Black and Blu: The Agony and the Artistry of Jackie Chan on Blu-ray (Web Exclusive)
Reviewed by Robert Cashill
Produced by Raymond Chow and Leonard Ho; directed by Jackie Chan; written by Jackie Chan and Edward Tang; cinematography by Yiu-Tsou Cheung; edited by Peter Cheung; production design and art direction by Oliver Wong; music by Siu-Tin Lai; costume design by Ginger Fung; starring Jackie Chan, Maggie Cheung, Brigitte Lin, Yuen Chor, Charlie Cho, and Bill Tung. Blu-ray, color, 101 min., 1985. A Eureka Entertainment release.
Police Story 2
Produced by Raymond Chow and Leonard Ho; directed by Jackie Chan; written by Jackie Chan and Edward Tang; cinematography by Yiu-Tsou Cheung; edited by Peter Cheung; production design by Oliver Wong; music by Siu-Tin Lai; costume design by Shirley Chan; starring Jackie Chan, Maggie Cheung, Yuen Chor, Charlie Cho, and Bill Tung. Blu-ray, color, 122 min., 1988. A Eureka Entertainment release.
When we last left Jackie Chan (in our review of 1978’s Drunken Master, Cineaste, Vol. 42, No. 4, Fall 2017) he had thrown off the mantle of Bruce Lee and was striking out in his own direction. There were false starts: Lee died before the premiere of what would be his American breakthrough, Enter the Dragon (1973), and Chan’s attempts to crack Hollywood in starring roles—Battle Creek Brawl (AKA The Big Brawl, 1980) and The Protector (1985)—were stillborn. At home in Hong Kong, however, he became a one-man cinematic universe, spinning off franchises that took off throughout Asia, notably Japan. Project A (1983) and Project A Part II (1987) cast him as a Marine Police sergeant busting pirates in the nineteenth century. In Armour of God (1986) and its sequels, Armour of God 2: Operation Condor (1991) and Chinese Zodiac (2012), he’s a globetrotting Indiana Jones type. But the series that brought him his widest audience is Police Story, which commenced in 1985 and spawned three sequels (in 1988, 1992, and 1996), plus two ersatz followups, New Police Story (2004) and Police Story 2013.
Chan has said that Police Story is his favorite of his films, and Eureka Entertainment’s fine box set of the first two installments (a Region B release that can be viewed on all-regions players as well) shows why. The fifth movie he directed after Drunken Master’s success gave him more autonomy; Police Story is the one where Jackie Chan became “Jackie Chan”—his inspector character may be named Chan Ka-Kui (or “Kevin”) but in international edits of this and subsequent action comedies, he’s simply “Jackie.” Jackie may be “ugly and big-nosed” (Chan’s self-definition) and not the smartest guy in the room, but he’s brave, good-hearted, and honest, and he stands up for the little guy against the bad guys, even if it puts him at odds with the top brass. They deride him as a “John Wayne type,” but Jackie (I mean, Kevin) rarely uses his gun. His whole body is weaponized.
The Blu-rays contain the excellent trailers for both films. Neither mentions plot: there’s the title, and three minutes of Jackie, performing hazardous stunts on camera, and directing and choreographing them off screen (accompanied by his singing their title songs, his most dubious talent.) Since Dragon Lord (1982), closing credits outtakes have been a staple of the Jackie Chan experience—when a film as highlight-studded as Police Story ends, we clap for the wizard, who then pulls back the curtain to let us in on how the magic is accomplished, authenticating the entertainment in blood, sweat, and tears. More than one commentator on these discs says that “while fun to watch, these films weren’t always fun to make” and we see the evidence as Chan (who insisted on multiple takes even if he got it right first time) goes down for the count, more than once. The vulnerability, the evident fear on his face before attempting another perilous gag, and the masochism in doing it again and again, are part of his appeal.
The punches aren’t altogether pulled in Hong Kong movies, as they are in Hollywood ones, and no amount of planning can prevent accidents. In a 1989 episode of U.K. presenter and critic Jonathan Ross’s Son of the Incredibly Strange Film Show (a supplement on the Police Story 2 disc), Chan shows the host the hole in his head sustained when a tree fall went awry in Armour of God. That may very well be Chan’s “greatest hit,” so to speak, but the tossed firecracker that goes off near his eye in Police Story 2 will make you wince, and “civilians” not part of his stunt team, like co-star Maggie Cheung, weren’t spared. Cast as his long-suffering girlfriend May in the first three Police Story adventures, Cheung required seventeen stitches and a week’s hospitalization when a metal frame bashed her head filming a climactic stunt in the same movie, and we see the bloody results. (For her pains May is dropped from a helicopter and sidelined in 1992’s Police Story 3: Super Cop, as Chan is more spectacularly teamed with Michelle Yeoh, who gives as good as she gets. Cheung sensibly retreated to the art house and the likes of 1996’s Irma Vep and 2000’s In the Mood for Love.)
