Jackie Chan began his career as a leading man after being plucked up by Hong Kong producers to serve as a Bruce Lee-alike following the icon’s untimely death in 1976. But Chan quickly transcended mimicry to become an action-comedy pioneer capable of shattering Lee’s box-office records. By 1985 Chan was the most famous actor in the Pacific Rim, but still a nobody in Hollywood.
In an attempt to break through to US audiences, Chan played NYPD officer Billy Wong in James Glickenhaus’s The Protector (1985), a quintessentially Western-minded action film complete with swearing, female nudity and Danny Aiello. By all accounts, Chan was dismayed with the picture’s raunch and disappointed in its sloppy direction and overwrought editing, so much so that he walked off set, and returned only out of contractual obligation.
After this unpleasant affair, Chan was determined to design a cop movie of his own. Before the year was out, with the help of writing partner Edward Tang and Golden Harvest co-founder Leonard Ho, he had written, directed, choreographed and starred in Police Story.
Police Story (1985) casts a 31-year-old Chan as Hong Kong Police Inspector Chan Ka-kui — Kevin Chan in the later released English-language versions — a rambunctious young cop with little regard for the rulebook. Despite much bureaucratic bother from Superintendent Raymond Li (Lam Kwok-hung) and Inspector “Uncle” Bill Wong (beloved horse racing broadcaster Bill Tung), Chan earns local hero status and a side gig as model officer for the department. Soon he is tasked with closely protecting the female key witness for a trial that could upend a criminal empire, much to the chagrin of both Chan’s girlfriend May (a fresh-faced Maggie Cheung) and said criminals.
The resulting film is perfect. It should be printed on gilded celluloid and blasted into outer space for the aliens to see, as it packs into 101 minutes the finest imaginable display of how man can move, bend and not break; the effects of a few dozen pounds of dynamite and a couple of cheap cars on a sheet metal shantytown; the best face-caking choreography, sugar glass shattering, and the destruction of vast quantities of commercial displays. Chan moves through his surroundings with neurotic, breakneck speed and skill, like a black belt Buster Keaton. He dispatches roomfuls of bad guys using whatever’s around, and in doing so he takes just as many hits as they do: the difference is that Chan always manages to get back on his feet.
The film builds up to an eight-minute climactic romp through Hong Kong’s Wing On Plaza shopping mall that culminates in Chan’s leap from a slick metal stair rail onto a string-lit five-story fire pole, which he then slides down and falls from through a sheet glass roof and into a wooden salesman’s stall before jumping back to his feet and continuing the fight. This ultimate stunt is so unbelievable that it is shown thrice and from three different angles, so that you must, and will, believe it.
The mall sequence ends with Chan — drenched in what may well be his actual blood, sweat and tears — stopping the villains Chu Tao and John Ko in their tracks, as the endangered key witness tells what she knows, publicly exposing their wrongdoings. But just as Tao and Ko are apprehended, their lawyer shows up and begins to assail Chan’s police work.
“You are not above the law,” he tells Chan, who vibrates with rage. “On behalf of my client I’m going to sue you. This is a miscarriage of justice, disturbance of peace. Get ready for jail.” The bad guys begin to cackle, knowing their bad guy funds will prevent them from facing serious prosecution. So Chan shatters the one minor bad guy’s glasses, then buckles the lawyer over with a gut punch before uppercutting him into a display rack of dolls, and then ruins the other bad guy’s intestines with a torrent of fists before kicking him into a shopping cart and sending that into a sharp pile of metal and glass. That’s it. End of film.
And straight into the high-BPM, brass-heavy theme song, closing credits and behind-the-scenes gag reel, which showcases some goofy line flubs and B-roll, as well as the ritualistic send-off of several incapacitated members of the Jackie Chan Stunt Team as they writhe in agony on hospital stretchers.
It’s easy to imagine for Police Story a cautious conclusion wherein Chan locks up the bad guys and walks away unsatisfied as the cell doors shut, but that’s not the Hong Kong way. The driving, populist impulse that powers the film through to its whirlwind finale teaches that an unbalanced scale can’t be trusted to weigh out real justice. For Chan, real justice is instead palpable, not abstract, and a matter of exhausting personal responsibility.
