All the world loves Jackie Chan, whose cinematic action pictures bridge the gap between silent-era virtuosity and slick modernity. As light comedy entertainment these first two Police Story smash ‘n’ bash epics of eye-popping jeopardy are suitable as ‘family entertainment’ as well. Jackie is a marvelous hero, while Maggie Cheung is an old fashioned girl who doesn’t mind being threatened, kidnapped and occasionally having her scalp split open. You will believe that men can tumble from high roosts onto concrete, and smash through acres of glass countertops without receiving a scratch necessarily going straight to emergency surgery. Criterion has created beautiful new masters, with original soundtracks and extras to make every foolish Jackie Chan fan try some ridiculously dangerous stunt for themselves!
Police Story / Police Story 2
The Criterion Collection 971, 972
1985 & 1988 / Color / 2:35 widescreen / 100 and 122 min. / Ging chat goo si / Ging chaat goo si juk jaap /available through The Criterion Collection / Street Date April 30, 2019 / 39.95
Starring: (1) Jackie Chan, Maggie Cheung, Brigitte Lin, Kwok-Hung Lam, Bill Tung, Yuen Chor, Charlie Cho, Chi-Wing Lau; (2) Jackie Chan, Maggie Cheung, Kwok-Hung Lam, Bill Tung, Keung-Kuen Lai, John Cheung, Charlie Cho, Yuen Chor.
Cinematography: Yiu-Tsou Cheung (both).
Film Editor: Peter Cheung (both)
Original Music: Siu-tin Lai; Yiu-Cho Cheung, Siu-Tin Lai
Written by Jackie Chan, Edward Tang; Jackie Chan, Edward Tang, Paul B. Clay
Produced by Raymond Chow, Leonard Ho (both)
Directed by Jackie Chan
Something happened when I showed older action movies to my children in the early 1990s: they were all into martial arts and politely rejected many of my favorite action scenes for being too slow. Yes, they accepted that older movies usually spelled out action for viewers, and they still appreciated the filmmaking in, say, the fight in Fritz Lang’s Cloak and Dagger. But being born in the 1980s, my kids also didn’t grow up as I did, on a diet of Production Code-approved weak-tea movie violence.
A case in point is a sword-dance demo scene in Nicholas Ray’s 55 Days at Peking, which I thought was incredible. At age 12 or 14, my son said that it looked like a circus act the filmmakers found in Europe somewhere. It was nice, but nothing more. The lightning fast fight action came from films cut twice as rapidly as, say, The Wild Bunch. Peckinpah’s film had cuts that in 1969 seemed subliminal, but no longer. To kids born in the ’80s, anything going slower than a fast video game was slow motion. By age ten most gamer kids had reflexes that could qualify them for work as air traffic controllers.
But another editor at MGM started slipping me VHS tapes of Jackie Chan films, which for a summer had my kids interested in what I was showing them again — they LOVED Jackie Chan, who was as cute and innocent as Buster Keaton. Chan’s physical stunts were every bit as clever and intricate as Keaton’s. He moved like lightning, doing things that seemed physically impossible. The words ‘physically impossible’ might be too strong, but what Chan was doing was too risky to guarantee that he’d live through a shooting schedule. My kids saw the movies on this disc but also Armour of God, Project A 2 and Operation Condor; by the time Rumble in the Bronx came along they had moved on to other interests, or instead doubled back to Chan’s earlier pictures like Drunken Master. One son showed ME where Chan appeared in the original Enter the Dragon.
I’m not focused on the martial arts genre, but we had fun sharing the wonderful insanity of things like Master of the Flying Guillotine — there was always something fun to talk about when driving them to Tae Kwon Do class every week. By the time they were in high school, all three had advanced belts in one thing or another.
It’s great that Criterion is digging into vintage Chan. These films had so many alternate versions that it’s nice to see them in authorized cuts and in good restored condition — some of those VHS tapes carried two sets of subtitles!
In 1985 Jackie Chan sprang out on his own, directing and acting in Police Story, a comic cop show that combines broad humor, very old-fashioned plotting and sentiment, and three or four incredible action set pieces. Chan’s detective Ka-kui is working with a team trying to get the goods on Chu Tao (Yuen Chor), a master gangster. A stakeout in a squatter’s village on a steep hill concludes in a complex action piece with cars crashing downhill. Ka-kui continues the chase by using an umbrella to hang onto a speeding bus. Ka-kui is charged with protecting the beautiful female witness Selina (Brigitte Lin of Chunking Express), but comic scenes engage the jealousy of his sweet girlfriend May (Maggie Cheung of Irma Vep and In the Mood for Love). Chu Tao frames Ka-kui for murder; Selina ditches Ka-kui’s protection but then goes on her own to download incriminating data from Chu Tao’s computer. A final battle between Ka-kui and a small army of henchmen occurs at a shopping mall.
