Thursday, March 10, 2011

Underrated Movie #112: Jackie Chan's First Strike

Ending on a cliffhanger!
Title: Police Story 4 a.k.a. Jackie Chan’s First Strike
Year: 1997
Director: Stanley Tong
Writers: Stanley Tong, Nick Tramontane, Greg Mellott, Elliot Tong
Stars: Jackie Chan, Jackson Liu, Annie Wu, Bill Tung, Yuri Petrov

The Story: A Hong Kong supercop accidentally gets mixed-up in international espionage that takes him to Siberia, Moscow, and Australia while chasing after a stolen dirty bomb.

How it Came to be Underrated: After a few failed attempts to cross over to an American audience by starring in bad American movies, Chan ironically finally achieved American success by staying in Hong Kong and working his way up to bigger and bigger budgets. Finally, his movies looked so nice that American distributers were willing to dub them and release them over here. The two biggest hits, Rumble in the Bronx (due to its American setting), and Supercop (aka Police Story 3, due to breakout co-star Michelle Yeoh), led to him finally getting the Hollywood movie offers he wanted. Caught in between was this, his biggest-budget Hong Kong movie, which for some reason got less notice here, even though I think it’s his best.

Why It’s Great:

  1. After Bruce Lee died, hundreds of martial artists tried to mimic his superheroic stoicism onscreen. Chan’s genius was to do the opposite. His kung-fu was just as masterful (well, almost), but he winced in pain after every punch. His idol is clearly Buster Keaton, not just in his love of comedy (they both frequently fight guys two heads taller than they are) but in his insistence on doing his own stunts and his intensely likable persona that carries over from movie to movie. (Buster’s heroes were always named Buster, and Jackie’s, at least in the Americanized versions, are always named Jackie.)
  2. And indeed the heart of Chan’s appeal at that time was the amazing stunts, whether or not they involved kung fu. In that sense, this was one of the last real Jackie Chan movies, because the higher budgets of his subsequent American movies came with a terrible price: the insurance companies wouldn’t let him do his own stunts anymore, which squandered half of his value. But he went out with a bang, since this movie has a half-dozen beautifully choreographed fights, culminating in a spectacular melee in a shark tank.
  3. It feels silly to recommend a dubbed and edited-down movie, (a list of edits can be found here) but it’s not really that much of a problem—Since Chan was emulating silent movies, the soundtrack is sort of beside the point. The dubbing, for what it’s worth, is done rather well, with Chan doing his own voice and bringing a lot of personality.
  4. Lots of people have tried to simulate the Bond formula (even many Bond movies are poor Bond-imitations) with limited success, but Chan and his longtime director Tong manage to find just the right combination of action set-pieces and twisty espionage. It helped that this was the first Police Story movie without Maggie Cheung’s too-nice girlfriend character, so Chan was able to spend more time on the mission.

If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: Given that this is nominally the fourth in a series, it’s only logical to watch the first three as well, which are all great, albeit very different. You can watch Jackie work his way up from a normal beat cop to become a, shall we say, supercop.

How Available Is It?: It has a bare-bones DVD with only the dubbed track. Supercop has gotten a much better DVD release, with both soundtracks and an excellent English-language commentary by a film historian that gives a lot of background on the whole series, so you should seek that out if you crave a special feature.

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Steve Bird said...

I love this era of Jackie Chan movies. They're big and silly and ridiculous, but Jackie brings a realism to them that is impossible in American movies, because all the dangerous, frightening, miserable things that happen to his character are actually happening to him. In a way, it's the ultimate method acting.

There was a scene in this movie (I think -- may have been "Supercop") where he's been dropped in the middle of Siberia with only a sweatshirt to keep his upper body warm. He looks cold and wet and miserable -- because he actually is! He looks frightened in the fight scenes -- because he's actually in danger! It gives him a vulnerability and humanity in the midst of the craziest action scenes that is unrivaled in modern Hollywood movies.

And I agree 100% about the Buster Keaton connection. He clearly adores Keaton and very consciously picked up his mantle. Right down the their tendencies to seriously injure themselves on just about every shoot due to the nature of their stunts.

Matt Bird said...

Oh, that's this movie alright. That helicopter he's hanging onto in the top image blows up and he drops down in the freezing lake below.

Anonymous said...

The actual reason for the realism is the number of takes that are budgeted in, and, Mr. Chan has perfected a way of shooting and editing that allow for a more continuous and visceral take on the action. In Hong Kong, they call filming action "fight hell" and then mean it. In the USA a good fight might get a few takes, in Asia they budget in weeks of takes on a single fight if needed (not often needed btw.) I would imagine the recent John Wick films are following this template somewhat as well.