When I was watching Police Story as part of Criterion Collection’s new box set, I realized something: we’ve pretty much taken Jackie Chan for granted. The actor-director-writer-producer-stunt coordinator-icon just turned 65 and he hasn’t had an American hit in close to a decade. This bums me out. There was a time when Jackie Chan’s name meant the best action you’re ever likely to see. For about 20 years, Jackie Chan was a god.
Watching 1985’s Police Story and its 1988 sequel Police Story 2 has cemented this. He’s a frigging genius.
Chan began training at a very young age as part of the famous Peking Opera School. Soon he was doing stunts for Shaw Brothers and Golden Harvest productions. Following Bruce Lee’s death, the studios put forth a slew of actors as a possible replacement; Chan rose to the top of the pile but never quite struck gold. Eventually, Chan started appearing in American productions, but his style and Hollywood’s never fully meshed.
Then came the ’80s. He began directing with his fellow actor Sammo Hung; their big hit came with 1983’s Project A, an action comedy set in the turn of the twentieth century. But in 1985, the same year as Chan’s failed Hollywood starring vehicle The Protector, Chan solo directed Police Story.
I’m not the first one to say this: Jackie Chan is the Buster Keaton of Hong Kong cinema. Police Story has some of the most insane, acrobatic stunt sequences ever put to film, coupled with some truly zany comedic moments. It plays both like a modern police procedural and as a series of increasingly goofy vignettes. It has it all.
Chan stars as Chan Ka Kui, a police detective tasked with convincing a mobster’s secretary (Brigitte Lin) to testify in court. This follows a lengthy shootout/chase sequence that destroys a cliffside shanty village and finds Chan hanging off of a city bus by an umbrella. And that’s just the first 15 minutes. In the Ka Kui character, Jackie Chan found his version of Harold Lloyd’s likable Glasses hero. Ka Kui is a good cop, a nice guy, and someone who tries to get out of trouble as much as possible. Of course, he never does. Trouble finds him, and he usually prevails, but starting on the back foot makes each of Chan’s fights feel more tense. He could lose any time!
Much of Police Story‘s comedy comes from cartoonish rom-com set-ups. The police place the mobster’s attractive secretary under police protection, but she doesn’t want it. So Chan has another cop act as a murderer to scare her into accepting. She continually knocks the guy out while Chan tries, Weekend at Bernie’s-style, to get the fake perp to leave. Of course, Ka Kui spending so much time with a hot woman makes his actual girlfriend (Maggie Cheung) jealous. More comedy ensues, because Ka Kui would never cheat on his girlfriend.
What may be the most impressive sequence in the movie doesn’t feature any fighting at all. In fact, Chan’s the only one in the scene. After some unfortunate events, Ka Kui ends up stationed at a podunk precinct in the sticks. He agrees to watch the station while the other cops go to lunch. It’s just him, alone, in a room with six phones in it. One by one, the phones ring and Chan wheels his chair around to answer them all, bringing the receivers with him each time. Yes, he gets tangled in the cords—did you even have to ask? And does he forget which phone has which person on it? Come on, don’t pretend you don’t know this.
Like all of Chan’s efforts in Police Story, the phone sequence feels like a dance. There’s a rhythm to everything. Chan’s directorial flare is to let the action play out without too much camera movement or heavy cuts. You’ll notice if you watch any Chan film made in Hong Kong, and especially those he directed himself, that the fights unfold almost in real time. The only time he cuts is to go to an angle that will best showcase the next series of movements. Because of this, he can get each set of 4-8 movements down perfectly for that one shot before moving on to the next.
Police Story culminates in an amazing, 20-minute sequence in a shopping mall. Ka Kui is at the end of his tether. The mob has gotten away with everything because of legal loopholes and have framed our hero for the rest. It’s grim, and Ka Kui’s rage has broken through his usual “aw shucks, yes sir” demeanor. At the mall, he tracks the mobsters down one by one and beats the stuffing out of them.
Chan and his crew shot for months in the mall, driving motorcycles through it, tossing clothing wracks and furniture at each other. They pretty much utterly destroyed the place. But it’s worth it. The final, monster stunt sees Chan jump from a railing on the top floor and slide down a pole wrapped in Christmas lights all the way to the bottom floor. It’s such an impressive stunt, Chan shot it from ten different angles, and plays three of them in their entirety in the actual film.
The movie was a massive hit and played overseas in arthouse cinemas. Project A and Police Story gave Chan his first real international acclaim. And both, naturally, got sequels. Police Story 2 is also included in the Criterion set.
Police Story 2 takes place immediately following the first film, but it was shot three years later, and a bit of that shows. It’s a little glossier, a little cleaner, and chiefly feels a little more like a typical action movie. Sure, there are still a few zany beats, and Chan is still the “aw shucks” lead he was, but there’s more emphasis on explosions and gunplay. The plot is also a little more cluttered.
Those issues aside, though, Police Story 2 has some truly outstanding fight sequences. Ka Kui chases a gang member into a trap, which culminates in a massive 20-on-1 fight in a school playground. Chan uses every single bit of playground equipment, including the see-saw, swings, and jungle gym. It’s masterful. Later, a car chases him into a dead-end alley and he jumps on the actual hood of the actual car as it tries to slam him into a wall. He runs along the top of a moving bus and jumps from it through a second story window. Finally, Chan has an extended fight sequence in a fireworks factory, which sees him climb up the underside of stairs and toss people into crates.
Both of these films are works of visual art and exemplify just how talented Chan is. Once he rose to American stardom in the later ’90s, Hollywood directors would up the cutting and fudge the stunts. They’re a pale imitation of the work Chan did in Hong Kong. And you can tell with every frame of Police Story and Police Story 2 just how much work, how much care, and how many actual broken bones he put in to them.
Jackie Chan’s Police Story 1 & 2 set from Criterion is available now.
Images: Golden Harvest/Criterion