Sunday, June 12, 2011

Police Story 2

Police Story 2 (4/5)

Sequels in the 1980s and early 90s tended to be retellings of the original story. Sure, time had passed between the events of the first and second films and screenwriters would make a reasonable attempt to make obligatory mention of what happened the first time around, but largely sequels were designed to give us more of the same. The 80s/90s, if I have my chronology correct, were before the Lord of the Ringses and Pirates of the Carribeanses, movies that tried to string a single narrative through multiple films. The definition of a sequel and remake were dangerously close during this era of movie history. Ghostbusters 2 made the gang once again face an influx of supernatural activity in New York, leading to yet another climax where a giant creature walks the streets of the city; Predator 2 transplants the same plot into an urban location; Die Hard 2: Die Harder, apparently afraid the audience will not realize the similarities between the first and second movie, takes immense pleasure in having characters point out how much the movie’s events have in common with the original film, as if to say, “Hey, remember that movie you really liked, Die Hard. Well, this is a lot like that.”

Apparently Jackie Chan doesn’t like to hit the reset button because Police Story 2 not only deals with the fallout from the first film, but makes these consequences an important, if not always central, part of the movie. In fact, the opening title is translated as Police Story, Part 2. I think the “part” subtitle tends to class up the place. It’s a way for the filmmaker to tell you that he’s not in it for the money. He just wants to finish the grand narrative he began with the first one. As if to remind the viewer of the eyeball searing awesomeness of the original, Police Story 2 begins with a montage of the greatest hits from the first film set to the rousing “Police Story Theme.” We then pick up the story in what appears to be mere days after the events of the first film with Ka Kui Chan facing repercussions for going rogue. While Chan’s superiors, Superintendent Li and “Uncle” Bill, chastise him for his violent, impulsive means, they still respect him as a police officer and the ends his unconventional actions result in. Both have convinced the higher ups that Chan should not be ejected from the force. Instead they demote Chan to traffic duty.

While directing traffic, Chan is confronted by the villains from the first film, Chu Tao and his lawyer John Ko. Because he has contracted a terminal illness that gives him less than three months to live, Tao was granted a compassionate release by the Hong Kong prison system. Ko proceeds to harassed Chan and his girlfriend May by rolling up to their apartment and issuing barely veiled threats. Later, he makes good on these threats when he unleashes a handful of henchmen conveniently proficient in Kung Fu on Chan and May in an empty park at night. In addition to worrying about enemies out of the past, Chan must also contend with blackmailers who are threatening to blow up buildings owned by some corporate conglomerate unless they cough up ten million dollars.

Police Story 2 improves on the original in at least one area: the character of May. In the first movie May served as the irrationally jealous girlfriend and occasional point of comic relief. Unfortunately, this meant the outrageous action was often sideswiped by dubious humor and stereotypes that were more than a little offensive. In the sequel, May is allowed to be a fuller character whose grievances are legitimate and feelings for Chan are reciprocated. May is introduced to the story when she thoughtfully brings Chan water while he is on duty directing traffic in the scorching heat. At times May becomes subject to a disproportionate amount of abuse, whether she has been capture by the film’s villains or whether Chan’s forgetfulness causes her to spend over ten hours in a jail cell (long story), but unlike in the first film, at least her affection for Chan is mutual, which provides the inevitable damsel in distress routine with actual dramatic weight.

As is the case for most Jackie Chan pictures, Police Story 2 boasts some mesmerizing action sequences, including Chan dodging billboards while surfing the roof of a bus and a phenomenal fight in a school playground. This is the second Jackie Chan film I’ve seen that makes use of a playground to stage action, and it’s a fitting metaphor for the kind of mental and physical play required to choreograph Chan’s brutal ballet. Just as children transform parts of a playground into whatever their imagination requires of it—a swing might be used belly down to simulate the flying feats of a superhero or a slide might be climbed in reverse to mimic ascending the Himalayas—Jackie Chan transforms everyday urban ephemera into elements of a coliseum arena. Just as much as his swift choreography, Jackie Chan’s knack for incorporating every day objects into his set pieces have contributed to the success of his films.

