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-[Film Reviews]-, Chinese Cinema, East Asian Cinema

‘Police Story’ (1985): Stuntwork as Spectacle

Directed by: Jackie Chan || Produced by: Leonard Ho

Screenplay by: Jackie Chan, Edward Tang || Starring: Jackie Chan, Brigitte Lin, Maggie Cheung, Chor Yuen, Charlie Cho

Music by: Michael Lai, Tang Siu Lam || Cinematography: Cheung Yiu Cho || Edited by: Peter Cheung || Country: Hong Kong || Language: Cantonese, English

Running Time: 100 minutes

I have a major cinephile confession to make: I am not the biggest Jackie Chan fan. Much of my disinterest in the premier Hong Kong action icon, stuntman, and filmmaker’s career, despite my being an action movie enthusiast, is likely related to my upbringing and happenstance; though Chan (born Fang Shilong) has been a household name in world cinema for decades, including when I came of age (I was born in 1990), my adolescence was well past the man’s prime (1980s-1990s) and the first few Chan-vehicles I watched I either have little memory of (e.g. Drunken Master [1978], The Fearless Hyena [1979, Chan’s directorial debut]) or weren’t his best (e.g. Mr. Nice Guy [1997], Who Am I? [1998], Shanghai Noon/Knights [2000, 2003], Rush Hour [1998, 2001, 2007]). More broadly, though, I have never been that taken with Hong Kong action cinema beyond John Woo’s shoot-’em-up ventures (e.g. The Killer [1989], Hard-Boiled [1998]) — again, despite my self-proclaimed status as an action junkie; I don’t like the kung fu or wuxia subgenres — both Hong Kong staples — with their emphasis on overchoreographed, dancelike fight sequences and melodramatic, wire fu-dependent fantasy elements, respectively, so the likes of Bruce Lee (born Lee Jun-fan) to Jet Li (real name of Li Lianjie) to Donnie Yen (real name of Donnie Yen Chi-tan) never made a significant impact on me.

Top: In Police Story’s extended shopping mall centerpiece, Chan (far right) sends assailants flying through all sorts of glass panels. Bottom: Yes, that really is Chan hanging off the side of a bus via an umbrella.

Chan’s action-comedy style in particular also skewed more toward the comedy genre than violent action, in my eyes. While obvious stylistic connections exist between action filmmaking and physical comedy (see also Buster Keaton), I never connected with the lighthearted, comical nature of his films that made Chan an international sensation, despite the impressiveness of his ambitious, often uninsurable, sometimes life-threatening stuntwork.

By the time I dove into hardcore cinephilia by my teenage years, not just Chan but the greater Hong Kong action filmmaking industry was on the decline due to a variety of factors, not least among them the exodus of many leading figures to either Hollywood or mainland China. Korean popular culture, including filmmaking, in recent years seems to have overtaken the former British Colony, now special administrative region of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in terms of soft power-projection like it has relative to contemporary Japanese filmmaking. Like my interests in certain elements of all those national film industries (e.g. live-action adaptations of anime and manga in Japan, nationalist rifts on Hollywood-style blockbusters in the PRC), however, I have enough respect for various filmmaking subcultures I don’t love personally to explore them analyticallymaybe even objectively. What’s the point of only studying the types of movies you already like, or never revisiting films you don’t love to give them a second chance, after all?

Perhaps the best singular feature to understand Chan’s overarching career style is Police Story, the first installment of a long-running crime-comedy-action franchise (the most recent installment released in 2013) and considered by many to be Chan’s best work. Like most of his filmography, good movies to bad, Police Story boasts a straightforward, bare-bones narrative meant to showcase a series of largely disconnected action set-pieces, which are, in turn, defined by Chan and company‘s flashy, athletic practical stunts. Police Story’s quasi-law enforcement procedural plot services the stuntwork rather than the other way around, which has always bothered me about much of Hong Kong action in general. You never get the sense these elaborate fight sequences, however spectacular, drive the story from plot-point to plot-point, nor do they inform the characterization of Chan’s police detective protagonist; rather, they inform the star persona of Jackie Chan himself.

What sells the concept of Police Story, as well as most of Chan’s better works, is how relatable all of the set-pieces feel regardless of the forgettable narrative connecting them. Viewers don’t need to suspend disbelief to project themselves onto the screen with Chan’s protagonist Chan given how all the FX are practical, all the action is shot on-location, and of course that Chan performs the bulk of his stunts himself. To that end, Chan’s personality sells the humor of various action-comedy and comic relief sequences even when they’re unrelated to the greater plot (e.g. the police station telephone gags); his on-the-nose reactions to punches, kicks, or pies to the face feel genuine regardless of context.

Chan leaps from a 4th(?)-floor mezzanine onto a pole in the film's most famous stunt.

Chan leaps from a 5th(?)-floor mezzanine onto a pole in the film’s most famous stunt.

The rest of Police Story, like most of the non-stunt, non-physical comedy aspects of the most popular Jackie Chan-movies, is more or less superfluous. That venerable Hong Kong actress Maggie Cheung stars as Chan’s throwaway love-interest in her second year of professional screen acting is a nice bit of trivia, but again, irrelevant to the film’s appeal. Nothing here in Police Story, maybe the best of Chan’s impressive body of work and a quintessential piece of Hong Kong action cinema, persuades me to reevaluate my attitude toward him as a filmmaker nor 1970s-1990s Cantonese action movies as an artistic movement. I would recommend Police Story as an integral part of East Asian genre filmmaking, but to say I feel its status as an all-time representative of cinematic violence is overblown would be an understatement. Its status as a benchmark for physical stunts on film, though? That’s unquestionable.

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SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Hong Kong filmmaking and I have a long, tenuous relationship to say the least, but if Wong Kar-Wai’s dull, incoherent Grandmaster (2013) represents my greatest frustration with that cinematic culture, Jackie Chan’s Police Story leans more towards John Woo’s spectacular gunplay in terms of the sheer ambition and breathlessness of its on-screen physicality. It’s no great shakes as an action story, but at least compared to the Avatars (2009, 2023-) and Wonder Women (2017, 2020) of the world, its cinematographic and editing showcases are truly immersive.

—> RECOMMENDED; watch out for all that glass, though.

? When was the last time you saw instant replays in narrative filmmaking?

About The Celtic Predator

I love movies, music, video games, and big, scary creatures.

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