Continuing a series on groundbreaking cinema, Tom Jolliffe takes a look at Jackie Chan’s iconic Police Story…
The Criterion Collection. It’s usually a selection of key films across classic era cinema, arthouse, indie and world cinema. Some might call the selections somewhat high brow. It’s unlikely for example, that you’d see The Avengers as part of the Criterion selection. Of course, there are other higher brow curators of cinema’s finest creations (and indeed others, like Arrow, who specialise in everything culty, that would otherwise be ignored). It might surprise Criterion enthusiasts that there are a couple of Jackie Chan films which made the cut for Criterion but they’re there for good reason. Police Story 1 and 2 are iconic, game changing and groundbreaking action cinema.
In the late 70’s and early 80’s, Jackie Chan was establishing himself as a rising new star in Hong Kong cinema. Films like The Drunken Master helped push him to the forefront in his home nation. That era between the death of Bruce Lee and before Chan hit mega levels of stardom in China, the action cinema was largely in that mould of films like Drunken Master. There were some elements of comedy of course, often period settings and a distinct kind of musical pacing in the action sequences. The fight scenes of Chan had a rhythm to them, with a camera often drawn back to capture large chunks of the fight. It was a choreographed dance.
Chan was big, but it would be his initial team ups with cohorts Sammo Hung and Yeun Biao (in Project A for example) that would help him revolutionise action films and do something completely new. By taking more creative control of his films, Chan would rethink the way the fights were choreographed, scraping away perfectionism and a simple musical rhythm and completely changing the way these sequences were put together. For the first time, since Bruce Lee too, a star had a strong hand in each aspect of the fights. Chan in fact, even more so. Not only would he design these fight sequences and spend months on end filming them, he would control how they were filmed and he’d already understand exactly how he would edit them together.
In the old days of fight sequences you might have a few cameras laid down, shooting master shots and wides. Then the fighters perform large sections of the fight. Then the editor pieces it all together. Often times directors might shoot not understanding how to sell a fight scene. Editors the same, so by final cut they might lack the impact intended when choreographing. Even with Bruce Lee, things were kept relatively simple as far as filming. Keep the camera back. Predominantly wides and mids over too many masters (so we can see that Lee is performing everything), but they’d film longer segments and keep cutting minimal in the edit (this technique in fact has come back to an extent with John Wick 1-3).
Chan’s idea for a fight was an A through Z, filming small snippets each time, laying out each piece of a fight sequentially, and linking them together in the edit. Almost exclusively, it would involve single camera use. He perfected a kind of chaotic musicality with a wildly altering rhythm but most importantly, Chan revolutionised and perfected the use of comedy in action. It wasn’t just an ode to Bruce Lee, like most on screen fight films tended to be of the era. He was paying dues to Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin. A love of silent era physical comedy, meant Chan injected his filmswith a kind of chaotic quality that could be enjoyed even without sound. The fights still had a certain rhythm but this was less a simple boom-boom-cha rock drumming and more like Stewart Copeland riffing his jazz skills and cymbals and hi hat peppering on a live gig. We’d never seen fight sequences this fast, frantic, yet simultaneously balletic.
Chan knew how he wanted to shoot these fights, and also in designing sequences where every piece of a setting could conceivably be used within that fight. It went beyond fists and feet (leaping off chairs, through windows, you name it). Chan’s skill at piecing his shots together in a new way was impressive (matched only by Sammo Hung at the time, and then the likes of Yeun Woo Ping). He didn’t just know how to choreograph. He knew how to shoot and edit to create a faultless flow. Additionally, as the central performer, Chan’s physical prowess was the like of which we’d never seen (and few have matched since). The films also had a kind of high impact intensity which felt new too. Chan and his trusted stunt team knew how to hit each other to sell the impacts during the fight scenes, whilst also performing hits, falls and breakaway stunts which create a genuine and painful sense of impact during the fights. Add on top the kind of physical feats of daring from Chan that audiences hadn’t witnessed since the legendary Keaton. High falls, big impacts, physical comedy and all round craziness made Chan iconic.
Police Story is more than just the sum of its fight sequences. Chan put together an enjoyable blend of comedy but some effective moments of drama too, which also pushed him as an actor. In many ways Police Story probably marked the peak of his powers, in that mid-late 80’s era where he was firing out many of his classic films. This was a time where the stunts were just that bit more crazy. They still hit hard in Asian action film now, but there’s a lot more stringent safety and consideration these days (Brandon Lee’s tragic accident on The Crow changed a lot across the world). Additionally, almost no one these days gets the freedom Chan had to shoot for 5-6 months on fight sequences. Still, Police Story showed every great facet of the man as not just a physical dynamo but an endearing lead, a comical genius and a decent actor. He ticks every box in Police Story and Police Story 2 to an extent too (which is part of a double bill release for Criterion). If John Woo’s guns and gangsters double The Killer and Hard Boiled marked two of the most important films (for differing reasons) to the end of a peak era decade between 83-93 in Hong Kong, Jackie Chan’s Police Story 1 and 2 were probably the first two real game changers.
Throw in a couple of acting icons like Brigitte Lin and Maggie Cheung who are both magnetic in early roles (and would become two of the best actresses in China from the 90’s onward, but lets not go into how much I love Maggie Cheung, that’s worth a whole article in itself) and the film is fantastic. It opens with a sequence that must have invoked delirium in Michael Bay (enough to lift the whole sequence and place it in Bad Boys 2) and it doesn’t let up with spectacle, the likes of which would have to be captured almost entirely by CGI these days. This is stunt insanity of the highest order, all captured in camera, aided by a simple and engaging story that keeps us hooked and like all of Chan’s finest work, we like him and care about what happens to his character, which sells the moments of danger even more. The most groundbreaking fight based action film ever made? Let us know your thoughts on our social channels @flickeringmyth…
Tom Jolliffe is an award winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has a number of films out on DVD/VOD around the world and several releases due in 2020/21, including The Witches Of Amityville (starring Emmy winner, Kira Reed Lorsch), War of The Worlds: The Attack and the star studded action films, Renegades (Lee Majors, Billy Murray) and Crackdown. Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see here.