The Surprising Elegance of Jackie Chan

I’ve been on a bit of a different movie kick lately. Watched Attack The Block (finally!) before jumping into a bunch of martial arts flicks like The Raid and Armor of God. The latter prompted a dive into Jackie Chan’s filmography and that’s how I found myself watching Police Story. Which, somehow, I hadn’t seen before.

Which is a real shame. Because, dang, that’s an excellent movie. And not just in the “Good-Jackie-Chan-flick” or even just cool for an action movie. We’re talking great across the board. Yes, the action and stunts are unquestionably top notch, but the central story is quite robust and there are a couple truly exceptional scenes.

Like many a good cop movie, there’s a courtroom scene where the hero cop tries to indict the villain. What surprised me when I watched it was how surprisingly well done it is. Rather than being a scene just there for fluff, it’s a scene treated with as much craft as the rest of the movie. It’s an intense scene with as many twists and turns as an action scene. It’s good, is what I’m saying, something you almost wouldn’t expect to be in this sort of film.

The other thing that Police Story does that so many movies forgo is the use of slapstick. Emblematic of Jackie Chan’s films is slapstick — both within action scenes and in the story itself. This slapstick isn’t just physical comedy, but also fantastic visual storytelling. Take the scene where Jackie’s character, Ka Kui, takes the witness, Selina, back to his apartment. What follows is a great sequence where Selina and May, Ka Kui’s girlfriend, attempt to stay out of his sight as Ka Kui bad mouths her. It’s hilarious and it works, in no small part because there’s actually a great deal of effort and craft put into it. The camerawork is used to hide things for solid reveals and the characters’ blocking move them around, just keeping them missing each other.

But the best part of Police Story is how all of this works together, particularly within Ka Kui’s character. It’s not terribly easy to get a proper read on him, insofar as it’s hard to pigeonhole him into a Typical Protagonist Archetype. He’s not quite the renegade cop or the one good police officer or even the bumbling incompetent sort. Ka Kui is a good, honorable officer, but he’s also not above being a bit of a jerk. But even more noteworthy, the movie balances him being a slapstick character while also letting him be dramatic. He’s not just the comic relief character, he also gets heavy beats. The court scene is a big moment for Ka Kui, an early chance for him to prove himself to the audience. At that point in the film we’re able to take him seriously enough for it to have enough drama, but its ending on a comedic beat doesn’t feel out of place. Yes, it’s a blow to him and his goal, but it doesn’t diminish him as a character. It’s effective because Police Story’s world is one that allows for both deep drama and broad comedy.

It’s an unusual tone not really seen in Western films, where the hero can be the butt of slapstick jokes but still be, well, the hero. Maybe it’s partially born out of a familiarity with the sort of stuff Jackie Chan makes, but it may also be a willingness to think a little differently about storytelling. At the end of the day, I’m honestly not sure. I grew up with all sorts of movies from all over the place, but never realized how well done some of them were — like Police Story. In any case, I’ve a bunch more Jackie Chan flicks on my to-watch list.

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