Police Story 2 sees Ka-kui busted back to traffic cop duty, which he performs without resentment. His immediate superior is a pal (and a great comedian) but the supervisor one step up is a joy-killer who never takes Ka-kui’s side. When Chu Tao’s nasty lawyer retaliates through May, Ka-kui beats him up. Chastised once more, Ka-kui quits rather than stop protecting his girl. Chu Tao is basically finished, but a new gang of crooks is extorting banks and businesses through bomb threats. Even as a civilian, Ka-kui saves hundreds of lives by evacuating a shopping mall, and his supervisor realizes he is the only man to head up the investigation. He’s given an expert team of youthful operatives that stretch the laws but get results. When the ransom isn’t promptly paid the punk bombers set off a round of bombs that take lives. Then they kidnap May and strap Ka-kui into a booby-trapped vest, to force him to collect their ransom. The finale takes place in a disused factory where a mad, mute bomb maker (and kung-fu expert) stores his explosives.
Seemingly never tiring, always cheerful, Jackie Chan’s Ka-kui combines the physical dexterity of Buster Keaton with the fresh-faced sincerity of Harold Lloyd; it’s impossible not to like him. His characters aren’t vengeful maniacs. Ka-kui gets mean only when really provoked, and given the simple level of the drama, he’s always fighting to protect a girl or a pal or the Honor of the Law. He’ll stop to give bad guys a lecture on becoming upstanding members of society. Even though the punks laugh at him, they offer a reasonable excuse for their villainy!
May is not the most progressive of heroines. She frequently displays Olive Oyl-like fits of temper, threatening to break up with Ka-kui and then showing how deeply she feels about him. Naturally, his job causes no end of romantic trouble, as when May ends up flying to Bali with no Ka-kui and no passport, and spending a day in jail. There’s camaraderie around police headquarters, but also Dilbert-like jokes about the hierarchy. When things get dull, a whole scene will be devoted flatulence joke (surprisingly amusing), or May will pursue Ka-kui into the precinct’s shower room when it is packed with naked officers.
Jackie Chan’s action appeal feels so fresh that I’ll risk boring veteran fans with an informal description. He’s a genuine dervish, trained in super-dexterity in that special Chinese school; if Chan had not been movie-crazy, he might have trained people for ‘impossible’ circus acts. His action scenes are designed for the camera — he stays reasonably wide to prove that what we see isn’t faked (the ‘Fred Astaire’ aesthetic) but also goes in for fast cutting to make the action seem even more frantic. The acrobatics of the stuntmen are choreographed to razor precision. We see plenty of Kung Fu and kickboxing moves, but nothing looks like generic martial arts movies that simply gather combatants in sets that become arenas. Chan’s personality and that of his combatants come into play — the fighters have style. Most of the villains are clowns of one kind or another. The gangster’s lawyer has the nastiest sneer I’ve ever seen in a movie — and is repaid for his sins by being smacked in the nose time and again, breaking his glasses. Only the most craven bad guys merit a disproportionate retribution — like the explosives expert who surrenders, begs for mercy, and then goes back on his word.
Like Buster Keaton, Jackie Chan never does anything that’s blatantly impossible, or fantastic. Although we’re told he is doubled from time to time by members of his stunt team, Jackie more or less does everything we see. A wire might be in use to help him climb a rope, but in ’80s films there was no CGI cleanup to remove special rigs or safety devices. The shows remind us of this reality, by repeating action from multiple angles, and adding montages of ‘blooper’ accidents behind the end credits. Jackie, Maggie and various team members wince in pain as pals examine where their head have been cracked open.
The fighting isn’t cheated but some of the camerawork is … or might be. Under-cranking, even by 2 frames per second, will make things fall and people fly too quickly, but we still think we some of that being used. Also, the shutter speed might be opened up now and then for fast action — when fists of fury are blurred we can’t see if full contact is made, or if somebody is being hit six times in one second, or only three. Chan’s cutting between camera angles is inspired — no matter how fast the pace, we follow the action (well, mostly). Also the choreography is too good to ever give us the brain-dead situation found in generic Kung-fu movies. Multiple assailants never wait in line to attack, so the hero can take them on one at a time. That kind of filmmaking is why ordinary martial arts movies never appealed to me.
For logic and virtuosity, Chan’s set-pieces can often be compared to Buster Keaton, but also to Astaire and Kelly’s musical numbers. They have — pardon the film school phrase — organic unity. The conflicts never come out of nowhere, and they use physical surroundings brilliantly. In a factory, the large machinery and multi-level railed ladders and stairways enable all kinds of Rube Goldberg mischief. In the first movie, the spectacular multiple vehicle slalom run through the cliffside shanty town is more like something from a James Bond film, just more realistic. For me the subsequent chase with the bus is even more impressive, with Chan flopping around like a rag doll. A quartet of baddies tumble willy-nilly through a second-level bus window onto real hard pavement.