In a 1998 interview with John Little, Chan said, “I always tell the actors and actresses in Hong Kong, ‘We have a responsibility to do something positive for society. We should show bad things on screen as little as possible, because we are the role models. Everybody watches us.’” He’s always understood his line of work to be didactic, and as a result, his onscreen characters operate from a place of real-world moral urgency.
Shortly after the film’s release, life began to imitate art, and vice versa. Chan granted the real Royal Hong Kong Police Force rights to use the iconic Police Story theme song in recruitment ads. He also began serving Hong Kong as model officer Chan both onscreen and off, as a spokesman for the local AIDS Concern charity, the tourist ambassador for Hong Kong, and the unofficial “Big Brother” of everyone in the colony.
“Everybody knows I’m from Hong Kong,” he told Little. “I help the Hong Kong film industry and try to always do good things. Then, after that, I go off and make my own movies.”
Police Story 2 (1988) picks up right where the original leaves off. Chan has been relegated to patrolling traffic, a demotion to less dangerous work that’s much appreciated by his doting girlfriend May. However, he soon finds out that his foes have been granted an early release from jail, due to the medical discovery of Chu Tao’s impending death. Tao vows to torture Chan and May in the three months he has left to live; meanwhile, a mysterious group of stochastic terrorists armed with explosives have begun to target Hong Kong businesses.
A good portion of the film takes place in a control room, from which Chan relays instructions to boots on the ground while watching blips move on an LED radar array. Elements of espionage are brought into play: conference rooms are bugged, important dialogue is relayed during intense phone calls, long-lens cameras are used during lengthy stakeouts. Who is bombing the city?—both the police work and the relationship dynamics are given urgency and depth by the high stakes of the emergency. The sequel proves to be a slower-paced, relatively more authentic Police Story.
Where the first film played Chan’s miscommunications with May to a comedic end, here their relationship is more emotionally charged. May is truly hurt, not just histrionically wound-up, and when she becomes the object of Chu Tao’s harassment, and the bomb threats more serious, the dark grows darker still. Late in the film, Chan and May are held hostage by the terrorists, and as they wait to be tortured, a henchman begins to mockingly read from a break-up letter written by May, which she’d been unable to deliver to Chan. The reading itself becomes the torture, and instead of wide shots that show any groin hits or spine-cracking stunt falls, the pain is entirely depicted in medium close-ups of Chan and Cheung crying out for each other.
There are plenty of jokes, which ensure the film never gets too grim. During one early lovers’ quarrel, Chan flees into a men’s locker room to escape May’s scolding, but she continues to follow him inside, sending the showerers into a frenzy; Uncle Bill is in constant need of the bathroom as a running gag; and bureaucratic reprimands are laundered into compliments with Bugs Bunny-esque guile when favors are needed. As a result, this movie produces a far more intense tonal sine wave than the original. The action, though less frequent, doesn’t waver. It starts small, with Chan easily handling a small batch of henchmen in a restaurant, and slowly ramps up until he’s taking on a playground full of pole-fighters, and chasing a deaf, squeaky pyromaniac through a booby-trapped warehouse maze.
Chan’s chaos-inducing overprotection of May here calls to mind a passage from his 2019 autobiography Never Grow Up — an endearing though PR-sanitized memoir in which the aged star fondly recalls an adolescence defined by incessant corporal punishment , and in which he remembers his first “girlfriend”. Chan grew up in the French Consulate of Hong Kong, where his father worked as a chef, and he attended school as an out-of-place “poor Chinese” surrounded by “rich kids, many of them foreign ambassadors’ children.” When the French ambassador’s daughter Sophie began calling Chan “boyfriend,” he understood himself to suddenly be in the position of protector, and so he would mercilessly rough up anyone who dared cross her. Most of the kids at school were those of other ambassadors, and so almost always, Chan’s defending of his precious Sophie would later necessitate a vicious whooping and a night’s confinement to “the trash shed” from his father, whose job depended on the ambassadors’ favor.
