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Not being a connoisseur of pricey Asian laserdiscs and Japanese video, the first contact I had with the films of Jackie Chan was through a friend's collection of bootlegged VHS tapes, back in the early 1990s. Although the pictures were difficult to watch and the subtitles grammatically indecipherable, the astonishing artistry of the daredevil Jackie Chan was unimpaired.
Forget American action pictures with grunting muscle boys like Stallone, Schwarzenegger and Van Damme: Jackie Chan is an amazing whirling dervish of non-stop impossible-looking action miracles. One's jaw drops upon seeing Chan's extreme stunts, which totally exclude special effects. What we see actually happens. The lightning-fast fight action is better than most circus acts. Chan and his horde of stuntmen fall, hit, punch, dive, and topple with a bone-crunching realism not seen in American films. The only possible comparison is to the work of Buster Keaton. If The Great Stone Face were alive he'd undoubtedly be Chan's biggest fan. Jackie Chan elevated the Hong Kong martial arts film into a series of kinetically wonderful -- and funny -- action entertainments.
Chan had flopped in earlier attempts at American stardom (The Big Brawl, 1980) for the same reason that Buster Keaton fumbled at MGM ... Chan isn't just a star, he's a writer-director-star performer on his own. In movies formulated by outsiders, Chan is reduced to a charming specialty act.
Perhaps because of this, and also because the American mainstream was not yet ready for subtitled Chinese films, his Rumble in the Bronx (Hong faan Kui) was mangled for U.S. release. Cartoonish voices were dubbed in, new music was added and an 'action specialist' editor from Cannon Films supervised a re-cut. It was still a number one hit. The Americans went back through the Chan catalog, doing the same thing with his earlier pictures. Thus few of the video and DVD versions retain their original flavor: A lot of Chan's cute humor and charming music sequences were tossed from superb adventure pictures like Project A II.
The old VHS tapes can now disappear, because The Weinstein Company is finally bringing the Chan pictures to DVD in their original Cantonese-version glory. 1987's Police Story is a straightforward tale of crooks versus cops that provides Chan with the right mix of goofy comedy and breakneck action.
Watching a Jackie Chan show is like a trip to the movies when you were a little kid. At five years old I remember not being able to distinguish between what was real and what was faked on screen, a line that Jackie erases in every movie. A hero character in a pre-CGI American picture might leap off a tall cliff, tumble down some obstacles and then land at the bottom, ready to fight some more. The action could be handled in three or more cuts, with the star actor shown beginning and ending the stunt, and stuntmen or perhaps even a dummy used in the violent and dangerous middle section. If the actor is more than six feet off the ground, the chances are that a net or a sponge rubber cushion will be placed under him. Under no circumstances would a producer allow a major actor to risk his neck clambering up the sides of buildings, making death-defying leaps or risking an unplanned mishap.
Jackie Chan sees it all differently. Like a circus performer, he knows his audience is there to see him risk his life, and in each movie he delivers exactly that dozens of times. In Police Story we see him bashed through wooden walls, tumbling onto unforgiving asphalt and smashed through dozens of glass display cases in a department store. He dangles like a rag doll from a moving bus and avoids being run over by a car by leaping onto its hood at the last second.
It's not like Jackie comes through all of this unscathed, as he's frequently injured in these movies -- as my doctor would say, "Abrased, abused and contused." Part of the reason that Jackie couldn't make movies his way in America is that nobody would dare insure him: Many of his Hong Kong movies are self-financed. They're cheaper than they look, but they still cost millions, and who would dare risk their money to watch their star get crushed, impaled or likewise killed?.
If Jackie Chan were just some guy foolishly risking his life on film, Police Story would be a sleazy reality show, an excuse for Jackass imitators and impressionable kids to go out and maim themselves. Chan is a trained artist in the Peking Opera tradition and has been a kung-fu actor since he was in short pants (see Enter the Dragon). He has the eye of a great director: During his chaotic action scenes he always cuts to the most dynamic and artful camera view. In his biggest stunts he'll repeat the action three and four times from different angles just to show that it's real -- and to show off, too. When a show-off has talent, he's a showboat performer. When a performer has something really extraordinary to show us, he's a phenomenon.
