Sunday, 10 May 2015

Jackie Chan in the 1980s - Project A II

Jackie Chan was in his thirties when he directed and starred in Project A II, the hot-headed youth persona that had served him well during the 1970s and early 80s was starting to look a little frayed. Police Story had rounded off that identity nicely, Chan delivering a film about a man pushing himself so far in pursuit of his goals that he ends up burning his entire life to the ground.

Armour of God tinkered with the idea of mapping en vouge American action heroics onto Chan, that move floundered through injury and a resultant film that promised far more than it delivered. Project A II then is a little different, even to its predecessor. It's not about proving yourself, it's about being established, part of the system.

Although Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao are nowhere to be seen - the duo were in the Philippines shooting Eastern Condors - Chan again plays Dragon Ma, the best cop in all Hong Kong. Dragon is headhunted and transferred to the West District after the local Superintendent stages a robbery to impress his superiors. The ploy unravels when the criminals start loudly objecting to sentences more severe than previously agreed. Rather than be caught out, the Superintendent executes his accomplices in the street.

Dragon is brought in to whip the local precinct into shape, he does this purely by example. He doesn't punish or berate his men, instead he performs a series of civic feats so incredible that they all spontaneously transform into hard-working policemen out of pure respect. Dragon brushes shoulders with Chinese intellectual revolutionaries, Hong Kong's ruling class, and a squad of vengeful Pirates. He turns all their heads, impressing them with his unfailing decency. Project A II is a fable, a heartfelt ode to the politically moderate self-made man. Chan plays a person who isn't interested in praise or acclaim for his actions. He just wants to get on and be left alone to do his job.

A key component of Jackie Chan's appeal is his physical versatility, the man can very obviously do anything. This is usually noted in how he approaches props, seamlessly incorporating them into his martial arts repertoire. His talents run deeper than this, Chan is also adept at structuring his stunts around the physical locations available to him. Everything is grist. A seething modern Hong Kong, like the one seen in Police Story or Heart of Dragon, amps up the intensity, Chan caught in a suffocating glass maze.

Project A II is about encroaching modernity, both in thought (Dr Sun Yat-sen's revolutionaries) and geography. Period Hong Kong is then rendered as an expansive series of dares, towering bamboo and wood structures that demand to be climbed. We all know Chan can cope so he's saddled with a succession of normal people to be managed and protected. Handcuffed to a dastardly cop the athletic Chan must account for the man's cowardice. Chan leaps to soar, his cuff-mate oozes low.

Dotted around this relentless drive for verticality are a couple of charming comedic scenarios. First there's some parlour room hide-and-seek that falls somewhere between The Marx Brothers and Frasier but with added pistols. Unlike Chan's earlier, unsatisfying attempt at farce in Armour of God, there are five or six levels of incompatible factions shuffling around Yesan (Maggie Cheung)'s apartment. A flabbergasted Cheung is superb throughout.

As with most of her appearances in Jackie Chan films this character is bratty and prone to pouting. Fortunately, Cheung gets a little more to work with here. The actress plays everything on her face, hurtling back and forth between a momentary, self-satisfied smile when she packs someone into a wardrobe and slack-jawed horror when another warring party turns up looking for a chat.

Her expressions are silent movie big, a person completely out of their depth trying to cope with relentless upsets. Her posture and demeanour is in a constant state of change - who can see her at this moment? What emotion should she be projecting? The stress is palpable. It's an expertly layered performance from an actress not usually noted for her comedic chops. When no-one's looking Cheung collapses ever so slightly, exhausted.

Next is Dragon's desperate attempt to gain an advantage in a prolonged fight with several imperial enforcers. Finding himself in a dusty market, Dragon shovels fistfuls of chilli peppers into his mouth. His intent seems to be harking back to the wacky martial arts styles of Chan's late 70s output, in particular Drunken Master and Fearless Hyena, the hero imbibing something ruinous to get them looser and fired up.

The chillies have the opposite effect. Dragon is reduced to a wheezing wreck but not before he's spat the contents of his mouth all over his hands and rubbed them on his enemy's faces. It's haphazard and thrilling, a bad call turned into a brief benefit. Dragon doesn't become numb and unbeatable, he's a man-sized Mace can.

Chan also isn't interested in portraying a succession of stand-and-fights. Dragon is usually outnumbered and outmatched, confrontations are therefore fleeting, embroiled in extended chases that focus on comedy rather than a martial arts back-and-forth. Project A II's last opponent isn't even an equal for Dragon, he's a snake attempting to slither away while a series of paper craft buildings topple to the ground.

This destruction is the film's true finale, allowing Chan to work in an homage to Buster Keaton's collapsing house gag from Steamboat Bill Jr. Dragon can shrug off a massive wall falling on him. His foe can't. Project A II represents Chan further differentiating himself from Sammo Hung, the action movie polymath committing himself to delivering a wholly different product focused around death-defying stunts.

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