Hard though it may be to remember considering his current output, there was once a time when Jackie Chan was more than a second-rate comic relief goofball. He used to be a bona fide superstar, regularly turning out blockbuster movies that were funny, exciting, action-packed and, most importantly, entertaining as all get-out. Jackie fought his way to stardom, literally. The boundless energy and enthusiasm he put into the outrageous action stunts and martial arts scenes in his best movies were really quite breathtaking. Looking back at some of his most popular films such as the Police Story series, it's clear that he'd do anything to entertain, even if it meant putting his own life at risk, which in fact it frequently did.
1985's Police Story introduces us to Jackie as loose cannon cop Ka-Kui Chan who stops at nothing to catch the bad guys. This usually means pulling a ridiculous stunt such as running down the side of a mountain to jump onto a moving bus, and almost always ends with massive amounts of property damage. In his zeal to take down a powerful drug dealer, Ka-Kui gets framed for the murder of a fellow cop and must engage in frequent kung-fu battles with both the police and the crooks to prove his innocence. This first film, directed by Chan himself, is objectively not really a great movie. The entire cast is overacting and the picture has too much goofy, low-brow humor for its own good. In Chan's vision, the Hong Kong police aren't far removed from the Keystone Cops. Still, it's good-natured and likeable enough, and Chan puts such zeal into his crazy stunts (many of which are truly jaw-dropping) that even the most disagreeable of viewers will find themselves entertained regardless.
Police Story 2 from 1988 picks up immediately where the first film ends, with Ka-Kui busted down to traffic duty for all the mayhem and destruction he caused the last time around. After felons threaten his girlfriend May (the underused Maggie Cheung), the couple decide to take a vacation out of the country. But when Ka-Kui gets pulled back into active duty to foil a mad bomber's devious plans, he must face the dual threat of not just physical harm but also impending relationship disaster. Chan directs again and makes a concerted effort to mature as a filmmaker. The movie's humor is generally less stupid this time, though there is still an obnoxious running gag involving fart and diarrhea jokes. The film is slicker and more polished than the first one, but sadly a little less fun. The plot is your standard cop movie formula. Were it not for the Jackie's amazing physical dexterity and the incredible fight choreography, it could be a Dirty Harry picture, one of the lesser ones. Even on that mark, the film disappoints. The fights we do see are pretty terrific, but for some reason the movie has long stretches without much Jackie (perhaps because he was directing Project A Part II and starring in several other movies at the same time), where instead we watch a younger generation of cops working the case while Ka-Kui observes from headquarters and tells them where to go. When it does work, though, the movie delivers some terrific set-pieces, including the spectacular climax inside a fireworks factory.
Ka-Kui finally gets some respect in Police Story 3: Super Cop (known as just Supercop in most English-speaking territories). Mainland Chinese authorities request help from the HK police to infiltrate a notorious drug cartel, and they need not just any officer, but a super cop who will get the job done no matter what it takes. Given that his superiors don't care how much damage he inflicts on the mainland, they of course nominate Ka-Kui, who must go undercover in the gang by breaking a major drug dealer out of prison so that he can lead the way back to the central operation. Ka-Kui is aided in this mission by his Red Chinese counterpart, played by Michelle Yeoh, who is more than capable of going toe-to-toe with Jackie in all of the wild stunts and fights. The 1992 production directed by Stanley Tong is easily the best of the series in terms of plot and storytelling, and strikes a much better balance between the action adventure and some humor of a less dopey variety. What it lacks, perhaps, is the sense of sheer exuberant fun that the first movie had, but it definitely does better than the second and is a fine piece of entertainment on its own. The climactic helicopter/train/motorcycle chase scene is a classic of the genre, its palpable realness so much more appealing than the similar but computer-aided digital trickery at the end of Tom Cruise's Mission: Impossible four years later. Jackie is the real deal; if his character has to dodge a careening helicopter while standing on top of a speeding train, then Jackie will damn well be standing on top of a speeding train doing just that, blue screen be damned.
These days, unfortunately, Jackie has fallen into a rut; his poor taste in vanity projects has left him floundering in mindless formula drivel, or cashing paychecks by playing second fiddle in bloated American star vehicles for other actors. This Police Story Trilogy box set from Fortune Star reminds us of the charisma and go-for-broke determination to entertain that made him a star in the first place.
All of the movies are presented in their original Cantonese language and longer Asian cuts (Chan's movie tend to suffer from dubbing and truncation when imported to the U.S.). The box set is packaged up as a complete series, though in fact it does not include Police Story 4: First Strike, the Michelle Yeoh spin-off Supercop 2 (aka Police Story 3 Part 2), or the recent Chan production New Police Story (which is technically not a sequel, as Jackie plays a new character). Nonetheless, for a set of three very fun Hong Kong action classics, it delivers the goods. The discs are encoded in the NTSC video format without region coding, and will function just fine in any American DVD player.
As informed by the packaging, all three movies in the set have been "Digitally Remastered" and are presented in their original 2.35:1 widescreen aspect ratios with anamorphic enhancement. Keeping in mind the limitations of their origins and how bad they usually look on home video, the movies hold up pretty well.
The first Police Story was a very low budget production with bland photography. Colors are decent considering the age of the film and its photographic style. Contrasts are very dull and lack rich blacks, but again this may be a stylistic issue and not a video transfer problem. A number of shots are genuinely out of focus. The transfer is soft (especially the credit text) and has only mediocre compression quality and visible detail, but the source elements are surprisingly clean and I did not detect any serious problems with edge enhancement ringing.