Police Story 2 is a serviceable follow-up, but it opts for calculated conflict rather than explosive anger, and so feels less raw, and more meticulously structured for widespread success. The blooper reel, bloodier than the first, still serves to remind us how much passion and risk go into the making of an action film in which the actors are actually not pulling their punches, in contrast with Western pictures of the time. Watching Maggie Cheung bleed from the head due to bad stunt timing is enough to make these actors’ work look like self-sacrificial public service.
Less than a minute into Police Story 3: Super Cop (1992), the head of Interpol tells the Hong Kong Chief of Police, “What we need is a super cop!” and Chan rolls into headquarters decked out in denim, immediately signaling that this film is far more squarely aimed at Western audiences than its predecessors had been. Soon Chan links up with Interpol Chief Inspector Yang (Michelle Yeoh) in Guangzhou to goes undercover and infiltrate a mighty Hong Kong-based drug smuggling cartel run by a man named Chaibat (Ken Tsang). After an initial period of gawking at his new partner and half-assedly memorizing a cover story, Chan sets out with Yang on a globetrotting adventure across Thailand, Malaysia and Australia to earn Chaibat’s trust so that he can take down the organization from the inside.
The whole thing reeks of Bond, which comes as no surprise, since the Hong Kong film industry fell harder for Bondmania than any other national cinema. The taste for exotic scenery, high-tech gadgetry and supervillainous foes has lingered for decades, enough to turn everyman cop Chan into a globetrotting intelligence asset. As Chan’s assigned type-A companion, Inspector Yang has to pick up his slack and keep the brass updated. Fights that in other films would’ve continued for minutes are here cut short by gunfire. Chaibat dresses like Dr. No and traps Yang in a bomb vest for use as a bargaining chip in an international roundtable opium auction. Both double agents try to avoid participating in criminal activity, but ultimately have to walk a fine line or else risk blowing their cover.
That being said, Chan is certainly one of the better 007s, and there are sufficient traces of the original Police Story’s rambunctiousness, pacing and vulgar humor to qualify the film as a worthy franchise entry. Chan’s constant stumbling to maintain his assumed identity proves particularly fruitful for laughs, especially once “Uncle” Bill shows up in disguise to act as his mother. Misleading interactions with May are again treated with levity in a walking-back of the seriousness given to the relationship in the second film: at one point, May bumps into him and his marks in Malaysia, oblivious to his deep cover and convinced that he’s cheating; Chan resorts to treating her like a belligerent prostitute in order to throw the bad guys off the scent. Chaibat is comically unhinged, and the series’ most memorable villain yet: he is first seen diabolically playing Tetris in his seaside drug lair, cackling as he instructs his men to stuff an overdosed woman’s corpse full of cocaine for smuggling.
Yeoh’s take-no-shit demeanor plays well against Chan’s frantically improvisational fighting style, and as a result, all of the hand-to-hand that does happen is doubly dynamic and engrossing. Yeoh does so well by Chan that she landed her own spin-off film, returning as Yang in Once a Cop (1993) to further show off her leading lady action abilities, which would later earn her the role of bonafide Bond girl Wai Lin in Tomorrow Never Dies (1997). More importantly, this film climaxes not with a series of white elephant explosions, but an awe-inspiring ten-minute set piece in which Chan and Yang chase Chaibat and his henchmen across Kuala Lumpur. Eventually Chan is swinging from the bottom rung of a rope ladder hanging low from Chaibat’s helicopter, swooping over the city at full speed. Yang hijacks a dirt bike and trails the chopper, before Evil Knieviling it off a dirt mound ramp and onto a moving train, upon which the helicopter has landed. Both stunts are documented in long, slow, steady wide shots that frame the action with realness and weight. Atop the train, Chan and Yang contend with spinning helicopter blades and bridge clearance overhangs before dispatching Chaibat and his gang, sparing only Chaibat’s wife.
As the three survivors sit atop the train exhausted, Chaibat’s wife coughs up the code to the Swiss bank account full of stolen Chinese money, hoping the duo will pocket the untraceable loot for themselves and cut her free. “Thanks, but we can’t have it,” says Chan. “It belongs to the Hong Kong government.” “No,” Yang interjects, “it belongs to the people of China.” “Let Hong Kong keep it for now,” Chan responds. “After 1997 we’re also Chinese, and it will be yours too.” A helicopter shot follows Chan’s train car at a distance for several seconds as an ominous song creeps in, before a fade into the laugh-filled gag reel.
