Jackie Chan’s surprising initial failure to break into the North American film market is an important cautionary tale to both actors and filmmakers that has sadly been ignored.
In theory, he made all the right movies. While I’ve been rightfully critical of the late Robert Clouse’s directorial efforts, he did helm ENTER THE DRAGON and had experience working with Hong Kong actors and extras. It made sense that he could work the same magic on Jackie that he had worked on Bruce Lee, particularly as Jackie had been continually presented as Lee’s successor.
But THE BIG BRAWL (aka BATTLE CREEK BRAWL) was both a commercial and critical failure. Unlike in ENTER THE DRAGON, where Bruce Lee had been given carte blanche over the action, Jackie was saddled with foreign stuntmen (he was only allowed to bring two of his own stuntpeople over to the Texas shoot), uninspired choreography, and a director who simply had little idea how to best present his talents. Further indignity – though more commercial success – was found in his cameo appearances in the all-star car chase films THE CANNONBALL RUN and THE CANNONBALL RUN 2, where Jackie played a Japanese champion race car driver. While the films are occasionally fun, and likely fed Jackie’s love of racing, his appearance is brief and hardly memorable. As much fun as it is to watch Jackie fighting alongside Burt Reynolds, it’s difficult to shake the feeling that he’s really slumming it.
But the biggest embarrassment of all came from his lead role in James Glickenhaus’ THE PROTECTOR. Casting Chan as a swearing, gritty New York City police officer was hard enough to swallow, but Glickenhaus (who also directed the exploitation classic THE EXTERMINATOR) again wouldn’t let Chan choreograph his own fight scenes. Chan was frustrated, and at first attempted to block the release of the film in Hong Kong entirely before re-editing it and adding a few fights to make a much tighter (and more Jackie Chan-like) film. Glickenhaus, making the common mistake of underrating the intelligence of the average movie goer, stated that “the mainstream audience will never sit still for Jackie’s style of action”. Was he right? It’s hard to say, since mainstream audiences wouldn’t get a taste of Jackie’s style for many years to come.
Jackie was pissed off and frustrated. He wasn’t only Hong Kong’s most popular action performer, he was also a talented and experienced director who clearly saw the limitations of the American approach to making martial arts films. Sick of relinquishing control, he decided to make his own statement on 80s action, meaning a mixture of martial arts and gunplay with big set-pieces that would compare with the over-the-top action coming out of the US. While Hong Kong productions couldn’t compare with the scope of special effects used in US features, they still had something the US didn’t – a willingness to administer grievous bodily harm.
While PROJECT A had brought a new scope to Hong Kong action, POLICE STORY would re-write the rules entirely. Jackie was still fun loving – and the film has plenty of the Cantonese style comedy expected in the genre – but there’s a surprising darkness and seriousness to the material. Jackie’s performance is shockingly intense, and becomes more unhinged as the plot progresses, while the set pieces are absolutely explosive. Jackie has always said that he hates violence but loves action, but never before has his action felt as brutal and – almost despite itself – as real as it does here.
The film opens with one of the most amazing action sequences ever put on film, and the material is played entirely seriously. It begins with an undercover operation within a huge shanty town community which nearly immediately goes wrong. Jackie is Inspector Chan Ka-Kui, and he and his fellow officers are looking to arrest crime boss Chu Tao (Yuen Chor), but when one of Tao’s men spot the police (and are tipped off by screams coming from Chu Tao’s secretary, Selina Fong (Brigitte Lin)) things rapidly spin out of control. First we’re treated to a close quarters gun battle, and while it may not stack up against John Woo’s later gunplay films (A BETTER TOMORROW would be released the following year), it’s still a visceral and impressive sequence. And it leads right into the car chase. Oh man, the car chase.
The featured shanty town was actually a set built specifically for the film, and when Chan Ka-Kui follows the escaping criminals down the hillside as they smash their cars through dozens of these structures, the visual is nearly overwhelming. The scope of the destruction, as well as the brave stuntmen narrowly avoiding disaster, makes this one of Jackie’s most accomplished sequences – and one that never fails to blow my mind. It feels dangerous in a way that few other sequences could ever emulate.
But we’re not finished. We’re barely getting started! Finding their cars destroyed, the baddies hijack a bus while Jackie follows closely behind on foot. Stealing an umbrella, Jackie barely hangs on to the runaway bus, being flung dangerously as he grips on the side by the umbrella handle. After being discovered by the criminals, he’s eventually kicked off before making another dangerous run down and embankment to overtake it, eventually standing directly in front of the oncoming double decker. At first pointing his gun directly at the driver (who has a knife held to his throat by one of the underlings), he instead shoots into the air, causing the driver to immediately hit the brakes. Now, originally the two criminals on the top level of the bus were suppose to be hurled through the glass and onto the frame of a car, but a crucial lack of understanding of the buses’ breaking mechanism means that they instead fall dangerously onto the asphalt behind Jackie. In true Hong Kong fashion, they leave this in the film and even jaded viewers can’t help but wince a little at their sacrifice.
