Friday, 26 June 2015

Jackie Chan in the 1980s - Police Story Part II

Jackie Chan's latest adventure is a two hour back-and-forth between the intimate and the overblown. On one hand Police Story Part II deals with the immediate repercussions of burning guts justice. On the other, Chan's character, Ka-kui, slips deeper into a spy gamer that anticipates the full-on international man of mystery seen in Police Story III: Super Cop.

Chor Yuen's mallrat drug dealer is out on bail, citing a terminal illness rather than the stunningly illegal way in which he was detained in the first Police Story. This information is conveyed in person by the sneering mob boss and underlined with a harsh guitar strum. Ka-kui is livid, while he has been busted down to traffic, his cackling adversaries go free.

Yuen's character disappears out of the film, leaving all the gloating and Maggie Cheung stalking to Charlie Cho as the poorly gangster's reptilian lawyer. Part II begins as a consequences focused revenge film. Ka-kui suffers because he was at fault for pursuing his enemies outside the system. As his superiors point out, Ka-kui believes he's exceptional, he didn't think he had to obey the letter of the law and is punished accordingly.

It's a great idea for a sequel, rather than just skip over the damage of the first film Part II wallows in it, dredging up a nasty adversary that's confident enough, thanks to Ka-kui's own trespasses, to harass the policeman outside his girlfriend's apartment. Cheung's beefed-up role is another welcome addition, the actress providing an anchor for Ka-kui. May promises a future for Ka-kui away from the perpetual conflict.

Although a lot of the boyfriend-girlfriend friction is played for laughs, a sullen May absolutely skewers Ka-kui's heroic persona after an energetic playground fight. She isn't impressed that her boyfriend was able to batter all-comers. She's disappointed because he abandoned her.

Ka-kui didn't stay to protect her, instead he left to settle a score. May argues that it could have been a distraction, She could have been kidnapped or worse. Part II is strongest when director-star Jackie Chan is playing with these kinds of ideas, Ka-kui snatching a personal defeat from the jaws of victory. This feels like the central thesis of the first two Police Story films - you're damned if you do, and you're damned if you don't.

As an aside, this playground confrontation features perhaps the finest piece of fight choreography Chan has ever delivered. Like his work on Police Story it's blisteringly fast, but it also finds time for physical dexterity and some fine comedic detailing. Regardless of how long it actually took to shoot, it reeks of the same obsessive drives that powered 1982's Dragon Lord.

Out for a midnight stroll with his girlfriend, Ka-kui is attacked by a small army of Triads, each carrying with a short steel pipe. After pinballing a few hopefuls off some primary coloured jungle gyms, Chan manages to get hold of his own club.

Chan starts the sequence physically low, driven to his knees by the attacking goons.

Chan is centre frame, crouched and injured. His opponent is confident, striking at a cowed Ka-kui. It's important that Chan's head isn't looking at the incoming blow. It gives the moment an extra sense of desperation, as if he didn't expect to counter the attack.

A key component of heroism is defiance, this is Chan using his body to communicate that idea physically. Chan's position also clues the viewer into his immediate plan of attack - this chump's knees.

Chan steers the impact off the knees into a strike to the guy's back, revealing his chest. It's a flourish, a superfluous link in a chain of total demolition. Chan reigniting the dancing fan muscle memory he picked up making The Young Master. Chan again travels with the blow's momentum, smashing the pipe across the goon's ribcage.

By now Chan has stopped following the directional energy created by his club interacting with a helpless body and has decided to hurl himself upwards.

Notice that Chan and the goon have swapped position in the above image. Chan is above and poised to strike, the attacker is cowering and attempting to raise his weapon.

Chan takes flight, whacking the goon across his shoulder blades. Both Chan and his adversary are on the floor. We presume he's finished but, as ever, Chan has one more trick up his sleeve.

Throughout the sequence Chan has kept a piece of a swing set in frame. We find out why - it's a visual cue for the next attack. Ka-kui hurls away his baton to halt another hoodlum. It cracks the attacker across his shins.

It's wonderful, a completely excessive cherry on top of another outstanding physical confrontation that not only underlines Chan's talent but that of his indefatigable stunt team. Chan doesn't even pause to drink in the victory, he's already moving. On to the next set-up.

It's a shame when the film's retribution threads are largely dropped to pursue a mad bomber storyline, but Chan soothes the transition with a series of great fire stunts and some genuinely extreme personal danger. Broadly, Part II's second and third acts run on James Bond beats - investigation, capture (torture), catharsis.

The brilliance in Chan's approach is he keeps everything street-level and incredibly mean. Even Chan's capricious approach to plotting and theme ends up working. As the first film demonstrated, Ka-kui's adventures are about a mounting sense of mania. What better way to simulate martyrdom than by having several completely unconnected challenges tracking in on the hero? Ka-kui is under attack from every possible direction.

The British Board of Film Classification have spoken at length about their difficulty when approaching martial arts films. No doubt they found Jackie Chan's work doubly problematic. Ostensibly, the star's films are for families looking to celebrate Chinese New Year, everybody gathering around to watch a righteous, moral individual triumphing through grit, determination and no small amount of self-sacrifice.

This apparently virtuous dimension wasn't irrelevant to the BBFC, if anything it probably accentuated their concern. The board's long-standing issue with kung fu films was often the execution, exciting combat built around an incredibly charismatic star. During James Ferman's tenure as director, the board felt the violence typical to the genre was excessive, a venal box 'em up that often strayed too far into alarming, sadistic areas that necessitated comparatively higher certificates.

Police Story Part II is this exact, brilliant film. The key props for the firework factory set finale are an endless supply of lumpy gunpowder bags that Benny Lai's Dummy, the man behind the bombings, excitedly tosses around. On contact the pouches explode, leaving raw, bloody welts. Stuck at the mercy of Dummy, Ka-kui and May are pounded with these pocket pyrotechnics until they're both snivelling, sobbing wrecks.

Interestingly, Ka-kui doesn't grit his teeth and power through, instead he cries and pleads with his captors to spare his girlfriend. Human frailty is an underrated virtue in action films, it only really weakens heroes in the eyes of sociopaths and teenagers. Everyone else is hoping that the victim will dig deeper and act a little nastier when the tables are turned.

Despite the BBFC's concerns, menace is something that Hong Kong films really, truly excel at. Since firearms are far from common on the island filmmakers have to get creative with their physical intimidation, often arriving at a situation full of visceral, easily digestible danger. Waving a gun around is mechanical and rote, it's an object that confers power and forces a situation. A movie prop for a movie situation.

The abstract danger of a gun, for most people, only accentuates the disconnect. A firework though, everyone's been around a firework. Jackie Chan using the visual language of Chinese New Year to terrify and entertain. It works all around the world too. Everyone's familiar with fireworks. For British children they're a commodity explosive that only adults can buy, wheeled out to celebrate / condemn Guy Fawkes' attempt to kill King James I. In America, July 4th serves a similar function.

You've probably seen your Mum or Dad light one then fretted when they didn't seem to be putting quite enough distance between themselves and the resulting detonation. Tradition hard-codes this sense of trepidation about these colourful explosives. You already have a horrifying idea about what they may do to naked flesh. Chan actually shows you, then overcomes it.

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