This is the first mention of the Hong Kong handover in the Police Story series, and one can easily imagine that for Hong Kongers in the audience, it would’ve provided an instant comedown from the adrenaline shot of the film’s climax. The impending end of the United Kingdom’s administration over the colony was only five years out, and for many residents, cast a looming shadow over their political future.
American audiences wouldn’t see the film until the Dimension Films theatrical release in 1996. Even so, this closing quip might have gone unnoticed, as Tom Jones’s rendition of “Kung Fu Fighting” came blaring in over the outtakes.
The US release of the film as Supercop hit theaters just after Chan’s first successful entry into the US market with Rumble in the Bronx (1995) and immediately before the completion of Police Story 4: First Strike (1996) and Rush Hour (1998), the blockbuster hit that would make him as famous in the States as he was back home. Supercop included some heavy re-soundtracking — a DEVO cover of Nine Inch Nails’ “Head Like a Hole,” an oddly cold techno rendition of the Bee Gees’ “Stayin’ Alive,” and the last single Tupac would release before his death — as well as the removal of some drug content, and a scene where Yang attempts to teach Chan more about the mainland. It’s clear in Supercop that Chan had begun a concerted effort to look west.
Police Story 4: First Strike (1996) really is a Bond film. Chan’s Inspector “Kevin” Chan Ka-kui no longer resembles anything even close to the reckless young cop who didn’t play by the rules: he’s now a veritable super spy. First Strike is the first Police Story film to not include Edward Tang amongst the credited screenwriters. May has disappeared, and there’s scarcely a mention of Hong Kong.
The film opens up with an obvious rip of Monty Norman’s “James Bond Theme,” and Chan briefing the CIA on an upcoming nuclear arms deal that must be stopped. The first action sequence is a direct reprise of A View to Kill’s (1985) ski slope chase. Ukraine, Russia, China, the USA and a woman named Natasha are all implicated in a cosmopolitan scheme to sell launch codes to the mafia, or something along those lines. There are double and triple agents. At one point, Chan is given a hi-tech tracking device gun by a “Q” of sorts, and he remarks, “Now I’m 007!”
The film’s plot, which ticks every box technically belonging to the Broccolis, is not particularly memorable, but it has its moments. One of the best fights of the franchise occurs when Chan fends off a half-dozen assailants with a folding ladder, a card table and some scaffolding. He dangles from a helicopter side rail before falling a hundred feet, through thin ice and into freezing waters. First Strike also contains some series lows; the actual film form has changed to help mask stunt performances. The ski chase presents some slapstick opportunities while Chan’s still getting his bearings, but obfuscated long shots of downhill feats call into question whether or not it’s really Chan performing, for the first time in the series. And the film’s climactic underwater fight slows things to a near halt. It ends in a vignetted group shot of the Jackie Chan Stunt Team, all holding up peace signs.
This is Chan’s last film before the Hong Kong handover. It was a tremendous success in Hong Kong: Chan’s highest-grossing film to date, and the third biggest domestic picture ever. It fared well in the States too.
On the night of June 30th, 1997, Chan was in Hollywood, busy working on Brett Ratner’s Rush Hour (1998) alongside beloved Def Jammer Chris Tucker. He commented later on the handover, expressing disappointment in his fellow Hong Kongers’ lack of patriotism, and revealing a certain unwillingness to identify with the people’s discontents:
Why were we Chinese scared when China took back Hong Kong? You’d think that we should be happy. But then everybody was scared. “We don’t like China,” they’d say. Why? Everybody immigrated to Canada and America — why? Maybe I’m too idealistic. I realize that there are no perfect things, but I would like things to be perfect. I want everybody to be, like, “We’re Chinese, we have a good government.” I know it’s difficult. Everybody in China and Hong Kong was going on about the government. I said, “Do something for the Chinese government. Do something for your government. Don’t always tell the government, ‘Do something for me!’ You sit there, you throw your rubbish on the floor, you throw your cigarettes on the floor, you’re the ones who have screwed up everything — you’re not helping your country.”