This sequence runs about fifteen minutes, from the shootout, the car chase through the shanty town, the umbrella/bus stunt, the foot-chase and this awe-inspiring ending, and it’s truly magnificent. While Chan Ka-Kui is criticized by Superintendent Li for the failure of the original plan, the success of the mission leads to him being presented to the public as a model officer. Soon he’s being tasked with protecting the hesitant Selina Fong, who is being forced to be a witness in Chu Tao’s trial. Ka-Kui sets up a startlingly misguided fake attack by a fellow police officer (played by regular Jackie Chan performer Mars wearing a slasher movie mask) to convince her that his protection is necessary. It’s an odd sequence, though does eventually lead to Jackie attacking himself with Mars’ unconscious body, WEEKEND AT BERNIES style). Fearing for her safety, the two decide to hold out over at Ka-Kui’s place, but while driving over they are stopped suddenly, leading to the film’s first real fight scene. Jackie is in rare form here, leaping out of the way of cars, kicking the baddies through windshields, and just generally being a bad-ass. Check it out:
They escape and head to Ka-Kui’s place, only to discover a group of people (including his girlfriend May, played by Maggie Cheung) waiting to throw him a surprise birthday party. When they instead discover a half dressed Brigitte Lin, Chan gets several cakes smashed into his face while we get some “hilarious” comedic misunderstandings. May eventually drives off in a huff, while Selina discovers that the initial attacker in her apartment was actually a fellow police officer, leading her to run off during the night – meaning that the police force are high and dry during the trial. Chu Tao gets released on bail, and he’s peeved at the insolence of this hero cop, deciding to get rid of him for ood.
They do this by luring Ka-Kui, humiliated by his failure at the trial, to where Selina is hiding out. After a brief scuffle, it appears as if he’s joined by fellow police officer Inspector Man (Kam Hing Ying), but it’s really a big set-up. Man has actually set him up, but is surprised to discover that actual plan to use Man’s gun to kill Ka-Kui. Uh oh. They kill Man, but Selina makes a dramatic escape (jumping off a balcony into a swimming pool), though Chan is captured and drugged before being framed for Man’s murder. Yep, Ka-Kui has been branded a cop killer, which doesn’t sit too well with him. He heads into the police station to plead innocence, but when the Superintendent tries to arrest him he goes nuts and takes the Superintendent hostage, deciding that the only way to prove his innocence is to track down Chu Tao himself.
Do you enjoy bodies being propelled through or onto glass? If so, I have a treat for you. The final huge action scene takes place at a mall where Chu Hao and his goons are headed to stop Selina from stealing incriminating data from his computers. The final ten minutes are absolute non-stop action as a peeved Ka-Kui decides that it’s finally time to kick everyone’s ass. The mall makes for a perfect place to stage Jackie’s trademark prop-based martial arts, and soon bodies are being hurled in all different directions – usually into glass or onto tables. At one point, even a motorcycle gets in on the action. It’s all really nutty, but you can’t take your eyes off of it.
This is also where Jackie performs two of his most noteworthy (and dangerous) stunts. The first is where he’s hurled off the top of a stairwell, smashing through a wooden frame before hurtling to the ground, causing him some serious pain. But even more (stupidly) impressive is the film’s final – and most celebrated – stunt, where Jackie slides down a huge metal pole while surrounding lights explode, before falling through a massive glass barrier. Not only did the lights heat up the metal pole, leading to second degree burns on his hands, but the landing almost led him to break his seventh and eighth vertebrae. If you watch the video, you can see him visibly psyche himself up for the jump, even yelling out before throwing his body forward. It’s an amazing visual, and you can forgive him for – like in PROJECT A – showing it a few times for maximum effect.
Finally, we get some hilarious police brutality as Ka-Kui first beats on Chu Tao’s scummy lawyer, before beating the hell out of Chu Tao as well. The stuffy Superintendent Li says that he didn’t see anything, though the hundreds of surrounding mall patrons might say differently. Selina provides the evidence to convict, and everything gets wrapped up in a neat (not including the piles of broken glass) little package.
It’s hard to imagine how the world of film would have changed if POLICE STORY had gotten a proper theatrical release in the US back in 1985, a time where Schwarzenegger and Stallone were still dominating action pictures. Even martial arts films had mostly given away to a variety of (generally) cheesy ninja movies, Gymkata and – eventually – Jean Claude Van Damme and Steven Seagal movies. The U.S. was really primed for a different kind of kung-fu film, but it simply wasn’t to be. POLICE STORY was an international success, but aside from a few dedicated Jackie Chan converts, his recognition in North America would remain non-existent. At least.. for a while longer.
POLICE STORY made for a huge return to form both critically and financially for Jackie, and would be followed by POLICE STORY 2 in 1988, the amazing POLICE STORY 3: SUPERCOP (titled SUPERCOP in North America) in 1992, POLICE STORY 4: FIRST STRIKE (called JACKIE CHAN’S FIRST STRIKE in North America) in 1996, and the gritty reboot of the series NEW POLICE STORY in 2004. The shanty town sequence has been emulated in several films, most notably in BAD BOYS 2, while there have been echoes of many of the sequences in later US and Hong Kong films. Even the theme song – sung by the multi-talented Chan – became a notable hit, and was used in recruitment commercials for the Hong Kong Police.
Convinced that US success was – for now – out of his reach, Jackie would go on to make some of his most impressive and celebrated films throughout the rest of the 1980s. However, these films were far removed from the traditional martial arts films (like SNAKE IN THE EAGLE’S SHADOW and THE FEARLESS HYENA) which originally brought him fame. In 1994 he would return to the genre for the first time since 1980s THE YOUNG MASTER, and in the process create possibly the greatest action movie ever filmed.
But that’s an article for another day.
NEXT WEEK: THE SHAOLIN TEMPLE (1982)