Wednesday, 4 March 2015

Jackie Chan in the 1980s - The Protector

Although widely derided for attempting to transform Jackie Chan into a grim, no-nonsense cop, The Protector starts strong, positing a hairspray hell straight out of 1990: The Bronx Warriors. We open on an 18-wheeler sitting at a red light while splatterpunks scramble all over the vehicle, stripping it for parts.

James Glickenhaus' New York is an apocalypse in progress. Street gangs look like they're dressed in irradiated rags and tiny fires burn in the brick cadavers that used to be a neighbourhood. When Chan and his bullet magnet partner rock up to inspect the wreckage, Jackie is humping around a bullpup automatic shotgun that shorthands a level of future shock sadly absent from the rest of the film.

Like Robert Clouse before him, Glickenhaus kicks off by matching Chan against an American bear. Jackie doesn't bother dancing around this mountain, instead he blows fist-sized holes through him. Glickenhaus proposes a queasy pre-Giuliani slaughterhouse full of coked up mutoids and lingering shots of location colour, before whisking Jackie Chan and new best friend Danny Aiello off to a Penthouse Letters version of Hong Kong.

Glickenhaus anticipates, and perhaps seeks to salve, this disappointment by staging one of the least propulsive speedboat chases ever filmed. This is a recurring theme in Protector, pursuits are slow and circuitous, edited with the clip of a Sunday stroll. Glickenhaus doggedly refuses to kill his darlings - he shot it, so he's got to use it. Around this point it also starts to become apparent that the director is either lazy, pushed for time, or deliberately working against his star.

Chan's lines haven't been slashed or restructured to accommodate his broken English, likewise the actor is seen handling his sidearm like a child having to play-act recoil. The absolute least you can expect from an action director is the desire to make their star look cool. Glickenhaus doesn't care, he's a maverick. He'd rather stage everything flat, thereby sucking out any potential for excitement. The Exterminator director just isn't interested in the mechanics and movement of on-screen action, just the gorey, screaming result. He's all punchline, no set-up.

Glickenhaus brings his outsider's eye to Hong Kong, finding only poverty and decrepitude. The Hong Kong of The Protector is a world away from the neon strip malls of Sammo Hung's contemporary movies. Hung seeks to present the island city as a go-getter's paradise, teaming with people and product. Hung is business district, Protector skews cathouse.

Sammo Hung was making movies for an embedded audience living through an economic boom. Glickenhaus shoots like he's catering for people that want to believe everywhere foreign is parochial and, basically, backward. It's the tonal opposite of James Bond's travel brochure approach. Hong Kong isn't presented as a picturesque destination, it's just another dirty city. We devour its sights in the company of Aiello's doughy Vietnam veteran, a man more concerned with sticking his dick somewhere unusual than pursuing his case.

Famously Jackie Chan was deeply unhappy with The Protector, taking the opportunity to reshoot and recut the film for his home audience. Chan's version of the Bill Wallace fight is lightning compared to the US cut's morose brawl. Chan's frame is tighter, the staging full of danger and acrobatic detail. Chan seeks to put the audience in the fight with him, Glickenhaus prefers a cool, dispassionate distance. Jackie Chan was developing a brand, one that Protector, with its perfunctory action and sleazy sexuality, didn't fit. This disconnect though is a big part of why Glickenhaus' film remains fascinating.

The Protector represents Chan firmly at the mercy of a director who doesn't care how gracefully the actor can launch himself across the screen. Glickenhaus is completely indifferent to Chan's Peking Opera perfection, he's just wants to make another vicious cop movie. In a broad sense then Protector isn't that different to Chan's post-Rush Hour doldrums, although at least Glickenhaus' film has the common decency to be alarmingly violent.

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