Review: Police Story (1985)

Jackie Chan may be one of the most recognizable and famous actors of all time, a legend of Hong Kong cinema and the most successful Hong Kong-Hollywood crossover act since Bruce Lee. Yet, he still does not get his due as the titan of action and comedy that he is, a talent on par with legends like Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin. The comparison to these silent greats is a testament to Chan’s unparalleled gift for physicality, alongside his incredible command of visual film language. In a long career of great films though, 1985’s Police Story stands as one of the greatest examples of Chan’s skill as an actor and director, and is one of the all-time great action-comedies.

In 1980, after establishing himself as a star in films such as Drunken Master and Fearless Hyena, Chan signed a deal with Golden Harvest productions to have greater creative control and make his own films. It was in his Golden Harvest films that Chan moved beyond the influence of 1970s kung fu cinema and attempted to secure his place in the broader landscape of worldwide cinema. Consider for instance, 1982’s Project A, set in the late-19th century of Old Hong Kong: in the climactic fight in the clock tower, Chan is stretched upon a giant clockwork gear like Chaplin in Modern Times, only moments later, dangling from the clock face itself like Harold Lloyd in Safety Last!.

But with Police Story Chan establishes a new kind of kung fu action film. Bringing his cinema into the present day, Police Story combines the stunt work and fight choreography that established Chan as a star with robust comedy, often in the same sequence. In a Jackie Chan movie, one finds oneself frequently cringing at the danger of a piece of stunt work then laughing at the physical absurdity that Chan’s characters find themselves in. Unlike the stoic and indomitable heroes of wuxia films or Bruce Lee, Chan’s Sergeant Ka-Kui Chan would take as much of a beating as he gave out. Ka-Kui is a “super cop” but he’s also frequently a fool, and far from unbeatable. This is part of the way that Chan structures his action sequences, with his characters beginning from a position of weakness, getting hurt, but battling through the odds to succeed.

The structure of the individual sequences is echoed in the structure of the film’s story, in which Ka-Kui faces various setbacks and obstacles in order to achieve his goals. The elegance of Chan’s filmmaking is in the way that he manages to use editing and cinematography to guide the viewer through the various fights. For Chan, the effect is in establishing a rhythm in the cutting, so the viewer sees both the full action, editing the hits for maximum impact (often showing an action twice rather than aiming for pure continuity) and framing the fight so they can always follow what is happening and how the sequence is progressing. It’s a filmmaking style that plays on the strengths of its performers and the viewer’s desire to see the stunts and fight scenes. Hits aren’t hidden. They look like they hurt!

The overall effect is that Police Story’s action scenes are played for both big laughs and big emotions: humour and empathy, as he tumbles, smashes, races, and trips his way around Hong Kong while protecting a police witness, Selina Fong (Bridget Lin), and trying to catch the crime lord Chu Tao (Chor Yuen). In the meantime he juggles professional challenges, like when he is reprimanded by his superiors for his reckless behaviour, with personal mishaps, like when his girlfriend May (Maggie Cheung in a star-making early role) gets jealous due to Ka-Kui’s looking after Selina.

The film’s plot is structured somewhat episodically around the Royal Hong Kong Police Force’s efforts to capture the crime lord Chu Tao (which reflects Chan’s process, where the screenplay was written around the various locations and stunts that Chan wanted to include). The film opens with a sting operation in which Ka-Kui and the police chase the fleeing criminals down a mountain side shanty town, smashing through shacks and tumbling down the hill to the road—and inspiring a similar sequence in Michael Bay’s Bad Boys II—after which Chan chases his enemy hanging off the side of a bus. It’s an impressive opening, full of inspired and improvised moments (like using an umbrella to climb the double-decker bus). In almost any other action film, it would be the climax, but here it’s simply the beginning. Of course, for his actions, Ka-Kui is demoted and must protect Chu Tao’s secretary Selina who will be testifying against her boss. Opening the film with such an impressive scene followed by a demotion sets up expectations in the viewer. It establishes Chan’s style, in which he must battle his way up from the lowest position, while letting the viewer know what he’s capable of.

The film’s climactic sequence in a shopping mall is rightly praised by Hong Kong film fans and critics as one of the best extended fight sequences in Jackie Chan’s ouvre, allowing him multiple levels to work on, tons of props with which to improvise and fight with, and lots and lots of exploding panes of glass! Throughout the rest of the film are loads of little moments that show Chan’s skill as a physical comedian, such as a juggling telephone sequence that visually wouldn’t be out of place in the work of Chaplin or Keaton.

If you only know Jackie Chan from his American films, Police Story is a perfect film to show you why he is held in such high esteem by Hong Kong film aficionados. It showcases his action, his humour, and his solid camera and editing skills. Police Story is a non-stop piece of entertainment, eager to showcase what Chan is capable of with some of the greatest stunt work ever put on camera. It deserves to be widely seen and praised, not just for those stunts, but for the way it serves as a masterclass in action and comedy filmmaking.

10 out of 10

Police Story (1985, Hong Kong)

Directed by Jackie Chan; screenplay by Jackie Chan and Edward Tang; starring Jackie Chan, Maggie Cheung, Bridget Lin, Chor Yuen, Lam Kwok-Hung.