Welcome to The Essentials, a series of articles originally published in 2016 that dared to try and create a list of essential movies for film lovers. This entry explores the unbelievable stunt-work of Jackie Chan’s ‘Police Story.’
Jackie Chan burst into the consciousness of American moviegoers in late February, 1996 with New Line Cinema’s release of Rumble in the Bronx. I went to see it opening weekend with some friends and fell in love with both it and Chan. (So much so that I went back alone to see it again two days later.) I’d seen and enjoyed Asian martial arts films before – my youth was filled with afternoon marathons on TV – but Chan’s antics were an altogether new experience.
He’s an immensely talented martial artist capable of fighting and defending with blistering speed, but Chan’s brilliance is most evident in the way he combines action, comedy, and genius-level choreography to create scenes that effortlessly shift between playful and dangerous. Everyday objects become weapons, shields, obstacles, or transportation, and even when the films exhibit a goofy tone the action is mesmerizing, smile-inducing fun elevated by the knowledge that he’s doing his own stunts. Action like this – exciting, creative, balletic – made me an immediate fan, and I haven’t looked back since.
Of course, by early ’96 Chan had already been wowing international audiences – and American film fans far savvier than I was – for roughly fifteen years with ridiculously entertaining action/comedies like Wheels on Meals, Armour of God, and Project A. That last one, along with its sequel, are terrific period romps that better than any other Chan film drive home his frequent comparisons to the likes of silent film legends like Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton.
My post-Rumble deep dig through Chan’s filmography saw me scouring local video stores, importing VHS tapes from afar, and even buying bootlegs from the trunk of “Ronnie’s” car – don’t ask – and while I love most of his pre-2001 efforts the constants I return to more than any others are the first four entries in his loosely related Police Story films.
There have been six so far, but the last two barely count as they take a far more humorless approach and also bring Chan back as a different character. The first three – Police Story, Police Story 2, Supercop – are masterclasses in action entertainment, and even the fourth entry, First Strike, delivers better fight scenes than any dozen Hollywood films of the era. Seriously, watch this.
It’s 1985’s original Police Story that I’m calling an essential though as it combines all of Chan’s strengths into an awe-inspiring collage of fights, stunts, and comical shenanigans while also being a big leap forward for Chan as a filmmaker. Chan plays Chan Ka Kui – many of Chan’s characters are named Chan, at least as far as the subtitles/translations go, but I’m not sure if it’s due to laziness or respect – a young Hong Kong cop who we first meet as a part of a large-scale sting operation preparing to strike in the middle of a hillside shanty-town. The bad guys make a run for it resulting in a shootout and an epic free-for-all as cars careen down the hill through the shacks triggering explosions and barely missing various civilians. If the scene sounds familiar it may be because Michael Bay borrowed rather liberally from it eighteen years later for Bad Boys II.
The action shifts to a foot chase before the main baddie, Chu Tao, boards a bus to make his escape – with Ka Kui hanging on to the exterior for dear life via nothing more than an umbrella. The entire sequence comes to an end with Ka Kui arresting the drug lord (after another stunt that was lifted wholesale by Hollywood a few years later in Tango & Cash). Heralded as the department’s top cop, Ka Kui is tasked with protecting the kingpin’s secretary (Brigitte Lin) until she can testify, but that doesn’t exactly sit well with his own girlfriend (Maggie Cheung).
Hilarity ensues as the two women cause Ka Kui all manner of frustration and trouble – and I’ll pause here to say that while Chan’s action chops are inarguable in their greatness his comedic sensibilities with the ladies aren’t always as recognizable. Petty jealousies and women being slapped/tossed around won’t appeal to some viewers even in context, but both female leads here stand out in ’80s action cinema as being physically capable characters in their own right. They don’t kick ass, but they don’t exist solely as objects either. For an example of Chan getting this dynamic horribly wrong be sure to check out his Armour of God sequel, Operation Condor. And for an example of Chan getting it right – more right than any other male action star until Tom Cruise gave Emily Blunt the spotlight in Edge of Tomorrow – be sure to check out Supercop.
Many viewers see Police Story’s middle section as something of a drag, but the humorous character beats serve to lighten the tone and offer some breathing room after the fairly intense opening. (A brief brawl involving bats and cars is also pretty damn stellar.) One sequence featuring Ka Kui staging an assault on the secretary so he can pretend to rescue here and thereby gain her trust is lighthearted but still loaded with smart choreography and fun physical gags. Another sees him trying to save face only to end up with a cake to his face instead – for the third time – it’s goofy, but Chan and company make the tonal shift work as entertaining downtime before things turn dark again.
That other shoe drops as the case against Chu Tao is dismissed, Ka Kui’s reputation is tarnished, and a fellow cop is murdered with the evidence pointing back to the former golden boy. Money talks, and the working man walks, even in ’80s Hong Kong. It all leads to a big, face-off in a mall that leaves Ka Kui bloodied and bruised and every last piece of glass in a five mile radius shattered due to contact with human bodies. Oh, and then Chan slides down a three-story pole with live strings of lights attached and burns the skin from his hands.
Chan co-directed the film – his fifth of fifteen so far – and it’s clear he’s more interested in capturing the action in all of its glory than he is the art. (He would prove himself capable of both just four years later with Mr. Canton and Lady Rose.) That said though, there’s an appreciative beauty to the raw simplicity of the camera work. What we see is what we get, and what we often get are action shots with very few cuts to diminish the effect. Chan’s directing here is rarely pretty in the classical sense, but the artistry inherent in his athleticism and choreography is undeniable.
Police Story is also notable as Chan’s first modern-day action film as director (and one of his earliest as lead actor), and its creation was reportedly due to his dissatisfaction with James Glickenhaus’ The Protector. Released the same year, that film was meant to be Chan’s introduction into Hollywood, but Chan and audiences alike turned their noses up at the result. That failure was worth it though for getting him to enter the fray of contemporary action cinema ready to rumble. (See what I did there? That’s a call-back. Rumble in the Bronx rules.)
There are a handful of action leads today with incredible fighting skills – Tony Jaa, Scott Adkins, Iko Uwais – but none of them have the personality, charm, or comedic sensibilities of Chan in his prime. And forget Hollywood – our homegrown stars are often entertaining, but good luck finding one who can kick butt without CG, wire assists, stunt doubles, and highly selective editing.
They don’t make movie stars like Jackie Chan or movies like Police Story anymore. Just watch any of his infamous end-credits stunt/blooper reels to see why.
Related Topics: Action, The Essentials