Photo: ‘Police Story’ Trilogy
Edgar Wright once highlighted the essential difference in Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan’s respective big screen personas when he pointed out the stark contrast between the two Martial Arts legend’s signature combat stances. Wright pointed out that Lee’s calling card was an aggressive “Come on!” gesture, confidently beckoning his next opponent into the fray (notably referenced in ‘The Matrix’). Conversely, Wright’s enduring image of Chan is of a man who is perpetually defending himself, barely managing to dodge, slip, or parry the preposterous onslaught of punches, kicks, and flying objects that are constantly coming his way. Wright went on to proclaim that despite their best efforts, all of the films that blatantly ripped off Jackie’s style, or attempted to re-capture the energy of a Jackie Chan picture, were doomed from the start, because they were all missing the most irreplaceable element of the Jackie Chan formula – Jackie himself. Wright’s comments are more than just flattering hyperbole. There truly has never been, nor will there likely ever be, another movie star quite like Jackie Chan.
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Born Chan Kong Sang, Jackie grew up honing a wide variety of performance skills, during a decade-long apprenticeship at China’s top drama academy – the notoriously demanding Peking Opera School. Growing up in this militaristic talent incubator, Jackie mastered the artistic and athletic fundamentals which led him to become the dancer, acrobat, boundary-pushing stuntman, Chaplin-level physical comedian, and renowned martial artist that film fans know him as today. In 1985, after a brief and frustrating sojourn into a Hollywood system that profoundly misunderstood his unique persona, Jackie returned home to his native Hong Kong, determined to make a spectacular action movie on his own terms. A movie that he himself would stunt coordinate, direct, and star in, all at once. This project became ‘Police Story,’ the first installment of Chan’s incomparable cop action trilogy. This blessed trifecta of procedural action comedies cemented Jackie’s reputation as a singular talent in action filmmaking history. The dizzying, death-defying heights that his three ‘Police Story’ films manage to reach have yet to be equalled, or even approached, by any modern action franchise.
‘Police Story’ – Action As Art
The primary philosophical underpinning, which makes the ‘Police Story’ trilogy such a transcendent accomplishment, was once summed up beautifully by Chan himself. When asked how he goes about pulling off all of the outlandish stunts displayed in these movies, Jackie famously responded, “Oh, that’s even simpler. It’s just rolling, action, jump, cut, hospital!” In other words, if the script calls for Jackie’s lead character Inspector Kevin Chan to leap out of a third-story window into a narrow swimming pool, cling to the railing of a speeding double-decker bus by the handle of an umbrella, or slide down a 100-foot pole into a roof of shattered glass, Jackie would do all of these stunts himself. And, since he was the movie’s director as well, Chan could ensure that no corners were cut in the editorial construction of his action scenes.
‘Police Story’ was Jackie’s chance to shoot and stage action scenes the way that he had always wanted to. The fights and stunts in ‘Police Story’ were always covered in a series of wide angles, never faking the performance of the action, or avoiding real risk by hiding behind a series of persistent, jump-cut edits, as was the prevailing style in Western action filmmaking at the time. Every edit would be carefully considered and purposefully engineered for the purpose of increasing the intensity and the momentum of the symphony of action that Jackie was trying to compose on screen.
The mall fight which closes the original ‘Police Story’ is arguably Chan’s finest hour as a composer of action storytelling. This scene is a gobsmacking, non-stop clinic in dynamic staging, stunt coordination, and fearless, borderline reckless action filmmaking prowess. The scene fulfills a classic Kung Fu movie trope of pitting the story’s lone hero against an army of ruthless henchmen in a single, contained location. Chan introduces a novel element to the familiar formula, by setting the movie’s final showdown in a bustling Hong Kong shopping mall. This allowed Chan and his crew of stuntmen to use all the bells and whistles of their distinctly modern setting as fodder for a breakneck cavalcade of showstopping, operatic stunt flourishes. This scene’s overall clarity of motion, and the sheer sense of visual legibility that it maintains throughout its veritable parade of perilous fight choreography, genuinely boggles the mind. Anyone from any background on planet Earth could watch this scene and feel themselves start to lean forward unconsciously, panting and wide-eyed, baffled by the colossal amount of physical and mental effort that it must take to pull something like this off.
It’s All Real Folks
On a practical level, ‘The Police Story’ movies are nothing short of a miracle. Consider, for example, the amount of time and care that a film crew would need in order to maintain the visual continuity of a melting ice cream cone, being held by an actor on a sunny day. Every new take would inevitably require a re-set in the prop department. Real-world elements affect every aspect of any production, and even the simplest visual status quo is incredibly hard to maintain, take after take. Now consider that example, but instead of having to monitor a small visual detail like a melting ice cream cone, the crew must repeatedly reassemble the interior of a restaurant that Jackie and his team of stuntmen have just finished thrashing. After every barstool and napkin dispenser in the room has been turned into a deadly projectile, Jackie calls “Cut!’ and the scene must be comprehensively reset. And that’s just take one.
Beyond the mental endurance that’s required to make action films in this fashion, there is also a very real physical risk that every one of the performers in these movies knowingly took. Michelle Yeoh who co-stars with Chan in ‘Police Story 3: Supercop,’ single-handedly pulled off a number of the riskiest stunts ever captured on film. Yeoh did everything from jumping dirt bikes directly onto the roofs of moving trains carts, to narrowly escaping her own death after tumbling off a speeding truck, crash landing into the windshield of a moving car (it was supposed to shatter on impact) and, miraculously, hitting the cement highway beneath her, unscathed by the passing traffic. This level of commitment to achieving a constant sense of verisimilitude in the execution of stunts this dangerous is difficult to even conceive of in the modern action filmmaking paradigm.
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One of A Kind
The ‘Police Story’ trilogy is the rare object in film history that could only have been born from a confluence of audacious ambition and severely limited technical resources. There were no green screens when Jackie and co. made the first two ‘Police Story’ movies, and even ‘Supercop,’ released in 1992, seemingly doubled down on its predecessor’s dedication to practical, in-camera stunt work. These movies could not exist today, because no one (no, not even Tom Cruise) would ever attempt to make them with the same daredevil filmmaking spirit. Bones were broken, concussions were suffered, and wills were tested in the making of these three towering action flicks.
But the skeleton key that unlocks them all is the one-of-a-kind nature of ‘Police Story’s star and director. Jackie Chan is Gene Kelly, Bruce Lee, and Buster Keaton combined. A born performer and a tremendous athlete, who was willing to sacrifice his body and mind for the creation of a Cinematic spectacle. The ‘Police Story’ trilogy is Jackie’s magnum opus. It represents the summation of his lifetime of training, dedication, and preparation, and it still stands as a peerless achievement in the modern action filmmaking canon.
By Dillon Goss-Carpenter
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Dillon is a writer, and a lover of storytelling and creativity across all mediums. He studied Film and Digital Media at UC Santa Cruz, where he became a voracious consumer and ponderer of the creative arts. He has a background in screenwriting, as well as freelance film theory and pop culture journalism. Dillon connected to the inclusive, empowering mission statement of The Hollywood Insider, because of his shared belief in the power of storytelling, and its facility to engender empathy and understanding, as well as entertain. He believes in finding joy and purpose through making, watching, discussing, and dissecting the diverse collection of creative media that inspires him. He has particular interest in stories that come from largely unheard, historically excluded perspectives.