Criterion Prediction #168: Police Story, by Alexander Miller
Title: Police Story
Director: Jackie Chan
Cast: Jackie Chan, Brigitte Lin, Mars, Maggie Cheung, Bill Tung
Synopsis: Honorable and dedicated Hong Kong cop Ka-Kui (Chan) apprehends high profile criminal Chu-Tao. Following the arrest Ka-Kui is asked to provide round-the-clock protection for Tao’s secretary Selina Fong (Lin), who is a key witness in the following trial; however Ka-Kui is framed for murder and finds out the reach of the criminal enterprise is much more extensive than anticipated, reaching as far as the police department.
Critique: Despite being an international superstar and martial arts icon, Chan’s career path was anything but easy. For Jackie Chan achieving a level of success that accurately reflected his artistic vision took decades; Police Story was a pivotal turn because it was a film that would not only showcase his versatility as a performer and director it also revealed a remarkable penchant for ambition and scope. Manager Lo Wei (who also brought Bruce Lee to international attention), despite Jackie’s protest, tried desperately to make Chan the “new” Lee with titles like New Fist of Fury, playing the stoic hero in period wuxia films. He and his Peking opera brothers Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao (also known as The Three Brothers) would make successful comedic action-adventure yarns such as Winners and Sinners, Project A, Wheels on Meals, and the first two My Lucky Stars films. After trying to break into the US market with his appearing in the two Cannonball Run features the most significant venture was the unsuccessful US/Hong Kong production The Protector. Though uninspired and director Robert Clouse feuded with Chan and showed his contention by eliminating a lot of the kung fu scenes (the gutsy Chan re-edited the fight scenes, changed the ending and omitted some nude scenes for the films Hong Kong release). The Protector might have been a disappointing outing it was the breaking point that gave Jackie the impetus to make a dynamic and exciting action film allowing Chan the broadest range to demonstrate his chops in front of and behind the camera.
While Jackie Chan is known for his masterful martial arts skills, he is, above all else, a supreme entertainer. With creative autonomy and years of experience in filmmaking he imbues every scene of Police Story with a crackling surge of energy; the film is literally pulsing with energy, most action movies rely on a rolling narrative of set pieces leaving the connecting tissue feeling somewhat banal and expository. Luckily for us, Jackie Chan is devoted to his craft and doesn’t waste a second in Police Story; while he follows formula and moves us from one exhilarating sequence to another, escalating the stakes every step of the way he, and his devoted cast and stunt team fill the blanks with equally compelling moments of crackling amusement. If Jackie Chan is (literally) willing to endanger his life to deliver the best scene in a movie, then he’s going to make damn sure, as a director that his final product is going to be nothing but superb showmanship. Police Story opens with a ripping amount of zeal that never lets up, the shantytown stakeout, turned shootout, the car chase is legendary in the conversation of Hong Kong action cinema. But Chan doesn’t have vehicles barrel down roads with rapid editing tricks to create the illusion of near misses and imminent danger, he builds an entire hillside shanty town, replete with gas lines, herds of people, and chain link fences and then proceeds to destroy it by plowing cars through the ramshackle structures in a frenzied but expertly choreographed chase sequence. Don’t be fooled, this isn’t a case of spectacle over substance. Chan’s sense of timing and action is informed by traditional martial arts and Beijing opera, but his heart beats the fastest when paying homage to the masters of silent cinema, and that admiration fuels the most ambitious antics, Jackie Chan is more Buster Keaton than a wandering wuxia hero. Ka-Kui isn’t a hero of the martial world, but a contemporary cop, he gets as many hits as he lands, and it’s the acrobatic timing and comedic sensibilities that make Police Story such a sturdy and rewarding piece of filmmaking. It’s the perfect marriage of art and entertainment and a benchmark that hailed Jackie Chan as a superlative actor, director and choreographer as well as ushering in his elevated conceptual aesthetic.
Bear in mind Police Story came at a unique period in the history of Hong Kong and its relationship with the colonial occupation. Ka-Kui’s a member of the Royal Hong Kong Police Force and western influence is evident in the garish decor throughout the picture.
The contentious relationship with the crown colony was a wellspring of allegorical thrust in Hong Kong cinema and was a dividing line in a land that was operating under the jurisdiction of a “one country, two systems” principle. In Hong Kong the more blockbuster-friendly genre fare was exploring more prescient material regarding the pending handover, not that mainland cinema wasn’t, but regarding covert political expression it Hong Kong was rife with trepidation and cinema was the outlet regarding this cultural anxieties. It might come as a surprise, but Jackie Chan is a remotely political filmmaker to boot.
Why It Belongs in the Collection: For years, I’ve spent time calling out support for people to appreciate Hong Kong/martial arts/wuxia cinema as a serious art form. While Criterion has made significant strides with their inclusion of two major King-Hu titles, the extent of Hong Kong cinema reaches a distinctive apex with Jackie Chan’s Police Story for several of the aforementioned reasons above.
The Masters of Cinema series has released a gorgeous set featuring the first two films of Chan’s enduring Police Story series. It would be great if Criterion were to follow suit but it might take some easing into for those who fawn over the likes of Godard and Truffaut. However, with Janus films touring Police Story, and the release of Chan’s films on The Masters of Cinema it feels likely that Jackie Chan’s work will soon usher the Criterion logo, and, we’re all the better for it.
As of now, Dragon Dynasty has released a comparable DVD set of Police Story with alternate language tracks and a decent bonus feature. Hopefully, if this Criterion release goes through, it would dismantle one of the offspring sprouted by Harvey Weinstein. Not to imply that everything that was the product of a serial rapist is subject to obliteration but would anyone lose sleep if we pulled another spoke from his wheel?