While the action doesn’t quite reach the delirious heights of the first film (very few films do), Police Story 2 improves on all of those areas in-between. The humor routinely hits the mark (even if there are a few wide swings), especially a bit where Chan gives a rousing speech where he wishes the villains would take his life instead of those of innocent civilians, which his bosses both immediately steal verbatim when facing the higher ups. As Chan and his investigators attempt to uncover who’s behind the bombings, the movie relies more heavily on the genre of police procedural rather than the original’s use of Dirty Harry’s rogue cop archetype. Police Story 2 may lack some of the discipline of the first film—the dueling plots (semi-spoiler alert) never fully entwine at the end—but it nevertheless offers up vintage Jackie Chan at the height of his popularity as a Hong Kong action star.

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Police Story

Police Story (4/5)

For many Americans their first introduction to the work of Jackie Chan was in his fish out of water Hollywood fare like the Rush Hour movies or his 90s Hong Kong imports like Rumble in the Bronx. But Chan first attempted to break into the American market a decade or so before these films were released in theaters. Back in the eighties Jackie Chan first tried to do what only a few Asian stars before him were capable of accomplishing: become an accepted fixture of American cinema. The result was the less than stellar 1985 Hollywood action film, The Protector, which paired the Asian superstar with Danny Aiello and placed him in the middle of a decaying urban milieu. Not only was the film a box office disappointment, but Jackie Chan clashed with the director. Having experience in the director’s chair, Jackie objected to the film’s shoddy workmanship, unnecessary vulgarities, and quotidian action sequences. After his debilitating experience on The Protector and feeling rejected by American audiences, Chan decided to make a film completely on his own terms. The result, Police Story, not only boasts of Jackie Chan’s most impressive stunts and iconic action, but also became the start of his most successful film franchise.

The first Police Story film veers somewhat wildly between gritty urban cop action and broad relationship slapstick. Jackie Chan plays Ka Kui Chan, a police inspector who is assigned witness protection duty after a botched police sting codenamed “Operation Boar Hunt.” Chan’s superiors believe they possess just enough evidence to convict kingpin Chu Tao so long as they can convince his moll, Selina Fong to testify against her boss and paramour. In order to get Fong to reflexively sting her boss, Chan’s superiors make it appear as if she is already working for the police by separating her from her lawyer and making sure Chan is an obvious police detail. If Chu Tao turns on Fong, then they can rely on her to run to the police for protection.

None of this exactly goes according to plan. Chan’s jealous girlfriend, May, becomes incensed when she discovers that he is housing another woman at his apartment. Despite the fact that May is a borderline offensive stereotype of a hysterical woman, I can see where she is coming from because Chan is kind of a cad. It might surprise many who are used to Jackie Chan’s ability pull off an “aw shucks” shrug even as jumped buildings, ran up walls and climbed aboard vehicles at unsafe speeds but in 1985 he played a real jerk. In order to convince Fong to stay at his place, Chan hires a friend on the force to pretend to be a bedroom intruder hired by Fong’s boss to kill her. Later, after Chan thinks his girlfriend May has left his apartment, he openly mocks her in front of his prize witness, unaware that May is just around the corner listening to him claim that he can get hundreds of other girls. (I almost felt bad for the actress playing May, Maggie Cheung, for being given such a thankless role. But I can’t feel too bad for her because she will later put in some great work with some seminal Chinese directors like Wong Kar Wai and Zhang Yimou).