Frankly, what Chan's movies most resemble is Buster Keaton silent comedy crossed with fancy Hollywood musicals. The action is conceived in terms of Keatonesque gags: "What can we do with a clothes rack? What's dangerous, and what's potentially funny? What's credible and how silly is too silly?" Chan's action scenes are constructed like Keaton's in that the stunt (gag) situations build on a premise, end with a 'topper' gag and then top the topper with a finisher.
Every action we see is choreographed, organized for the camera to let the audience best appreciate and bear witness to the talent of the performer. Just as George Sidney or Vincente Minnelli wouldn't break up a Fred Astaire dance with cuts or compromise it by only showing Fred from the waist up, Jackie Chan plays the 'stunt' highlights of his action in unbroken pieces without filmic manipulation. There's no step-frame printing or hyping of the action. The editing compliments the stunts; it doesn't create them.
The plot of Police Story is a framework of dramatic and comedy scenes to support the action set pieces. Jackie gets a good workout sorting out an uncooperative female witness and his jealous girlfriend. His screen persona is as a nice guy with nothing to hide, who of course runs into grief when things go wrong. Jackie suffers humiliation when his 'evidence tape' is played back in the courtroom and sounds like a compromising sex scene. Near the end of the tale Jackie is forced to kidnap his police superior at gunpoint and goes red-in-the-face serious for a moment. No, it's not good acting, but it doesn't matter. Jackie doesn't compromise his character, and the cops 'n' robbers fantasy can continue. Persistence and superhuman kinetic skills are enough to carry him through.
Every Jackie show has its unforgettable, crowd-pleasing highlights. A cavalcade of cars storms down a steep hillside shantytown (a rather clean one, if you ask me) smashing through tarpaper buildings as stuntmen scramble to get out of the way. Jackie uses an umbrella to board a speeding bus, persisting even after he's been thrown to the roadway below. For a finale, he cleans house with the bad guys in an all-glass (or so it seems) department store. Who cares if it's so-called 'candy' glass? All of those counters and displays seem to be breaking into real-glass shards, not sugary powder. We watch with our eyes peeled, hardly believing what we see. And then we cheer.
The Weinstein Company's Dragon Dynasty Special Collector's Edition of Police Story presents the Cantonese version of the film in a colorful enhanced transfer. I saw no film damage but the image is a little on the grainy side. The Cantonese audio track sounds great and for the first time the subtitles are coherent -- we don't need to play sound-alike games to figure out what words the subtitlers really wanted to use. 1
Weinstein has added a lot of extras, all of which will probably interest Chan fans versed in the minutiae of his career. The best material is an on-camera Jackie Chan interview where he gets excited about his work, and has to admit that his English isn't good enough to express what he wants to say. We wonder if he's too image-conscious simply to do a Chinese language interview, because a second longer interview piece with members of his stunt team is much better. Most of these men double as actors; their reminiscences of filming and accounts of camaraderie and near-death accidents are fascinating. It's excellent testimony from key sources.
Much less palatable are fannish accolades from film director Brett Ratner (X-Men: The Last Stand) and Asian film expert Bey Logan. They know what they're talking about, but we can supply our own breathless enthusiasm. Adults cheer Jackie Chan like kids used to cheer Tom Mix and Steve Reeves. It's a direct connection that doesn't need a lot of interpretation. Ratner and Logan are much better on the commentary, where they regale us with a wealth of detailed information.
The disc also has an ample selection of deleted scenes, alternate openings and endings, a textless ending and a gallery of trailers. Unfortunately, to start the show one has to manually chapter one's way through a gauntlet of trailers.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Police Story rates:
1. Actually, the box credits (which may reflect the American version) list J. Peter Robinson as the composer, whereas the IMDB lists Robinson and Nathan Wang. Is this special edition really the Hong Kong original, as promised? I hope so. (Note, 12.20.06: Correspondent Ian Whittle helpfully reports that this version of Police Story is the Hong Kong original, with the original score by Michael Lai.)
Reviews on the Savant main site have additional credits information and are more likely to be updated and annotated with reader input and graphics.