Much of Police Story operates on charm. If it’s not co-writer, star, and director Jackie Chan’s charm, it’s charm of the scenes. There are some painfully uncharming moments–mostly Chan’s frequent neglective abuse of girlfriend Maggie Cheung–but even when Police Story is in its stunt spectacular mode, there’s charm.
The film doesn’t open with charm, however. It opens with this all-exposition police briefing introduction to drug kingpin Chor Yuen. The cops, including Chan, are getting their assignment. Next scene is execution of that assignment, the cops trying to just Chor and his large gang of gunmen in a shanty town. Things go wrong almost immediately (because the cops assumed the criminals wouldn’t notice a bunch of guys around wearing earpieces?), leading to a big shootout.
Chan, as star, hangs back for most of the shootout proper. He comes in to save the day, chases Chor up the mountain (the shanty town is the side of it), then chases him back down–in cars, destroying the shanty town. The scale of the sequence is amazing, making up for Chan’s middling shot composition. He and editor Peter Cheung are showing off the effects executions in Police Story; they’re sensationalizing, not trying to fit into the film’s tone.
Admittedly, given the tone is genial slapstick, the brutal violence of the action sequences (and fist fights) would be hard to fit into that geniality.
After another great action sequence where Chan boards a moving bus and fights off some henchmen, then gets thrown from said bus and still manages to stop it, he ends up poster boy for the Hong Kong police department. For some reason, his bosses also give him the job of protecting hostile witness Brigitte Lin, who works for drug lord Chor.
Lin doesn’t want protection, leading to a montage sequence of Chan following her around while the peppy, cartoonish score (from Michael Lai and Tang Siu-Lam) blares. After some narrative diversion, the bad guys strike, leading to Chan bringing Lin back to his place, where they run into Cheung (and a surprise birthday party for Chan). The next fifteen minutes or so is Chan passively and actively abusing Cheung, which is off-putting, though the movie has enough sensitivity for bad girl Lin to immediately (and sincerely) befriend good girl Cheung.
That C plot character relationship is one of the best things in Police Story, at least as narrative goes; it helps Cheung and Lin give the film’s two best performances. Ninety percent of the male cast (Cheung and Lin are the only female cast members, at least of substance) just mug for the camera.
There’s a really funny courtroom scene, there’s a bunch of great action scenes–the strangest thing about Police Story’s action (and its emphasis on the stunts) is how the biggest stunt, despite being an accomplishment for Chan (they show it from three different angles), is narratively inert. Chan knows how to stage a fantastic stunt sequence. He just doesn’t have much sense as for how narratively effective that sequence is going to be. Same goes for the slapstick set pieces. There’s a lengthy one involving Chan and a bunch of telephones ringing and he contorts his way around to answer all of them. It’s charming enough, but runs way too long. Chan and editor Cheung think because they’ve got that peppy music going, a sequence can go forever. It’s not good peppy, cartoonish music. It’s just peppy, cartoonish music.
The second half of the movie is Chan gone rogue, trying to bring down Chor. Its non-action scenes are some of Chan’s better directing. In the first half, despite being an acrobatic, unstoppable supercop, Chan’s a doofus. In the second half, he’s much less a doofus (leading to the film’s most awkward moment, Chan monologuing about being an unappreciated cop). But the scenes work better, direction-wise. Even if Cheung does pop up just to take Chan’s gentle but intentional verbal abuse or, you know, screw things up.
The big finale, despite the three-peated stunt being narratively blasé, is fantastic. Police Story’s stuntwork isn’t just fantastic for the abuse Chan puts himself through for a shot, it’s the abuse he puts the film’s other stuntmen through. And Lin. She’s obviously performing a bunch of her own stunts, even if the action is only there to shock cruelty value.
None of the villains stand out. Chor’s a thin Mr. Big, overshadowed by his henchmen (who are even more shallow but their performances aren’t) and particularly his lawyer, Lau Chi-wing. Bill Tung’s fun as Chan’s supervisor. Lam Kwok-hung is a little much as the straight-edge accountant police commander though. Police Story goes with caricature even when the actors seem capable of more. And the character consistency, script-wise, is always a little questionable. But with Lam… it’s like he’s not in one the joke when he needs to be.
Police Story is a spectacular spectacle of stuntwork. And the rest is a reasonable enough packaging of said spectacle. But a feature-length expansion of the end credits, which show the behind the scenes of the stunts, would probably make for a better film.
Directed by Jackie Chan; written by Chan and Edward Tang; director of photography, Cheung Yiu-Tsou; edited by Peter Cheung; music by Michael Lai and Tang Siu-Lam; production designer, Oliver Wong; produced by Leonard Ho; released by Golden Harvest Company.
Starring Jackie Chan (Chan Ka Kui), Maggie Cheung (May), Brigitte Lin (Selina Fong), Lam Kwok-Hung (Supt. Raymond Li), Bill Tung (Inspector Bill Wong), Chor Yuen (Chu Tao), Lau Chi-Wing (Cheung, the Lawyer), and Kam Hing-Yin (Inspector Man).