Most Hong Kong films in Chan’s heyday were shot in the twenty days it took to shoot the mall climax of Police Story, a famous eight-minute aria of destruction that includes Kevin pummeling a villain through a storefront with a motorcycle as everything shatters and slides five stories down a pole as Christmas lights explode around him. (Toll: two broken vertebrae.) Chan spent up to six months shooting his movies, with the action set pieces laid out first, the comedy sequences second, and the exposition third. On set, the stunt team was encouraged to make suggestions to sharpen the action beats, and on this and their execution they performed magnificently. No one simply falls to the ground in a Jackie Chan movie—they crash through glass, land on a wheelbarrow, or carom off some other obstruction first.
Like episodes of Friends, his films are often referred to as “the one with,” and Police Story, the one with the mall, is also the one with the shantytown, where the story begins. While Chan made earlier films with contemporary settings, Police Story definitively breaks him free of the stage-bound Shaw Brothers tradition he came up in, and it roams Hong Kong as restlessly as The French Connection (1971) storms through New York or the “Eurocrime” thrillers of the Seventies rampaged through various Italian cities. The shantytown may be a set, but it has a life of its own, and cars zoom through it in dramatic, wreckage-filled long shots that make full use of the wide frame. The scene could end a typical blockbuster, but there’s more to come, with Chan drawing on the comedy of his silent-film favorites Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd. After clambering down a steep hill to intercept the villains, who are fleeing by bus, he affixes himself to the vehicle with a parasol, bouncing off the tops of cars before being able to right himself, get in front of his pursuers, and halt them. I’ve seen Police Story in a theater, where the perfect choreography, shooting, and editing of this sequence were capped off with tremendous, spontaneous applause. The country bumpkin of his earlier period movies is gone—ladies and gentlemen, this is Jackie Chan. A star is reborn.
(The stunt men positioned in the front of the bus when it makes its sudden stop weren’t supposed to fall on the hard pavement when they broke through the windshield, but so it goes. In the second film, Chan races through several lanes of traffic, only to be smacked by a van as he reaches the curb, a comic “button” that wasn’t intended to hit so hard. The carefully padded jackets he wears are the only things that keep him from being permanently squashed.)
That said, the Police Story films aren’t perfect. The plots are straightforward (bad guys threaten order, Kevin stops them, they return, May is kidnapped and/or endangered, Kevin breaks ranks to save the day) but the comedy is slapdash, broad, and very much hit or miss. (See Jackie moonwalk.) As a secretary Kevin has to guard in Police Story, Brigitte Lin adds a little vinegar to the proceedings, but neither she nor Cheung are as fully integrated as Yeoh would be (like Cheung, Lin would find more secure footing in Wong Kar-wai films in the Nineties, then retire). The concept of “tonal shifts” may very well have originated with Hong Kong cinema, as the films zip from family-friendly clowning to hard action and more adult humor. The discs have three versions of each. The 4k restoration of the original theatrical release of Police Story, a solid effort given what tend to be problematic elements for Hong Kong films of its vintage, is the best viewing, even with the creaky gay and rape jokes. Most of those are shorn from the 84-minute standard-definition cut prepared for the U.S. video market (with just a few glimpses of a lengthy, Jerry Lewis-type telephone gag remaining) but the lower resolution, uninspired synthesizer rescoring, and Australian dubbing are too compromising. The 106-minute Japanese version, meanwhile, adds a silly birthday sequence at the top of the movie, before the shantytown raid, throwing the pace out of whack.
Speaking of which: The 122-minute Japanese cut of Police Story 2 that’s the restoration centerpiece of that Blu-ray is entirely too indulgent, further slowing a film that’s more muted than its predecessor, while the 96-minute U.K. version originally prepared for VHS is an instant throwaway given the dim image and awful English dubbing. If only better elements existed for the original Hong Kong version, which at 106 minutes is the ideal length, and has a detailed commentary (from a DVD circa 1999) from Hong Kong-based critic Miles Wood and stuntman Jude Poyer, who touch on the careers of the various actors, the locations, and how the action was filmed. Stunt team member Benny Lai, whose astonishing high kicks highlight his confrontations with Chan, talks about their lengthy collaboration. (As a deafmute bomber, Lai basically quacks his way through his performance. “If only they were silent films” you think, until the next breathtaking action scene erupts and the flying limbs do the talking.)
In the Ross interview, conducted on the set of Miracles (which I saw first-run in Hong Kong when I lived there, in 1989), Chan figures he has three or four more years left in his career. He wasn’t wrong: Drunken Master II (1994) remains his best film, the apotheosis of Jackie Chan. The lightweight Rush Hour movies that consolidated his subsequent U.S. stardom are lesser police stories, and at age sixty-four the bulk of his films (including the two unrelated Police Story movies) are intended more for the mainland China market, to which he has controversially pledged his allegiance. But with this box set and another for the Project A films, Eureka has paid proper homage to the era when Jackie Chan was the most amazing performer alive.
Robert Cashill is a Cineaste Editorial Board Member and the Film Editor of Popdose.com.
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Cineaste, Vol. XLIV, No. 1