Kung fu cop Detective Sgt. Chan (Jackie Chan) heads a taskforce out to nail ruthless drug baron, Boss Koo (Chu Yuan). The team’s shantytown stakeout erupts into a chaotic shootout, whereupon Chan ploughs his car straight through a stack of slum shacks and clings to the back of a speeding bus before he finally catches the crime lord. Chief Bill (Bill Tung) and Superintendent Raymond Li (Lam Gwok-Hung) assign Chan to safeguard their star witness: Koo’s spirited secretary Selena (Brigitte Lin Ching-Hsia), which causes all manner of misunderstandings between Chan and his long-suffering girlfriend, May (Maggie Cheung). Selena proves reluctant to testify until Chan fakes an attempt on her life with the aid of klutzy cop Kim (Mars). Unfortunately, Selena discovers their ruse and the resulting court case descends into farce. A vengeful Koo frames Chan for killing a corrupt cop, but our hero goes rogue. With help from his gutsy gal pals, Chan retrieves a caseload of crucial evidence before finally facing Ko’s army of bad guys in a crowded shopping mall.
Throughout cinema history only a handful of action movies consistently held audiences on the edge of their seat: Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), Die Hard (1988) and Police Story, although neither of the former put their leading men through such relentless, real-life jeopardy. Jackie Chan has had many peaks throughout his career, but Police Story ranks as Mount Everest: one-hundred and one minutes of non-stop crazed kung fu, frantic slapstick and (literally) breakneck stuntwork. Beware those international versions that run a mere ninety-four minutes. Frustrated while making his second Hollywood movie, The Protector (1986) (shot before but released after this film), Jackie was inspired to concoct his own cop story, although he may have drawn a few ideas from the Chang Cheh thriller Police Force (1973), a more straight-laced affair starring his old Shaw Brothers rival, Alexander Fu Sheng.
Everyone remembers the amazing action scenes: the surprisingly intense shootout that opens the film (wherein frightened Officer Tak (Ken Tong Jan-Yip) wets himself, in a scene less crass than it sounds and adding a note of humanity); Chan’s jaw-dropping, destructive plough through the shantytown shacks (a controversial sequence given some critics alleged the impoverished tenement dwellers did not know their homes were being destroyed for an action movie!); that ride on a speeding bus which is worthy of a silent screen comedy classic; and especially the astounding final fifteen minutes where Jackie demolishes an entire shopping mall in a frenzy of shattered glass, sublime spin-kicks and frenzied fists of fury. His finale, death-defying slide down a sixty-foot pole adorned with live electrical ornaments is so spectacular it is shown three times, from three different camera angles. Just as well, since not for the first time or the last, shooting the scene nearly cost Jackie his life after the electrician forgot to use low-wattage bulbs.
The starry supporting cast includes celebrated Shaw Brothers director Chu Yuan as the super-slimy gang boss, the biggest star in Chinese cinema Brigitte Lin Ching-Hsia giving a superb and atypical comedic performance, and then-beauty pageant winner/future greatest actress in HK cinema Maggie Cheung as poor, devoted, endlessly abused May. Chan’s female co-stars deserve considerable credit since they did their own stunts too and incurred their fair share of injuries. But the film offers much more besides action.
It is often said that Cantonese cinema’s major theme is the unfair disparity between rich and poor, and the inability of official parties to help. In Police Story, Jackie takes that idea to extremes. Chan, May and Selena become human ping-pong balls, bounced between callous criminals and manipulative cops. Throughout the film, Jackie espouses his self-reliant philosophy, as his hero can rely only on his wits, guts and kick-ass moves. A sly strain of satirical comedy runs through the film. Working with co-scriptwriter Edward Tang, Jackie crafts an intelligent plot with many cleverly constructed scenes that rebut the idea that it took Brett Ratner, of all people, to bring strong plots to Jackie Chan movies. Even the comedic scenes are mini masterpieces of complex staging and split second timing: the courtroom farce, the phone-juggling scene, the hilarious fake attack on Selena that plays like a Halloween spoof. It is consistently inventive and exciting and a true classic of Hong Kong cinema. And don’t tell me Jackie’s theme song is not catchy.