Just seeing Chan and others take these ridiculous falls, often onto surfaces that can’t be ‘softened,’ is staggering; my mind pictures millions of teenaged fan imitators ending up with broken bones, or starring in YouTube ‘fail’ videos. Jackie will frequently jump a fence, or drop from a second floor balcony to asphalt, pinning the landing like an Olympic gymnast. More incredibly, he’ll hop in the air to avoid being hit by a car — one must have utter faith in one’s timing to so something so insane. Jackie actually IS hit by a bus at one point, just slowly enough to be pushed twenty feet instead of bashed to bits. I only hope the the front of the bus had some kind net or mesh for Chan to cling to, so as not to be knocked down and run over.
That brings up another thought — this week people are praising the non-stop violent action stuntwork in the latest John Wick movie. It sounds phenomenal but also sadistic — the fun seems to be in inventing exotic way with which to kill people. But the existence of CGI manipulation tempers our appreciation — with a special effects assist, the overaged ME could today be made into an action star. I’d need a title reading “No digital manipulation was used for the action scenes in this movie” to stay focused. It’s not a fair request, as many movies today are 50% digital manipulation, for color, location and even mood. If Chan uses fakery, it certainly fools me.
I really want to revisit the spectacular set-pieces in subsequent Chan films I only saw on fuzzy VHS — a story in the desert with Jackie ‘flying’ in a giant underground wind tunnel sticks out, as does a hilarious pirates vs. Hong Kong cops mass battle. I enjoyed the broad comedy more in the second Police Story film than the first. But I see immediately why the first show is such a favorite, with Jackie as well as the fans — it’s the concluding ‘Glass Story’ battle in the department store packed with glass display cases. The mayhem goes on for so long, with so much glass being broken, that we can’t believe our eyes. Glass isn’t simply being broken, the flying bodies slide and tumble through entire glass countertops in a way that, in reality, would be resulting in arteries cut and limbs severed. We’ve all heard of somebody that walked through a sliding glass door; a girl in my high school almost lost a leg when she slipped and fell through a shower door.
The glass-smashing seems to go on forever, but the amazing thing is that Chan’s special ‘candy glass’ doesn’t behave like the Hollywood candy glass I know. The prop bottles and panes of candy glass I’m familiar with are so fragile that they might break just from vibration through the floor — and the display cases here are often bumped violently before some stuntman is flipped onto them. And when the glass breaks, we can see that big jagged shards are left, often still in their frames. The candy glass I know breaks into powder much finer than automobile safety glass (which can still turn a face into hamburger). This glass stays intact. It looks fully capable of stabbing, sawing and slicing any flesh that it comes in contact with.
Once again I plead possible ignorance — I couldn’t watch all the hours of extras on Criterion’s discs, and maybe there’s a section on why the glass wasn’t lethal. Or maybe there’s a plea for donations for the Jackie Chan Mutilation Ward, at Hong Kong General Hospital.
The Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray double bill of Police Story / Police Story 2 was newly remastered at L’immagine Ritrovata in Italy. The two films look quite good in their full widescreen widths — I remember the VHS tapes I saw were rather compromised, not just in color quality, but in screen shape. I stayed away from Chan after the first Miramax laserdiscs were all edited and redubbed in English. He plays much better in original Cantonese. The first movie, for all its exacting framing of shots, has a sequence or two where the anamorphic Technovision lens is mis-adjusted, and all the vertical lines in the image lean-off kilter.
How the running times were determined is not explained; the U.S. release of the first show was ten minutes shorter. We’re told that the original Cantonese audio track has been remastered, something desired by fans tired of audio tracks cobbled together or in shaky sync. One extra on Police Story 2 is a transfer of a print of a version released in Hong Kong, that has been cut down by 15 minutes. Just starting out, the first scene with the trucks is much shorter. With the logo Mitsubishi popping up constantly, I have to think that Jackie Chan was a major believer in product placement.
Back in the day Jackie Chan movies were almost magical — we had no idea how they were filmed. Disc producer Curtis Tsui has amassed a treasure trove of extras (see below) on their making, packed with behind the scenes film and explanations, often from Chan himself.
Best of all, kids love these movies. If yours has sense enough not to try the things Jackie Chan does, they’ll be thrilled — the action may be a bit intense, but it’s never sadistic or perverse — and the simple stories have a basic sense of decency. Plus, Jackie is a terrific role model, just for spirit and attitude. Admirable straight-arrow heroes are a rare commodity these days.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Police Story / Police Story 2
Supplements: (1) Two trailers, 20- min vintage Chan interview, Hour-long docu on stunts, two video pieces with Edgar Wright, one of them a Chan interview; Grady Hendrix overview of Chan’s career; 2017 TV show about Chan and his stunt team; insert poster with essay by Nick Pinkerton. (2).
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Two Blu-rays in folding card and plastic holder with folding insert, in card sleeve
Reviewed: May 22, 2019
Text © Copyright 2019 Glenn Erickson