Although he began in films as an actor and action star studios wanted to model after the late Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan built his popularity on a foundation of traits that Lee never did: comic timing, a fighting style that appeared both technically masterful and improvisational, and death-defying stunt performances that often resulted in well-documented injuries (often featured during the end credits of his films). Although Chan was already an established talent in his native Hong Kong (thanks to late-1970s successes like Drunken Master and Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow), the Police Story films are his most successful and longest-running franchise, with six films from 1985 through 2013 (although some of the titles are sequels in name only).
Although 1992’s Police Story 3 was one of the first Chan films to get a wide release in the United States (under the title Supercop in 1996, co-starring Michelle Yeoh), the first two entries in the franchise never truly go their due stateside outside of repertory and art house theaters that managed to get ahold of a beaten-up, badly subtitled or dubbed prints. But now, the first two Police Story films have been restored, with much-improved subtitles, and they are refreshing reminders at how versatile a performer Chan was still trying to be with his 1980s output.
There is no better example of this than the opening shootout of 1985’s Police Story, which still marks the only time a Chan-starring film opens with gunplay rather than hand-to-hand combat. In fact, the film is rather light on traditional Chan-style fight sequences (all of which were choreographed by Chan, who also directed the film with Chi-Hwa Chen)—often typified by a combination of gravity-defying acrobatics and using whatever happens to be in the room as a weapon. That usually results in some exceedingly odd fighting tools, such as a wardrobe rack, mannequins, bar stools, barrels, even a double-decker bus in one of the film’s most famous sequences.
In the film, Chan plays Chan Ka Kui (or Kevin Chan in some versions of the film), a straight-as-an-arrow Hong Kong cop who captures one of the city’s most notorious drug lords (Yuen Chor), after the film’s splashiest, most fiery action sequence involving a car chase that drives through and levels an entire shanty town built on a mountain side. Chan is both applauded for the arrest by his superiors—Supt. Raymond Li (Kwok-Hung Lam) and Inspector Bill Wong (Bill Tung)—and mildly berated for the level of destruction caused during the chase. Chan is put in charge of playing bodyguard to the drug lord’s secretary, Selina Fong (Brigette Lin), who is the only witness who can put him away. This does not sit well with Chan’s girlfriend, May (an early appearance by the great Maggie Cheung), who is unreasonably jealous at the situation.
Thanks to a slick attorney, the drug lord not only avoids the charges but sets up Chan in the process by framing him for the murder of another cop, who just happened to be dirty and on his payroll. Chan spends the rest of the film attempting to clear his name, culminating in a spectacular fight sequence set in a massive shopping mall that features possibly the most glass ever broken in a single action scene and a breathtaking stunt in which Chan slides several stories down a pole through hanging lights that explode as he passes by them. But before this sequence, Chan delivers an angry, heartfelt monologue about criminals who escape prosecution thanks to savvy lawyers that would have felt right at home in a Death Wish or Dirty Harry movie. That’s not surprising, since Chan has been quoted as saying that the Police Story films were inspired by American police dramas of the era. Be sure to stick around for those end credits outtakes and the Chan-sung theme song, “Hero Story.”
Although Police Story 2 was released three years later, it picks up almost right where the first film left off. Still dealing with the ramifications of the previous story, Chan is actually demoted to traffic cop for the chaos in the mall. Adding insult to injury, the drug lord once again is set free and his lawyer (Chi-Wing Lau) vows to make life hell for Chan and May. But that plot line is quickly sidetracked by several elements, including a commitment by Jackie Chan (who gets sole credit as director this time) for more traditional (but no less inventive) fight sequences, including a spectacular, extended one in a fireworks factory that involves are great deal of explosives, setting Chan on fire, and a borderline-offensive deaf criminal (Keung-Kuen Lai), who also happens to be the best fighter in the movie.
The story this time involves a group of bombers seeking to extort rich real estates owners of millions of dollars in exchange for not blowing up their properties. After being humiliated with the demotion, Chan quits the force but is quickly reinstated and brought back in as a detective to help break up the bombing gang, who have made it personal for Chan by kidnapping May in their attempts to keep him at bay.
While it has often been said that Jackie Chan is more stuntman than actor, the first two Police Story films in particular give us a version of the superstar that proves he was clearly capable of heavier moments, even if he frequently opted out of reaching deep into his soul for a performance. And not every great performer needs to do that. There are few actors who have as clear a sense of giving the audience what they want and then some than Jackie Chan. Especially with his output from the 1980s and ’90s, Chan was on a never-ending quest to up his game with each new film and make them examples of pure, uncut, crowd-pleasing entertainment.
New 4K restorations of both films open today (with a double-feature ticketing option) at the Music Box Theatre.
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