakes or bloopers during the closing credits of his films.
But in 1986, he came close to death while filming "Armor of God," when he fell 45 feet from a tree and fractured his skull, leaving a permanent hole in his head.
Chan explained to CNN's TalkAsia host, Anjali Rao that he never insists on doing his own stunts. It's just the way things are done in Hong Kong.
"Making a film in Hong Kong in the old days was not like Hollywood," he says.
"We didn't have protection like elbow pads and we didn't have the knowledge about safety. I had to risk my life jumping from building to building."
Chan is a one-man movie-making machine. He has his own production and distribution company -- Jackie Chan Emperor Movies -- and controls all aspects of the movie-making process, from casting to directing, producing, screenwriting, choreographing and stunt coordinating. He even has his own stunt team and casting agency.
His director on the Rush Hour series, Brett Ratner told CNN's The Screening Room that Chan's versatility gives him the edge over other martial arts stars like Bruce Lee and Jet Li.
"Jackie is the most gifted actor of the three because he has the most range. Bruce Lee is a legendary performer and martial artist, but I don't think he is as funny as Jackie Chan.
"Jackie can be funny, he can be dramatic, he can do the action and the stunts, he can direct, edit, shoot. He is also a stunt coordinator so he is everything wrapped into one."