Police Story and Police Story 2: Law and Disorder

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.”

He nevertheless brought things back from his American expedition. Needham had begun, with 1978’s Hooper, ending his films with blooper reels, a send-off that left audiences with a feeling of having almost participated in the on-set camaraderie. When Chan borrowed the idea—every one of his films after Dragon Lord (1982) would include outtakes of flubbed lines and performers, usually Chan himself, wincing in agony following a stunt gone awry—he helped cement his intimate, jovial relationship with his public. During this period, Chan also began to think beyond the tropes of the traditional kung-fu movie, key to this being his development of a close, three-decade-plus collaboration with screenwriter Edward Tang, with whom he first worked on The Young Master (1980). Chan and Tang looked to Hollywood for both challenges and inspirations, with Chan citing Steven Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) as a spur to the creation of the nineteenth-century marine-police-vs.-pirates blockbuster Project A (1983), a movie that showed Chan’s new dedication to life-and-limb-risking set-piece stunts. It’s unknown whether Tang played a role in introducing Chan to American silent-film comics, but certainly their films together are the first of the star’s to overtly show this influence—with homages to Harold Lloyd’s heart-stopping Safety Last! clockface dangle in Project A and Buster Keaton’s Steamboat Bill, Jr. falling-housefront gag in Project A Part II (1987).

It was after an unhappy experience on The Protector (1985), a New York–to–Hong Kong actioner directed by James Glickenhaus, and cowritten by Glickenhaus and Tang, that Chan and his favorite writer struck on the idea of making their own kind of cop movie. Chan felt himself miscast as “a tough guy in the mold of Clint Eastwood,” and with a mind to creating a custom-fit job for Chan’s persona, the two set to work in their usual arrangement, with Chan conjuring up the set pieces and Tang providing the connective plot tissue that would get them from one brush with death to the next.

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 movie begins with one of Jackie’s most highlight-reel-anthologized sequences, a blown sting operation in one of the hillside shantytowns that at that time dotted the outskirts of the notoriously overcrowded city—opening here and concluding as it does in the glass-and-chrome mallscape, the film offers a portrait of Hong Kong as a city of wild contrasts, of penthouses and poverty. When the cops are spotted by their gangster prey, a gunfight erupts, leading to a pursuit in which Jackie and his quarries level the village while slaloming through it in speeding vehicles, totaled and abandoned for a double-decker bus off of which our hero valiantly dangles by the hook of an umbrella. The conveyance is finally brought to a screeching halt when he cuts it off at the pass following a breakneck run down a nearly sheer downhill plunge, the crooks punching through the windshields to drop neatly at his feet in a sight gag that might’ve sprung straight from the drawing board of Tex Avery.

Chan is playing Chan Ka-kui—Kevin Chan in the English-language version—a detective entrusted with protecting a reticent key witness, Salina Fong (Brigitte Lin), so that she may testify in the case being assembled against her employer, the crime boss Chu (Chor Yuen). While doing so, Ka-kui must deal with uncomprehending, interfering supervisors (Bill Tung and Lam Kwok-hung, lending spirit to stock roles), as well as placate his much put-upon girlfriend, May. In that part is Maggie Cheung—a young woman with a cosmopolitan background who’d been first runner-up in the 1983 Miss Hong Kong pageant, and who would become perhaps the greatest Chinese actress of her generation—gamely suffering innumerable humiliations and painful pratfalls, and delivering in turn a few cakes to the face of her inconsiderate lover.

Released in December of 1985, Police Story was a hit in Hong Kong, Korea, and Japan, where Chan had steadily been building his following even as America continually rebuffed him—when the movie played at the New York Film Festival in 1987, New York Times critic Vincent Canby, insensate to what was on the screen in front of him, sniffed that it was “of principal interest as a souvenir of another culture.” Regardless, Police Story was a substantial enough success that a sequel soon followed, these two films becoming the foundation of a franchise that to date has produced two further direct sequels, two reboots, and one spin-off.

Success had by the mideighties become a habit with Chan, who was sprouting franchises left and right—the three Lucky Stars films with his old CDA classmates Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao, along with the sequel-spawning Armour of God and Project A. It was in 1988 that Police Story 2 arrived, into a local market that had recently seen huge success for “heroic bloodshed” films like John Woo’s A Better Tomorrow and Ringo Lam’s City on Fire—high-strung, violent, anguished movies that Chan was too wise to his more playful appeal to try to imitate. Often overlooked in comparison with the splashier entries in the series that bookend it—Police Story 3: Super Cop (1992), directed by Stanley Tong, features particularly fearless stunt work from both Chan, who dangles from a helicopter over Kuala Lumpur, and his costar Michelle Yeoh—Police Story 2 is admittedly a different animal from its predecessor but no less exhilarating a film, paying closer attention to the police-procedural elements and, in tone, splitting the difference between the steadfast silliness of the first Police Story and Jackie’s later, more straightforwardly dramatic genre exercises, like Kirk Wong’s 1993 Crime Story. 

Most of the personnel from the first movie return, with additional screen time given to Chu’s right-hand man, played by Charlie Cho, a wild overactor who treats scenery like an all-you-can-eat buffet. Joining the force are a special surveillance unit in Miami Vice–like togs, including a trio of female cops who deliver an interrogation-room beatdown staged like a modern-dance piece. Their presence leads to a greater emphasis on trailing technique and police technology and, consequently, to a slight cutting back on comic digressions, with even Chan’s mugging somewhat toned down—though should you fear that he’s gotten respectable since the cake-smashing first film, there is an extensive subplot in which one of his supervisors struggles with gas and diarrhea. 

“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.”

Unlike the original, Police Story 2 doesn’t start out with a bang—it’s a more measured, parceled-out affair, with each set piece a little bigger and wilder than the one before it, a short donnybrook in a restaurant followed in due course by a swashbuckling clash in a city park that pits Chan against a whole gang swinging steel bars, everything leading toward grand-finale fireworks in an abandoned factory that’s acting as headquarters for a gang of mad bombers who’ve been terrorizing the city, a sequence that seems to nod to contemporary platformer video games, replete as it is with Donkey Kong–style barrel tossing, and one that gives Ka-kui his most formidable opponent to date, a bomb-tossing, mute villain played by longtime Stunt Team member Benny Lai. Throughout, Chan and the Sing Ga Ban display a total disdain for the simple knockdown flop. If somebody’s going to drop, they’re not just going to fall; better to go into a backflip ending in a face-plant or a spinning-top pirouette; best to hit something, hard, on the way down: a vase, a table, a pane of plate glass, some jungle-gym equipment, an industrial chute hopper, whatever’s handy and looks like it hurts, bad. 

The more you watch it, the more you come to appreciate how much of Police Story 2, like most any Chan production of the period, relies on total trust between the performer and his team, on crack timing that requires multiple actors to hit multiple marks with synchronized, clockwork precision. In one scene, Chan leaps to bank himself off the wall of a dead-end alleyway a split second before a speeding car rams into it, and lands on the hood of the vehicle. These are potentially femur-fracturing stunts that don’t lend themselves to multiple takes, or a single flub. 

Of course, not everything came off without a hitch, as the blooper reel testifies: Chan is seen gouged and shaken up after jumping through a real glass sign instead of the proper breakaway pane, while Cheung sits in a daze, blouse spotted with blood, after being knocked down while running through a corridor of heavy metal racks that fall forward like dominoes. But ars longa, vita brevis! Sundered flesh and broken bones are passing pains, while cinema lasts forever—so relish these twin monuments of Hong Kong filmmaking in its golden age, consecrated by the pain of their heroic performers.