Perhaps the film’s humor has been lost in translation or in the decade (“hey, it was the eighties” has become an acceptable excuse these days). Still, Jackie does a hell of a moon walk in order to wipe the bottom of his shoes clean, and a scene in which he juggles four phone lines at once reaches towards Buster Keaton levels of physical comedy (even if one of the emergency phone calls is so outrageously offensive that I have to believe it is a mistranslation). But I don’t think you came to see a Jackie Chan film for his battle of the sexes humor. No, you came to see a Jackie Chan film for the tendon shearing, femur shattering stunts. In this regard the film unequivocally delivers. The opening raid is so ambitious that I doubted whether Jackie Chan could top it by the film’s end, and while you can debate whether or not the film reaches the delirious heights of that raid, the closing fight in the mall sure as hell tries. In fact, several of the stunts in the raid have been borrowed by Hollywood films, but arguably to less effect. In order to evade the police, the drug dealers drive their cars straight through a shanty town, obliterating both the cars and anything in their path. Later, when trying to stop a bus that kingpin Chu Tao and his henchmen have commandeered, Chan blocks the street with a car and stares down the careening double decker with a pistol. The bus stops short, sending two criminals straight through the front window. Both scenes were borrowed by Bad Boys II and Tango and Cash, respectively, but, unlike Police Story, those films have glossy production values that somewhat mutes the action.

Jackie Chan does double duty as director, and it’s safe to say he directs like he fights: with a cool, quick, economic style. He uses plenty of pans and zooms throughout the film, giving the movie a buoyant energy (add a couple of jump cuts and he’s halfway there to making a French New Wave film), but the kinetic feel of his directing never trips up his own stunts. Unlike modern action directors, who rely on handheld cameras and quick cuts to give the vague concept of action without actually presenting anything interesting on the screen, Chan clearly wants to preserve his stunt work so the audience can see every roundhouse, every bruise. The film clocks in at a succinct hour and forty minutes, meaning that even if you don’t enjoy the humor of mid-eighties Jackie Chan, you don’t have to wait long to get to ass kicking Jackie Chan. If nothing else, the movie goes down smoothly and is endlessly rewatchable, inviting us to ask again and again, how the hell did he do that?

Sunday, June 05, 2011

Listening to a Police Story

This summer marks release of the final installment in the Harry Potter Franchise, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2, which means my long running series of reviews on the Harry Potter films will come to a melancholy close. I have thought about turning my sights onto another film franchise, and even if it is near impossible to discover a series of movies with the same scope and ambition of the Harry Potter franchise, I think I have discovered a fitting replacement. As an antidote to all of the navel gazing and angst of the Harry Potter movies, I have decided to reward myself with Jackie Chan's long running Police Story series. Starting in 1985 Police Story is arguably Chan's signature series of films. The original not only spawned three direct sequels but also one spin off and, more recently, a reboot.

First, a little background on my own history with Jackie Chan. Like most of America, I was first introduced to Jackie Chan in the 1990s after several of his Hong Kong films, after a poor job of dubbing, were released in American movie theaters. At the time I was beginning to discover "serious" filmmakers like Kubrick and Scorsese and had little time for goofy Hong Kong movies that, while they contained some deliriously dangerous stunts, also had their fair share of incongruous slapstick amongst the usual action mayhem. It wasn't until several years later when Jackie Chan started making American films that were, with few exceptions, far inferior to the movies he made in Hong Kong that I started to appreciate his work. The stunts were truncated and the humor was just as corny as anything in Chan's Hong Kong output, only a kind of corny that could only come out of a Hollywood studio system, making it far less interesting. This made me reappraise my thoughts on Chan's earlier films. What was it about his earlier work that made it so much more interesting than his Hollywood fair? It also didn't hurt that I began to see that Chan was just as influenced by Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin as he was by martial arts greats like Bruce Lee and Sammo Hung. And yet, despite this change of heart, I have only revisited a few of Chan's earlier films during that time, and I have only seen the final Police Story movie, Police Story 4: First Strike without realizing it was part of a much larger series.

The single constant to Jackie Chan's work is his tremendous stunt work, which seems to easily transcend time and culture. I'm curious to see whether or not all those moments in-between the bad-assery will hold up as well several decades and half a world removed. I cannot promise that I will watch every film connected to the Police Story series (Netflix apparently does not have the Michelle Yeoh starring spin off, Police Story 3, Part 2: Supercop, aka Once a Cop, aka Project S, aka Supercop 2). But I will make my way through all four of the main trunk of the Police Story franchise. In the next week expect the first review in my Police Story journey.