Originally conceived as a stand-alone spy movie, public clamour for another instalment of his popular Police Story series drove Jackie Chan to release this as part four. Nevertheless, most release prints were simply titled First Strike while the American version released by New Line went several steps further: rechristened Jackie Chan’s First Strike with twenty-five minutes removed and poster art designed to sell this as a more serious movie than it actually is. Whether one opts for the one-hundred and ten minute Hong Kong cut or the New Line version, this is easily the worst entry in the series.
Now working with the CIA, Jackie Chan (what fascinating double lives Hong Kong movie stars lead!) is assigned to trail a woman named Natasha to the Ukraine, where she is hiding vital information related to a nuclear smuggling case. Her mysterious boyfriend turns out to be Tsui (Jackson Lau), a Chinese-American nuclear scientist with CIA links, suspected of stealing a nuclear warhead. Jackie follows Tsui his rendezvous spot at a seemingly isolated mountain cabin, but he and his CIA allies fall right into trap set by the crafty double-agent. A snowboard chase-cum-gun battle ensues, after which Jackie falls into the frozen river, only to awaken in Russia. Ex-KGB Colonel Gregor (Yuri Petrov) persuades Jackie to fly to Brisbane, Australia and use Tsui’s sister Annie (Annie Wu) to get close to their father, Uncle Seven (Terry Woo), the local triad godfather. With the old man on his death bed, Jackie figures Tsui will head home as a dutiful son. Instead, Jackie finds himself framed for murder and on the run from local cops, Woo’s vengeful family, and rogue Russian agents intent on seizing the stolen nuke.
Perversely, First Strike remains Jackie’s highest-grossing movie in Hong Kong, although ask any fan to name his top five best movies it is unlikely any would mention this dull, disjointed mess. Although scriptwriters Greg Mellot, Elliot Tong and Nick Tramontane deserve a modicum of credit for at least attempting to weave a complex espionage yarn around Jackie’s usual acrobatic antics, the star was better served by his self-directed Who Am I? (1998). With Stanley Tong at the helm, despite the semi-intricate spy-jinks and an admittedly maudlin soap opera subplot drawing on Chinese family tradition, the series moved away from action-propelled narrative towards would-be wacky situations. New Line’s version prunes things even further, removing most of the comedy and continuity links to previous instalments, including Jackie’s farewell phone call with girlfriend May (by now megastar Maggie Cheung proved far too costly for even a cameo).
Aside from one dynamic sequence where Jackie fends off attackers by swinging a large ladder, the action is uniformly bland with the star either fighting in silly costumes (e.g. that seal-shaped hat or his infamous koala patterned underpants!) or amidst ludicrous settings. Most notably the absurdly slow aquarium fight that comprises the climax, a novel idea in theory that proves turgid in practice although the shark injects a slight frisson of comical suspense. Overall the film strains too hard for levity while the trend for demystifing Chan’s superhuman abilities - initiated by Stanley Tong but carried further by other filmmakers including Chan himself - goes too far. Previous films expressed his little man against the world philosophy, but here he is an almost ridiculously downtrodden doormat, a cringing klutz who spends most of his time running away from Russians, Australians and Chinese and is outsmarted at every turn by terse, though achingly dull antihero Tsui. Heck, at one point he is even bullied by a homeless tramp!
By far the most insulting scene has one hulking KGB assassin sneer: “Isn’t this guy supposed to be an amazing fighter?” The old Jackie would have found some inventive way to overcome seemingly impossible odds, but here his blows bounce harmlessly off the bad guy’s bulky frame till he just slinks away, humiliated. Sentimentality clouds the Tsui family subplot, sugarcoating characters who are essentially mobsters and imparting an uncomfortable “us against them” undertone. Are there no redeeming features? Well, cinematographer (and future director) Jingle Ma delivers sleek visuals and Jackie performs a nifty dance remix of the Police Story theme song, replaced by bland guitar rock in the New Line version. Fortunately, Jackie was able to rejuvenate the series some years later with New Police Story (2004).