Police Story 2 opens with clips from the first movie that look sharper and more vibrant than the same shots in the transfer for that movie, so clearly there was some room for improvement. In other respects the sequel also has better detail and color, though it is again photographed in a soft, gauzy style.
I expected Police Story 3, the most recent and highest budgeted of the films, to look the best, but was surprised to find that it has a lot of edge enhancement artifacts, which I didn't find with the first two movies. It also appears to be rather heavily filtered to reduce compression problems, at the expense of fine object detail. Though this is an all-new video transfer from a longer cut of the film, it reminds me a lot of a typical Miramax/Buena Vista DVD, unfortunately. Colors and contrasts are the best of the three, but it still looks just mediocre. It's not terrible, but it is not the jump forward in image quality over the other two that it should have been.
Controversially, all of the movies have been remixed from their original mono soundtracks into Dolby Digital and DTS 5.1 surround sound. This entailed more than just some fancy processing to move sound effects around to other speakers. At least for the first film, the entire sound mix has been rebuilt from the ground up, including replacing many of the original canned sound effects with newly recorded versions. Purists who prefer movie soundtracks not be tampered with like this will probably be appalled, and that is of course a valid reaction, but I think anyone who is open to it will find the new sound mixes a lot of fun. They may not precisely represent the way the movies were heard in theaters, but they do certainly live up to the original intention of the movies, and truth be told are a big improvement. I'm sure that if the original sound designers could have gone all out like this, they definitely would have.
The oldest of the three movies, Police Story, needed the most work done, and consequently sounds the best in its new iteration. The mix is very directional with plenty of discrete movement between the surround speakers, and matrixes very well into a center rear channel if you have DD-EX or DTS-ES processing. The new gunshots have a lot of kick, and explosions and crashes are plenty rumbly in the bass department. The Cantonese dialogue has some minor sync issues (most of the dialogue was ADR anyway), but comes through clearly and intelligibly. This track is a lot of fun. It holds its ground with modern action movie soundtracks without ever feeling unnatural to the film. This is the way the movie should have been all along.
The track on Police Story 2 is a bit less sophisticated, probably because the movie had decently-recorded music and sound effects the first time around and didn't need as much tinkering. What we get is more of a basic stereo surround mix without a lot of discrete directionality in the rear soundstage. Bass has still been beefed up, though, and I'm sure many of the gunshots were also replaced. It's good and lots of fun, but a notch below the work done on the first film.
Ironically, Police Story 3 sounds the worst, probably because the DVD producers didn't feel the need to mess with it too much. When the movie was first imported into America, Miramax dubbed it into English and gave it a full-blown 5.1 mix with entirely new music and effects. Fortunately, the DVD is based on the original Cantonese track and features the original music. On the downside, the audio sounds fairly dull and has little surround activity at all. There is some nice bass and most of the gunfights come out well, but it would be a lot more fun if it were more full-bodied and directional.
Comparing the Dolby Digital to DTS, I give DTS the edge on all three movies for its breadth and fidelity. Mandarin dubs have also been prepared in Dolby Digital 5.1, but I can't recommend them. No English dubs are included (boo-hoo on that).
Those who outright hate the idea of the new surround mixes will be pleased to know that each of the movies also includes its original Cantonese monaural soundtrack encoded as Dolby 2.0 mono (at a low 192 kb/s bit-rate, unfortunately). The first two sound pretty good, all things considered, but the dialogue and even effects have even more sync issues than the new remix. I'm not sure if that's endemic to the original production or a fault of the DVD audio mastering. For some reason, the third movie's 2.0 track is very shrill and unpleasant. That one I couldn't listen to much of at all. I'm glad to see the mono tracks included for those who want them, but personally I'll go with the DTS every time.
English subtitles have been provided, along with both Traditional and Simplified Chinese. The English translation is only so-so for the early movies, with a number of typos and grammatical errors, but is reasonably coherent and not too distracting.
Fortune Star hasn't gone too crazy with bonus features, but did throw in a few things for the fans. To start, all of the discs offer your choice of English or Chinese menus. Each movie includes the original as well as newly edited trailers. The new trailers are more English-friendly, but are terribly generic and make the movies look like straight-to-video trash. Also available on every disc are photo galleries that can be viewed either as still images or part of an automated slide show. Nothing too exciting in any of that.
Of more interest are the short featurettes exclusive to each disc. Police Story gets a 5-minute segment called NG Shots that appears to be an assemblage of EPK behind-the-scenes footage (from many of Jackie's movies), with an emphasis on flubs. It's fluffy and not really thrilling, but has some good shots that look like they were really painful. Police Story 2 has a 6-minute interview with stuntman Benny Lai, who played the deaf-mute villain in the picture. It's actually a very interesting piece about what stuntmen do and how he has tried to make the transition to featured actor. Finally, Police Story 3 has a 17-minute interview with director Stanley Tong, who talks at length about working with Jackie and Michelle Yeoh, and tells a crazy story about the helicopter stunt.
No ROM supplements have been included.
Fans of Hong Kong action cinema should be thrilled with the way that Fortune Star has been digging into their back catalog to put out quality editions of many classic titles. The Police Story Trilogy box set features nicely cleaned up anamorphic widescreen video remasters and swanky new DTS remixes. The movies are fun and the all-region NTSC DVDs are a great bargain. This set is definitely recommended. Pick it up at your favorite HK retailer or local Chinatown if you have one nearby.
Armour of God Series
A Better Tomorrow Trilogy
A Chinese Ghost Story Trilogy
Infernal Affairs Trilogy
John Woo Collection
Once a Thief
Once Upon a Time in China I, II, III
Project A Series
Sammo Hung Action Collection