After Rush Hour propelled him to worldwide recognizability, Chan made himself at home in a far more hospitable Hollywood. He found continued success on the top of the bill as “Chon Wang” in Shanghai Noon (2000), an “eastern western” co-starring Owen Wilson; The Tuxedo (2002), a spy spoof featuring Jennifer Love-Hewitt, and assorted sequels. But Chan grew bored playing sameish roles for American studios, and instead longed to use his newfound global fame in order to make more widely seen and respected Chinese films, telling Little, “I stay in Hong Kong because I have to give the people confidence. And I help my country so that it can become the best country.” So in 2004, despite his success in the States and political uncertainty in Hong Kong, Chan decided to go back home.
New Police Story (2004) wouldn’t star a rebellious, lovable, wild-at-heart people’s hero. There would be no death-defying stunts or fight sequences showcasing unbelievable energy and talent; no moments of levity or tension; not even any globetrotting gun battles. Instead, Chan plays the deadly serious Chan Kwok-wing, who is introduced in a montage of drunken street-roaming collapses before a flashback reveals that he was once a valiant police inspector. In the flashback, Inspector Chan is disguised as a cable news cameraman pretending to interview a madman holding a young girl hostage, so that he may get close and intervene. After Chan frees the girl, the man pulls out and de-pins a hand grenade. Chan wrestles it away and dunk its into a storm drain just milliseconds before it explodes, producing the first ever computer-generated effect in a Police Story film.
In Police Story 2, when a man carrying a briefcase discovers that it is full of explosives only when it blows up in his hand, you can tell that it’s truly happening. It’s absolutely terrifying: the bag glows before blowing its own hinges off as the leather nearly disintegrates along with the stuntman’s hand. Just as it bursts into flames, the film cuts to show the man’s whole environment exploding in quick succession. There’s a daring practical effect, and then a second to emphasize the scale of the first. Hardly any movie magic is necessary to tie the two together. Chan has clung for dear life from moving helicopter ropes, plunged hundreds of feet into freezing water, and let his crotch be pelted with firecrackers. Did New Police Story really require a contained cherry bomb blast to be digitally rendered?
This gritty reboot is doomed from the jump. The villains are a troupe of clown-masked BMX/computer punks named “The Cop Haters,” who develop a twisted method for turning crime into a game. An extended flashback shows Chan and his team take on The Cop Haters in their evil lair, where they picked off officers one at a time using various SAW-style torture traps and dangerous cyber puzzles, leaving only Chan behind. Wracked with survivor’s guilt, he takes a break from the force to drink his pain away, until a mysterious rookie Inspector (Nicholas Tse) helps get him back on his feet to solve the case.
Ultimately, it’s revealed that the main Cop Hater is the son of the wealthy, corrupt and seriously abusive Chief of Police. During a climactic standoff, Chan tells him, “You don’t hate the police! You hate your father! And yourself.” Totally burned by this, the young scoundrel turns with an unloaded weapon toward an approaching fleet of officers, and commits suicide by cop in front of his father. After closing the case, Chan finally proposes to his longtime girlfriend with the help of a massive a capella cop choir. A side character remarks, “when I get engaged, I want even more cops.” Also, it turns out that Chan’s mysterious rookie partner wanted to help him get his life back on track because when he was a boy, Inspector Chan had saved him from a life of crime and made him want to become a cop after his thieving father was killed. There’s not a single joke in the film.
Chan, now 50 years old, still does his own stunts: he rappels down a wall in pursuit of an X-Games hacker as a rip of the Mission: Impossible (1996) theme song plays; he jumps off a highway overpass onto a streetlight, and from there onto a moving bus where he kicks off of a wall and crashes through the window. The final fight takes place in a huge LEGO store, and ends with Chan saving his partner in a gravity-defying display of rope skills. Indeed, Chan’s rope skills are literally gravity-defying: it’s clear throughout many of the more demanding stunt sequences that he’s on a wire. When he’s not, the action is shot differently. He really does jump from an overpass to a bus, off a wall, and through a window. However, this isn’t shown with any breathing room; it’s a flurry of takes all spliced together, a series of small stunts made to look larger with the help of frenzied cuts. Chan performs in all his old glory, but in a visually incoherent way that isn’t easy to digest. Other CGI shots superimpose people into places they’re clearly not, and dated motion-ramping techniques sometimes make the practical effects look fake. Most of the bloopers show Chan dangling above the ground in a harness, clearly uncomfortable and unattended to, just over the heads of preoccupied Jackie Chan Stunt Team members prepping to pull him.
