ons of ink and digital pixels have been spilled talking about how Jackie Chan risks his life to please his audiences, and for good reason. Are his stunts amazing? Yes. Without question. But whenever anyone talks or write about Jackie, all they focus on is the action. This is a huge disservice to the man. What is missing in the conversation is Jackie Chan’s immense talent and ability as a filmmaker, a director, an auteur. That’s right. Auteur. The snooty French auteur theory talks about how even in a collaborative medium such as film, a singular voice can influence and imprint a movie with their vision and style. In Police Story I & II, Jackie Chan was the director, co-writer, star and stunt coordinator.
How better to define singular vision and influence on a picture?
Prior to Police Story, cop movies had degenerated from intense thrillers and dramas such as The French Connection and Serpico into hackneyed procedurals that resembled something on television, only with bigger budgets, movie stars and excessive macho posturing. The genre had become so worn out that the only way to make a cop film stand out was to combine it with another genre like comedy (e.g., Beverly Hills Cop). Enter Jackie Chan.
Even as he became the biggest star in Hong Kong, Jackie had always seen Hollywood as the pinnacle of movie making. For good reason: No one made movies better than Hollywood. However, after his second attempt to break into Hollywood on the James Glickenhaus movie The Protector, Hollywood had lost a little of its luster for Jackie. On the set of this dull cop film, Jackie realized that American directors had no idea how to shoot action. To make matters worse, the non-action bits, aka the story, was pedestrian and flat. Jackie knew he could do better. So he did.
Jackie realized that he could make his movie stand out by grounding the action in realism. Instead of the tough-guy macho posturing of Hollywood action stars, Jackie created an everyman character who could get hurt and even be scared and humiliated. His character wasn’t always right, but he always did the right thing. This made Jackie’s character relatable to the audience, and it had the effect of making his amazing feats of action even more astonishing. This wasn’t an ex-Navy Seal or Special Forces soldier hanging off the side of a bus with an umbrella, this was you and me.
It’s easy to focus on Jackie’s stunts and amazing action sequences and miss all the hard work and craft that goes into making them. Jackie’s camerawork is not flashy like American directors. It is better than that: It is effective. The camera does not move around unmotivated. Instead it is always in the right place at the right time with one goal in mind: clarity. This makes the action more believable, as it allows the audience to see everything to create the illusion that what you see is really happening and there are no tricks. Except there are. There are wire pulls, hidden pads, impact powder and other tricks of the stunt trade used to make the action more exciting hidden in plain sight by the illusion of reality created by the director, Jackie Chan.
Another technique that Jackie Chan uses to control the ride on which he takes his audience is editing and pacing. Jackie designs his action and edits his film so that his action sequences are fast and frantic. Take the finale of Police Story, which many people affectionately call “Glass Story” for the seemingly endless panes of glass that Jackie and his team break, or the playground fight sequence in Police Story II. As soon as Jackie dispatches one assailant, another joins the attack. This fighting frenzy flows at a rapid pace one right after the other, creating excitement with its machine-gun pace and never giving Jackie a break or letting the audience catch its breath. But this, too, is an illusion. What Jackie, the filmmaker, has done is edited in a moment that showcases a stunt or painful fall. It works like this: FIGHT FIGHT FIGHT FIGHT BIG FALL/REACTION! FIGHT FIGHT FIGHT BIG STUNT. In the glass mall sequence, you’ll see Jackie fight with multiple assailants before a bad guy hits Jackie with a briefcase and sends him face first into a pane of glass.
The shot, a static close-up of Jackie’s face as it hits and breaks the glass, makes the audience flinch and grimace at the pain of the stunt. Ouch! Then the action resumes. That ouch is where Jackie hides the breath he gives his audience, and, because the breath is hidden, it creates the illusion that the action is non-stop and frenetic. This is something that most Hollywood filmmakers have yet to master. Think of most contemporary action films or superhero films. The action is quick and non-stop, but it is not memorable. This is because most Hollywood editors fail to give its audience a chance to catch its breath. The next action beat begins before the audience can digest what they have just seen and as a result, the audience walks away remembering nothing. The movie might have been exciting in the moment, the thrill driven by the sound and quick editing, but like bad Chinese food, it’s gone in an hour leaving you empty.
But let’s look past the action for a moment and look at the rest of the filmmaking. Tone is one of the hardest things to balance in filmmaking. It is difficult to find the line between heightened and over the top. Hit the wrong note and you’ll ruin everything when you mix genres. In the Police Story movies, Jackie is able to mix in physical comedy with drama and action and he is able to do so by getting you to care about the characters and their situation. That is how he can include a show-stopping comedy of errors involving mixed-up phone lines at the police station in Police Story or have a scene where Jackie takes a cake or pie to the face three times.
Jackie Chan’s use of physical comedy is well-documented; many people have drawn parallels between Jackie Chan and Buster Keaton or Harold Lloyd. What I want to do now is draw the parallels between Jackie Chan and Alfred Hitchcock or William Friedkin. For this, I’ll turn to three sequences in Police Story II. The first involves a bomb threat at a shopping mall. Jackie’s character helps evacuate the shopping mall so that everyone is safe. When the police show up, there is debate among the cops on whether or not the bomb threat is real. Jackie’s character sees a little boy drop a red ball that bounces in slow motion into the mall until it is stopped by an ice cream vendor freezer. Still in slow motion, Jackie’s character retrieves the ball and leaves. Without a single word of dialogue or showing us the bomb, Jackie has created suspense and shown us the bomb threat is real. There’s a second bomb threat in the movie, and Jackie ups the suspense quotient. This time, the bomb is hidden in a vase of flowers that has been delivered to an office building. The bad guys have warned that a bomb will go off at noon. Without showing you a bomb, Jackie lets you know the bomb is the flowers. He builds the suspense cutting between the police searching people’s bags, the clock and the vase of flowers on the desk of the unsuspecting secretary. Then the clock reaches noon. Nothing. The police let out a sigh of relief. Maybe it was a bluff. Cut to the secretary. She notices a card on the vase of flowers. She reaches for it. Oh no. Boom. This is textbook Hitchcock. The last sequence that I would like to single out is the one where Jackie and the police tail a suspect who tries to lose them. It’s a cat-and-mouse sequence the equal of something from a Friedkin movie, and it’s masterful how Jackie is able to create this sequence visually almost without dialogue.
If you haven’t seen Jackie Chan’s Police Story or Police Story II, run don’t walk. These two movies are both entertaining and masterclasses in filmmaking. Plus, there’s some pretty OK stunt work in them too. You don’t have to take my word for it. Criterion, the highbrow arbiter of important cinema or at the very least a distributor of quality DVDs and Blu-ray, has released a Blu-ray set with both films. These are important works that have influenced movies around the world with its perfect synthesis of Eastern and Western filmmaking. Without Police Story and Police Story II, there’s no John Wick, no Mission: Impossible. They’re the best 1980s cop movies you’ve never seen.
Jimmy Lui is a writer, director and stunt coordinator. Complaints about his opinions or writings can be addressed to your mother.