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?