Fists of Fury: POLICE STORY and POLICE STORY 2 (1985/1988, Jackie Chan)

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With the general, distressing decline in the state of action cinema, not only (but most noticeably) in the United States but in general film at large, standouts like the occasional Hong Kong film and Tom Cruise’s reign over the Mission: Impossible franchise become increasingly lonely lights in the darkness. So it comes as a relief to have the opportunity to reexamine works from more halcyon times, when pre-Handover Hong Kong served as one of the most exciting places for the production of film in cinematic history.

One of the most internationally well-known purveyors of Hong Kong’s particular mode of action cinema was (and to some degree still is) Jackie Chan, who, after a large amount of work as an actor and stunt performer and a brief, unsatisfying stint in Hollywood, returned to the colony to create his most enduring work as a director: 1985’s Police Story, which was followed by the equally popular (if not as artistically successful) Police Story 2 in 1988. Both star Chan as Inspector Chan Ka-Kui, a bold and talented police officer in the Hong Kong Police Force, who uses substantial martial arts skills and near-superhuman endurance to best the numerous criminals and gangs who beset him. This double-header cemented Chan’s status in the West as a presence equally gifted in death-defying action and physical comedy, and provided a path for his career going forward.

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Keeping all this context in mind, the actual manner in which Police Story proceeds is often surprising in a gratifying way; for all the surface pleasures that Chan provides in lightweight films like the Rush Hour series, this is a film that consistently and impressively touches upon structures endemic to Hong Kong society. (Not for nothing did Richard Roud select the film for the 25th New York Film Festival.) Police corruption almost serves as the subtext that threatens to become text throughout the film, as Ka-Kui’s compatriots are either incompetent, bribed by the drug dealers, or hamstrung by bureaucratic expectations and regulations. Chan fills the role of the rogue cop who gets results almost too well, and yet (at least in the first film) he never becomes just the hero: his character is always complicated by his all-too human traits.

Like many a great director, Chan is interested in the processes that run microcosms, and the slow build-up to the first great setpiece of the franchise — involving extreme vehicular destruction — observes the police force outlining an operation. This idea is taken even further in Police Story 2, which is half taken up by a full-on surveillance investigation led by Ka-Kui, a development which lends some nice Hawksian charm that, if not essential, is missing from its predecessor.

But of course, the one and only star of the Police Story films — not to discount the efforts of a very game Maggie Cheung (in her breakout role) as Ka-Kui’s long-suffering girlfriend May, and Brigitte Lin in the first film as a material witness — is Jackie Chan, and the films’ best moments focus squarely on him, whether in total action mode or in very deft physical comedy. The latter may be the more unfamiliar, but such moments as when Chan must juggle four telephones and conversations simultaneously in a police station manage to feel both completely self-contained and yet endemic to the flow of the film.

That flow, of course, is centered around the action, and this trait is key to the first film’s astonishing power. Police Story‘s trajectory feels almost predestined, as Ka-Kui is thrown further and further into the machinations of the triad until he quite literally cannot restrain himself from causing untold amounts of property damage and corporeal devastation (though not to the point of death). Action is reconfigured as a motivating force that overrides every character’s moral and physical capabilities; in both films every character — even and especially Cheung’s May — gets brutally injured. Chan’s brilliance, at least in the first movie, is that the lines are at once blurred and totally clear, where Ka-Kui still remains the hero because of his herculean feats. And the fact that it is Chan himself hanging on to a bus with an umbrella, or sliding three stories down a light-covered pole, makes it that much more impressive, that much more legitimately, wondrously dangerous.

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Railroad Tigers (Ding Sheng, 2016)

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January is the greatest movie month there is. Not only are we in the lesser metropolises of America finally granted access to tardiest of the previous year’s award hopefuls (see this week’s Silence), but via studio counter-programming logic, we also get Hollywood’s most interesting action films. The bloated prestige actioners get released in the summer (your Marvels and Nolans), while a handful of unstoppable forces stake their claim to winter break (the Star Warses and Camerons), while the suits and bean-counters push the films they don’t know how to exploit to the shadow of Oscar season. This is the month of Paul WS Anderson (his Resident Evil: The Final Chapter opens at the end of the month). It’s also blockbuster season in China, with big titles being released at Christmastime and especially at Lunar New Year, which falls between the end of January and the end of February (it’s January 28 this year). Two years ago the big early January Chinese import was Tsui Hark’s The Taking of Tiger Mountain, last year it was Donnie Yen’s Ip Man 3. This year, we’ve got Railroad Tigers, opening this week at the Pacific Place.

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Dragon Blade (Daniel Lee, 2015)

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A historical epic with Jackie Chan, John Cusack and Adrian Brody, set along the Silk Road as a fugitive Roman legion encounters a Chinese security force, this was even worse than I imagined it would be. Let’s set aside the complete and utter ahistoricality of it all (despite the “based on real events” title card at the start), (OK, one point: it’s set in 48 BC, but all the Romans refer to themselves as being part of the Roman Empire: Julius Caesar was assassinated in 44 BC, and the Empire not really established until 27 BC, and even then it wasn’t called that for quite awhile later) or the simplistic naiveté of Jackie Chan’s vision of interracial harmony, the uplifting and apparently inevitable side effect of manly exercises like play-fighting and building stuff, and just focus on the action, which is ostensibly all one looks for in a Jackie Chan film. It’s pretty boring. Chan looks old and tired, the costuming pads him out (the better to absorb blows he would have taken bare-chested 30 years ago?) and slows him down. The choreography occasionally makes creative use of found objects, but that only reminds one of better scenes in other Chan films. The editing has the same peripatetic rhythm of 21st century wuxia, but with none of the surreal flair that CGI effects can give such films (Chan remains the most committed to actuality of his peers). Most absurdly though, director Daniel Lee continually frames Chan as an angelic figure, beaming beatifically on the men he has lectured and unified, awkward grin on his poorly-coiffed head (some things never change) as he is haloed by the backlighting sun. It makes one long to return to the striking image of a crucified, eyeless, John Cusack, if only out of a longing to take his place.

Dragon Blade continues, somewhat surprisingly, at the Varsity Theatre.

Fists and Fury at the Cinerama

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This week, the Cinerama is playing what they’ve dubbed their “First Mixed Martial Arts Festival”, a collection of movies, Hong Kong and Japan mostly, in which kicking, punching and/or swordplay is prominently featured. Playing two or three different movies per day, mostly DCP but with some 35mm, its an eclectic mix of masterpieces, curiosities and what amounts to an almost-complete Bruce Lee retrospective.

I don’t think I’ve ever been as mixed about a film series as I am about this mixed martial arts series. On the one hand, and probably most importantly, there are a bunch of great movies playing here, included some films that haven’t played in Seattle since the heyday of Landmark’s Hong Kong repertory run in the mid-1990s. The chance to see Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, Toshiro Mifune, Stephen Chow and Jet Li in that gorgeous Cinerama environment is not to be dismissed lightly. Even under less than ideal conditions, like digital projections of DCPs and Blu-Rays, seeing these films is a treat. But there appears to be no rhyme or reason to the way this festival was put together, with many of the best films showing at the most inconvenient times, no clear threadlike connecting the films from different countries or eras and a lot of sub-standard source material for a repertory festival.

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