Monday, October 01, 2007

Jackie Chan is God, and Don't Forget It

As recently as the late nineties, the greatness of the inimitable Jackie Chan was as inarguable as that of Bruce Lee, Clint Eastwood, or Humphrey Bogart. But several years of middling (or worse) US vehicles, and the relentless ADD fickleness of action movie audiences in general have obscured the importance--and the indescribable cool-- of Hong Kong Cinema's most important figure this side of John Woo.

During Jackie Chan's extended creative peak (roughly 1980 to 1997) he starred in cop flicks, period chop-sockies, and action comedies so fast-paced and (figuratively as well as literally) death-defying that his efforts made Hollywood action extravaganzas look like the work of bloated dilletantes. Chan and his crack stunt team became internationally renowned for risking life and limb performing staggering action sequences unlike any ever seen before. Leaping off a sheer thousand-foot drop to grab hold on a hot-air balloon midair--without a net? No problem. Taking a hundred-foot fall from the hand of a tower clock with nothing but a measly tarp to break the fall? Big whoop. Throughout all of this high-flying insanity Chan and his stuntmen never used wirework of any kind: When someone makes a flying leap in a peak-era Jackie Chan movie, you can bet it's a real, live flying leap.

The man and his squad of screen daredevils also revolutionized onscreen martial arts by making groundbreaking use of routine objects and surroundings, frequently in modern settings. Whenever his back was against the wall and Jackie's onscreen hero faced the inevitable smackdown, you literally never knew what (or who) would be used to augment the fight--playground toys, chairs, pinball machines--anything and everything was fair game as a weapon, projectile, or shield. That wild unpredictability, wedded with the rapid-fire grace of the combat and Chan's schleppily-likeable everyman charm, elevated his ostensibly formula crowdpleasers into the most joyous and magnificent popcorn art--Buster Keaton with a killer roundhouse kick. Not for nothing did action megaliths like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone bow meekly at Chan's altar during the energetic Hong Kong actor/director's prime.

But time--and poor career choices--can be merciless. After a decade-plus as the big fish in the Asian Action Pond, Chan finally broke through to American audiences in 1995 with Rumble in the Bronx, and for a few years he was able to have his hyperkinetic action cake and eat it, too. Then came a downward spiral of US-produced programmers. Some of them (like the first Rush Hour and Shanghai Noon) made respectable use of Chan's nimble physical grace and winning screen presence. But most of these efforts from the Tinseltown assembly line proved to be mediocre turds that utterly squandered this most unique and wonderful of screen presences in a morass of irritating stories and uninspired action-movie cliches.

Most of Jackie Chan's finest efforts as an action star and director have been given pretty short shrift on stateside DVD, with truncated, bare-bones, shoddily-dubbed English-language versions proving the sorry rule. Thank God Mirimax-subsidized video label Dragon Dynasty is presenting two of Chan the Man's Hong Kong Hallmarks in all their uncut, rock-em-sock-em, infectious glory.

1985's Police Story follows Hong Kong cop Kevin (Chan) in his dogged pursuit of corrupt businessman/ drug dealer Mr. Chu (Yuen Chor). Kevin singlehandedly busts up Chu's drug operation only to be framed for the murder of a fellow cop on the take, and the duration of the movie consists of Chan fighting his way to vindication, salvaging his relationship with girlfriend May (Maggie Cheung), and definitively nailing the bad guys.

As for the script, well, the operative phrase here (as in most cop flicks) is Plot, Schmot: It's all just a setup for the action. The salsa-con-queso cheesiness of the musical score and some of the comedic bits might take their toll on the cinema lactose-intolerant, too.

But none of this matters in light of the exhilarating energy that propels Police Story. Chan directed himself, and the choreography, intricacy, speed, and danger level of the action scenes utterly decimates damn near anything Hollywood has ever mustered in the genre. It's all the more staggering when you consider that all of this was done over a decade before CGI became prominent. In the opening scene, several cars careen downhill, plowing through (and levelling) an entire shanty town of wooden shacks--and you can literally see people barely leaping out of the way to safety.

Chan himself hangs off of a speeding bus by an umbrella(!), engages in hand-to-hand combat with knife, lead pipe, and pistol-wielding thugs with lightning speed (zipping through playground monkey bars and parked cars with catlike high-speed grace), and slides eight stories down a metal pole spider-webbed with electrical lights. Take that, Bruce Willis.

Police Story 2 proffers more of the exhilarating knock-your-socks-off same, as Kevin's maverick ways land him a demotion to traffic duty until a band of bomb-toting extortionists forces his superiors to reinstate his rank. PS 2 even pulls adorable gal pal May into the risky stunt act as she runs a scary gauntlet of tumbling metal frames (one of which smacks poor Maggie Cheung bloodily in the skull in one outtake!). This entertaining follow-up also earns major political incorrectness chutzpah points for turning a grunting deaf-mute into a lethal martial arts killer.

Dragon Dynasty presents both Police Storys in letterbox format (anything less for a Jackie Chan flick is heresy, friends), with picture quality greatly improved over the abysmal pan-and-scan tapes and discs of years past. Best of all, each movie gets its own boatload of extras--Commentaries by Hong Kong Cinema scribe Bey Logan and Rush Hour director Brett Ratner (call him a hack, but he truly loves Jackie), retrospective documentaries with members of Chan's amazing stunt team, deleted scenes, and much more. My personal favorite, a location tour of Hong Kong, comes on the Police Story 2 disc. Logan takes an engaging trip through many of the real-life locations used in both movies, contrasting them with film clips. I'm a sucker for this sort of stuff, especially when it hammers home the unbridled innovation of the filmmakers this effectively.

Coming soon, more recommendations on essential efforts by Chan the Man. And Jackie would likely approve of the fact that the list ain't gonna include Rush Hour 3.

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