Police Story is the fifth Jackie Chan film released in 1985. You'd expect him to be flagging. Not even close, Police Story is easily the most energetic of the lot. If you sit around for the outtakes that unspool under the credits you'll see Jackie Chan hard at work, directing, acting, micro-managing every stunt. He looks tired and impatient, demonstrating the exact flailing he expects from his actors as they tumble towards concrete.
Chan struggles to get a shot of himself kicking a pencil off a desk and into his hand. Take after take for a scene that many distributors snipped out of the various international releases. They didn't see the value in it. Chan did. He kept going until he got it right. These bloopers show Chan injured, unconscious and babbling, often surrounded by a stunt team who fan him and yank off superfluous clothing. Hong Kong looks blazing hot throughout. Jackie Chan is pained, on the clock and full of nervous energy.
Police Story is Jackie Chan in compulsive entertainer mode. He's not sitting still. Every scene in the film is a setpiece, seesawing back and forth between comedy and danger. It's obsessive. Everything is tracking towards either a gag or a gasp. Chan isn't interested in exploring a scene from a dramatic perspective, he's focused on premises that can inform a physical exchange or feat. A throwaway scene of Chan's character Ka-Kui disappointing his girlfriend May (Maggie Cheung) becomes a death-defying near miss involving a compact with no handbrake.
Ka-Kui doesn't take a breath, before May even knows what's happening he's jumping into a passing taxi and telling her to contact a towing company. It's the kind of pace you expect from an all-star cast in any of Sammo Hung's Lucky Star comedies, not one guy who's also directing, blocking stunts and singing the theme tune.
Compared to the films Hung was making at the same time Police Story is heavily compartmentalised with Jackie Chan using a basic law-enforcement scenario to explore a variety of genre situations. As well as car crashes and shoot-outs he even manages to slip in a slasher interlude with stunt prodigy Mars hurling himself around after Brigitte Lin's Selina.
Chan uses the tonal rhythms of action to express plot. The scene evolves in line with the audience's knowledge of the attacker's motives. It starts athletic and horrifying to match our belief that this is a legitimate attempt on Selina's life. The gymnastic psycho throws himself at her, narrowly missing. When we learn it's Mars under the mask, who we recognise as a cop from earlier in the film, the sequence takes a turn for the comedic,
To buy time while Ka-Kui tries to get into the flat, Mars play-acts the perverse knife murder who'd rather toy with his pray than strike. After Ka-Kui arrives and Mars takes one too many blows to the head the mood shifts again, this time into farce. Ka-Kui dances with the unconscious attacker, throwing the dead weight around to mime a sustained assault. Chan isn't content to power through a rote sequence, he wants to explore it. Run it into the ground.
Police Story is often contextualised as Jackie Chan's response to The Protector, the action polymath taking the bones of James Glickenhaus' routine procedural and spinning gold. This'd be Chan's second pass at the problem, he'd already re-shot massive chunks of Glickenhaus' film to ensure brand continuity for his Hong Kong fans. The star clearly couldn't let it go. It might seem like a shallow reading but the proof is all over Police Story.
Chan doesn't just rework Protector, he turbo-charges it. The star is a blur, careening headfirst from set-up to set-up. demonstrating the everything Glickenhaus wouldn't let him do. It's angry, bordering on vindictive. Jackie Chan comes to bury The Protector.
Glickenhaus shot long and slack, Chan's fights are short and sharp, brutal and conclusive. Chan doesn't trade long strings with his foes, he grapples them and puts them down. His opponents aren't looking for an honourable duel, they want to kill him. Chan recalibrates his action in response to that. He's not just relocating kung-fu action geographically or historically, he's playing with the psychology too.
On his commentary track for the Hong Kong Legends DVD of the film Bey Logan talks about how the contemporary UK fan scene just wasn't ready for this kind of ferocity. They hadn't learnt to read it yet, they were still expecting the stylised dancing of the 1970s. Hong Kong audiences, primed by Sammo Hung and editor Peter Yiu-Chung Cheung's electrifying work on Winners & Sinners, lapped it up.
Police Story is maximum jeopardy, Jackie Chan taking Project A's stunt spectacular and updating it to a modern, smog choked metropolis. The film's major setpieces aren't built around manageable studio sets, they incorporate busy city streets and malls seething with patrons.
Police Story isn't a traditionally pretty film either, it's shot from the perspective of a confused bystander, someone unconnected who catches a glimpse of Chan as he speeds by. It's a raw film with a seat-of-your-pants energy. This documentary style approach keeps the film eternally exciting. Police Story is obviously, painfully dangerous.
Ka-Kui isn't an expert calmly moving from peril to peril. He picks up injuries and indignities that transform him. Over the course of the film the beleaguered cop morphs from an easygoing everyman into a sweaty avenger with an obsessive, singular focus. By the time we're in a mall watching Jackie Chan and Brigitte Lin being hurled through thick sugar glass the film has achieved complete mania.
Chan's face is puffy and sore, covered in cuts that you'd swear weren't make-up. We've seen him slide down a brass pole covered in Christmas lights that exploded as they snagged underneath him. The film knew we couldn't believe what we were seeing so it replayed the stunt from multiple angles. You get a closer look. It looks even nastier side on. Light cords bunch up around his crotch, cooking him. It's nightmarish. The hero shot shows Chan picking his body up, launching himself towards his next mark. The other actors look terrified.
How did he do it? Why did he do it? Usually when you read around a stunt you discover the lengths the film team went to to keep it safe. The opposite is true of Police Story, they all become worse. Brigitte Lin looks hysterical performing her stunts. You understand why. She knew she was going through that thicker-than-usual breakaway glass again. You wonder how many times she had to do it.
With zero surprise you discover that Chan picked up second degree burns and dislocated his pelvis performing the pole stunt. It's all there on the screen. There's a reason everybody looks like they've been driven deranged with pain. They probably have. This is what will keep Police Story fresh forever. Jackie Chan went so far with the film that any pretender to his throne would have to kill themselves to compete.