Let’s not mince words: the mall brawl that concludes Jackie Chan’s 1985 film Police Story is to action cinema what Beethoven’s Fifth is to symphonic music, what Charles Dickens’s Bleak House is to the nineteenth-century novel, what Théodore Géricault’s The Raft of the Medusa is to representative painting. It was, at the moment of its appearance, the absolute pinnacle of contemporary achievement in a particular field of human endeavor—the recording of fragile, imperiled human bodies moving propulsively in concert—and it remains a shining paragon, a marvel for all times. It showcases the remarkable cinematic, physical, and—in his fearlessness in the face of legitimately hazardous stunt work—psychological skill set of the film’s director-star, as well as the derring-do of the Sing Ga Ban, or Jackie Chan Stunt Team, a death-defying second-unit suicide squad that doubled as Chan’s entourage. It is the hell-bent, relentless, shoot-the-works standout among the many go-for-broke sequences that mark Chan’s Police Story and its 1988 sequel—films united in adroit athleticism and populist, anti-authority cheek, as well as documents of what prodigious feats are possible when a mind that understands film form, the body of an acrobat in peak condition, and an appetite for anarchy combine in one artist.
In the space of the roughly seven and a half minutes that make up the first Police Story’s concluding melee, running from the first scent of the chase to Jackie’s final eighty-foot slide down a bulb-decorated pole through the shopping-center atrium, we experience a concerto of chaos: multistory free falls, bodies squeezed into the interstice between escalators, off-road biking in the sporting-goods section, and end-over-end dives through shattering sugar-glass display cases—so many of these that the crew took to calling the movie Glass Story. That final drop, which ends with Chan plummeting into a kiosk through a breakaway pane, left the actor’s palms shredded by friction and shards from busted bulbs, and two of his vertebrae nearly broken by the impact. Almost as soon as he hits the ground, as caught in one uncut shot, he’s on his feet and back in hot pursuit.
Per Chan’s most recent autobiography, Never Grow Up, the scene was shot by night, while he was spending his days working on Sammo Hung’s Heart of Dragon (1985). The pace at which Hong Kong films were turned out then was frenetic, but Chan in these years went especially hard. Strange as it is to imagine, considering his eventual durability as a celebrity, he was then still a very recently poor kid trying to capitalize as much as he could on his new status as a martial-arts action star, not at the time a gig that offered many models for longevity. He had been born Chan Kong-sang in British Hong Kong in 1954, to Charles and Lee-Lee Chan, refugees from the Chinese Civil War who had found work as a cook and domestic at the French ambassador’s residence in the city’s Victoria Peak neighborhood. When his father decamped to Canberra, Australia, in 1960 for a job at the American embassy there, where his mother was soon to join him, Jackie remained behind. As he was thought to be a hyperactive troublemaker in need of structure, his parents had enrolled the boy in the China Drama Academy (CDA), a boarding school that trained students in singing, tumbling, dancing, and kung fu, preparing them for careers in Beijing opera.
For ten years, Chan was at the school, practicing scissor kicks and somersaults and stagecraft from five in the morning to eleven at night. Life at the CDA was hard, and disciplinary canings were not infrequent, but this relentless drilling provided Chan with the foundation of his career to come, not only in the total body control that he developed but in the lasting bonds he formed with his fellow top students, a group that later became known as the Lucky Seven. One of those seven, Yuen Lung, later Sammo Hung, dropped out of school after he stopped getting leads, having gained a drastic amount of weight while bedridden with a broken leg, and parlayed his skills in kung-fu choreography into work in the burgeoning Hong Kong action-movie industry, allowing his old schoolmates to follow suit.
Chan was one of those who came along, spending several years floating on the periphery of the martial-arts movie business, taking his lumps as a stuntman, actor, fight coordinator, and whatever else was on offer, early on making a specialty of playing dead in background shots. He appears briefly in Enter the Dragon (1973), having his neck snapped by Bruce Lee. It was only after teaming with independent producer Ng See-yuen that he found his own voice, beginning to articulate the style of antic comic kung fu that distinguished him from the rank and file of brooding badasses, and gave him his first verifiable hits with Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow and Drunken Master (both 1978). Whereas Lee epitomized grace under pressure, controlling the pace of his fights like a bandleader, Chan would define himself as an improvising scrambler, thinking on his backpedaling feet, warding off blows and making weapons out of whatever everyday objects he happened to scoop up along the way. Audiences ate it up, and we still do. By his midtwenties, Chan was finally a star, and he would never again have to play a background corpse.
A star in Hong Kong, that is. In the late seventies, almost as soon as he had solidified his popularity at home, he fixed his sights on conquering America, too, as Lee had done. His early efforts in that direction—The Big Brawl (1980, a teaming with Enter the Dragon director Robert Clouse); a comic-relief role in the Hal Needham–directed Burt Reynolds vehicle The Cannonball Run (1981)—were commercial and creative disappointments, and Chan, used to the atmosphere of fluid on-location improvisation typical of his Hong Kong shoots, bridled in particular at the lack of opportunities to riff.
“The basic plot materials of Police Story may be indebted to the American cop opera, but it’s evident right away in the film’s reckless, ricocheting action that this is Hong Kong, not Hollywood.”
“The more you watch it, the more you come to appreciate how much of Police Story 2 relies on total trust between the performer and his team.”
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