There’s a scene in Sammo Hung’s Millionaires Express, a rollicking heist/western/kung fu movie from 1986 that is a go-to when I discuss the stunt-work being done in Hong Kong in the 1980s.
In it, Yuen Biao, one of the stars of the film, does a front flip off of a burning three-story building, landing on the ground below. It’s shot well back, so the whole building is in the frame throughout the shot. There’s nowhere to hide. There are no edits. No air mattresses or piles of cardboard boxes. It’s just Yuen jumping off of a burning building. It’s not the most dramatic or even the most dangerous stunt from the 1980s but it’s so honest it’s one of my favorites to talk about. It provides a clear illustration of the unique combination of skill, authenticity and institutional fearlessness that made 1980s Hong Kong stunt work unique in the history of cinema.
Central to that idea is, of course, Jackie Chan and his stunt-team and the work they did on the now decades long Police Story series. The series, which recently saw its sixth entry with Police Story 2013, is the purest distillation of Jackie’s approach to action cinema and features some of the most important work of his career.
The original Police Story is the single greatest example of the glories that were possible when you mixed highly trained acrobats and martial artists with a bold, let’s-make-this-happen environment in which risking one’s life was par for the course. The mall-destroying finale is the greatest action set piece of all time; blending martial arts, acrobatic stunt work and even some indoor motorcycle stunts into a breathtaking final reel. Police Story 4: First Strike (released in the US as just First Strike) introduced the incomparable Michelle Yeoh to western audiences (in a role where she was allowed to overshadow Jackie to a degree rare in that phase of his career) and presented one of the best fights of Jackie’s storied career, an intricate prop fight featuring an a-frame ladder.
Police Story 2 isn’t the equal of the original Police Story and doesn’t have a co-star the equivalent of Michelle Yeoh. What it does have, blistering stunt work and fights, it has in spades.
One fight in particular deserves special attention. There is no better example of the talent and dedication of Jackie’s stunt team than the playground fight that takes place halfway through the film. In it, Jackie fights about a dozen different henchmen in a running romp through a Hong Kong playground. At the time he actually had a “Jackie Stunt Team” on the payroll and this fight showcases a large percentage of them. While you’re sitting there mouth agape at the intricate fight choreography, pay attention to the moments that actually hurt. “Movie magic” in Hong Kong in 1988 wasn’t about fancy artifice. It was about showing up and making the shot happen. There are a lot of on-screen moments where someone is taking one for the team.
I’ll point out a couple to get you started.
- Jackie himself is flipped around and heave-hoed onto his chest from shoulder height by four guys.
- Jackie kicks a guy in a gray jacket in the head. Martial artists have a lot of control over how hard they can hit you when they make contact, but even still this is just the guy getting a kick to the head. It’s not a “stunt” in the way that most people would think of stunts. It’s telling that Jackie shows the impact twice, a cinematic technique he reserves for “big” elements like the famous jump down the pole in the Police Story finale.
- Jackie grabs the feet of an opponent in a shiny grey suit and flips him over to land chest first on the steel rails of a half-moon climber (a ladder bent into a semi-circle for kids to climb on)
- Seconds later, Jackie kicks an opponent into the half-moon climber. He lands with his butt in the space between two rails, eventually falling through the space and landing with a thud on the ground below.
- Jackie whips a metal pipe into the shins of one of his opponents, tripping him up. Even assuming shin-guards or something similar, I wince at this one every time.
The whole sequence ends with a Jackie stunt that fits in with the theme. Two guys in a car chase Jackie down a dead-end alley. The only way out, truly the only possible way out since it’s all in frame, is for Jackie to run up the wall and land on the hood of the car as it crashes into the wall. It’s just a wall, a car and Jackie. If things had gone wrong, he would have been crushed between a car and the wall. In 1988 Hong Kong that was just the way you did it even if you were the biggest star around. It was a grand convergence of talent, determination and a blatant disregard for life and limb.
We’ll never see anything like it again.
Beyond the playground fight, the rest of the action sequences are all top-notch. The highlight is definitely the playground fight, but there’s plenty of reason to stick around until the end. The finale, with Jackie hitchhiking across Hong Kong on the back of a double decker bus and then the final fight (the sequence with Benny Lai especially) at a fireworks factory are especially fun.
The rest of the film? The rest of the film is best seen as a vehicle to deliver stunts and action scenes. It’s like much of Jackie’s work as a director; it’s workman-like cinema bolted on top of the greatest action direction you’ve ever seen.
For a more complete Jackie Chan experience from that era I prefer the two Sammo Hung directed classics Dragons Forever and Wheels on Meals, all starring Jackie, Sammo and Yuen Biao.
Before I sign off on this one, there are two members of the cast worth noting, even if it’s not for their performances in this film. The first is Maggie Cheung who plays Jackie’s love interest. She is set-up as a one-dimensional damsel-in-distress. Her character is there to be saved by Jackie. That’s really it.
Of course, being Maggie, she does a great job of it. There’s a scene where she’s tearing into Jackie in a shower at the police station that she plays as well as any human could, given the circumstances. She also gets in on the stunt action. Completing a great stunt during the finale where she outruns toppling scaffolding.
Still, if your image of Maggie is from In the Mood for Love or any of her other later films, Police Story 2 might be weird for you.
The other one is new to me. I hadn’t watched Police Story 2 all the way through in probably 20 years when I sat down to write this article. I’ve watched sequences on multiple occasions, but never the whole thing. In the intervening 20 years, a certain Lau Ching-Wan has developed into one of my favorite actors working in Hong Kong. He was the go-to star of early Milkyway Image Ltd films like Patrick Yau’s Expect the Unexpected, Wai Ka-Fai’s Too Many Ways to Be No. 1 and Johnnie To’s Running Out of Time. He also stars alongside the impossibly charming Sammi Cheng in Johnnie To’s, romantic ghost story comedy, My Left Eye Sees Ghosts (a film you should seek out.) He’s also got a bit part in Police Story 2, which kind of freaked me out a little bit when I recognized him. See if you can spot him during his three minutes of screen time.
That’s all I’ve got for this one. I’ve had a fine time writing about Jackie over the past month. Hopefully you’ve had as much fun checking out these special films.