New Police Story was the first film released by JCE Movies Limited, Chan’s new film production and distribution company.It was Chan’s last franchise entry for nearly a decade, during which he would star in a slew of Hong Kong hits and successful American ventures, but also shift focus to become primarily a businessman. He launched Jackie Chan Design, a clothing line; Jackie Chan Theater International, a Chinese cinema chain; Jackie’s Kitchen, a pan-asian sushi restaurant chain; Jackie Chan Signature Club, a gym franchise. He also serves on the boards of several Hong Kong companies and offshore firms. By 2009, he was the wealthiest entertainer in China.
That same year, he made notorious political waves when, at a forum in Hainan attended by the Chinese prime minister, he would call into question the necessity of some major Hong Kong liberties. “I’m not sure if it is good to have freedom or not,” he said. “I’m really confused now. If you are too free, you are like the way Hong Kong is now. It’s very chaotic […] I’m gradually beginning to feel that we Chinese need to be controlled. If we are not being controlled, we’ll just do what we want.” He received rapturous applause from the mainland audience.
In 2013, Chan “officially [became] a member of the Chinese political establishment as a national-level delegate of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, one of the country’s top political advisory bodies,” according to the Hollywood Reporter. This year also saw the ribbon-cutting of the massive Jackie Chan Film Museum in Shanghai, and the release of the sixth and likely final Police Story film.
Before the release of Police Story: Lockdown — a darker and even more humorless reboot than the last — Chan posted on Weibo, saying, “I’ve played policemen many times before, but I’ve never shot a film which focused on the life of a mainland policeman. So this time, I get the chance to fulfill this kind of role.” The opening shot of the film shows a 59-year-old Chan as Detective Zhong Wen, putting a gun to his head and pulling the trigger, before a flashback places him on a grimy Beijing street surrounded by misbehaving goth kids. He’s texting, and he looks bad at it. He’s on the way to meet up with his estranged daughter Miao Miao (Jing Tian) at Wu Bar, a grungy nightclub, in order to make amends. But instead, Chan ends up in the middle of a one-night siege in the venue, part of a mysterious criminal plot orchestrated by Miao’s new boyfriend, Wu Jiang (Liu Ye).
Only about halfway into the film — after an hour of dimly-lit, action-free conversation — does it become clear that we’re in for a single-location whodunnit rather than a high-octane action comedy. All the hostages in the bar, it turns out, were witnesses to a decade-old murder, and they have been trapped in order that Jiang, who was also the boyfriend of the long-ago murder victim, can get revenge and closure. The film climaxes with Chan being made to choose his daughter’s life over his own, leading to the opening scene (and of course the gun wasn’t loaded, he saves his daughter, they make amends, the end).
Lockdown is not an action film. It’s a half-baked thriller: a SAW didactic structured like Die Hard. Whenever Chan does have to fight, it’s always one-on-one, slow-paced, heavily edited and sad. In his earlier films, he would take punches to show that he wasn’t invincible, and to paint his character as an everyman pushed to his limits. When it wasn’t funny, it was endearing. Here, it’s just a bummer. The longest fight scene in the film is a ten-minute cage match that almost entirely consists of slow-mo shots of Chan getting his face smashed into things. It’s edited with all the ingenuity of a video game cutscene, but with a view to masking stunt wires. There’s no real speed or danger, and it all looks like anything else.
Whatever genetically connects this totally uninspired film with the original Police Story has clearly rotted away over the years, victim to some kind of action cinema CTE at the hands of encroaching authoritarianism. When the movie ends, its blooper reel is made up primarily of one extended outtake in which the director is trying to figure out how to make a scene where Chan is getting hit in the face look less funny, and more serious. He needn’t have worried.