The lines in Jackie Chan’s face stand out all through New Police Story, and there are scenes where he sits hollow-cheeked and cold-eyed, staring at a point somewhere far off-camera. These moments hint at the “new” Jackie Chan we’ve been hearing about on and off for some time — a Jackie who eschews stuntwork, pratfalls and general tomfoolery for more serious acting. But Jackie will always be Jackie, and New Police Story is about 50 percent “new” Jackie and 50 percent “old” Jackie — you know, the guy who could scramble up a sheer brick face like a squirrel and do it so fast you could barely see how he did it.
Jackie Chan turned fifty last year. The fact that he has survived as long as he has, given the kind of work he chooses to do, is nothing short of a miracle. He should be dead six times over, so any new movie with him in it I consider to be a kind of a gift. New Police Story shows him dealing with age by modulating his stuntwork with actual acting, and the remarkable thing is that even though he’s at the mercy of middlebrow material, there are scenes which work so well and in such an understated way that I suddenly wanted to see more of that, and the movie’s plot and setup seemed all the more like an afterthought. It’s still a fun movie, don’t get me wrong — like I said, any new Jackie Chan movie is worth savoring in some way — but it’s most intriguing for what it suggests as being legitimately possible for Jackie in the future outside of his usual chase-and-slap productions.
Despite the title, this isn’t a sequel to the earlier Police Story films; the Inspector Wing of this film is not the Ka-Kui of the other movies. Wing is less of a hotshot than Ka-Kui was, but stick him in a distressing situation and he acts. In one of the first scenes in the movie, he tricks his way into a hostage situation, gets a gun and a grenade away from the bad guy, and dispenses with both with bare seconds to spare. But his confidence gets the better of him when he leads his tactical unit into the lair of a gang of high-tech thrill-junky bank robbers, and when it’s all over not only has his entire team has been massacred but his spirit has been broken.
Jackie takes the year off and spends most of it inside a bottle. Then one of the younger detectives comes around to shake him out of his lethargy, and that leads to one of the scenes I mentioned earlier. The younger fellow, Fung (Nicholas Tse), drags him over to his girlfriend’s apartment to get him to wish her happy birthday — and he does, but his body language and his downcast eyes and everything else about him are of a man who simply cannot forgive himself. It’s such a strong moment that it pushes the movie’s manufactured plot completely aside, and made me believe that Jackie has a future as a serious actor outside of his usual clownish screen persona. Based on what I saw here, he could have held his own very well in a film like PTU or Infernal Affairs, although New Police Story, rough as it is, is miles removed from the gritty seriousness of either of those movies.
Despite giving it his best effort, Wing becomes despondent, and it's to his credit that Jackie makes us believe it.
The bad guys in Jackie’s movies are usually outlandish, over-the-top caricatures, and it’s no different here. They’re a bratty gang of rich kids who rob banks, but the movie goes to extraordinary lengths to make them despicable: they also hate cops, and make cop-killing part of their game. Their favorite trick is to take one of the bank employees hostage, and use him to draw fire from the police (whom they gleefully pick off from the rooftops above). Jackie has said he avoids playing bad guys because he doesn’t want to be a negative role model, but does that mean the bad guys get absolute blanche to be despicable?
By degrees Fung wears down the older man’s resistance and gets him back on the case. What’s odd is that Jackie seems to do relatively little of the actual detective work; he’s mostly a catalyst for action, but most of the mechanical details of how they close in on the gang are disposable, anyway. The real story is how the character gets his confidence back, and preserves it through all manner of hellish situations. One of the nastiest has the gang leader, Joe (Daniel Wu), planting a bomb on Jackie’s girlfriend (if you find yourself romantically liaised with Jackie Chan in any movie, run) and a subsequent disarming attempt. What’s surprising is that the girl is remarkably fatalistic about her position — she’s accepted that being with Jackie may be bad for her health — and her behavior would have had a lot more power if the filmmakers hadn’t surrounded it with one too many double-reverses.
Surprising, perhaps, that I’ve gotten this far into reviewing a Jackie Chan movie and haven’t said anything about the stunts. That’s a mistake, now that I think about it, because New Police Story has a few of the most audacious set-pieces I’ve seen Jackie pull off in ages. One of them involves rappelling down the side of a building — or, rather, Jackie locking a pair of handcuffs onto someone else’s jump cable to do the same. It’s the sort of thing where you swear they must have cheated it somehow, but then they show the outtakes and you realize, no, that really was Jackie sliding down the side of a building. Another and even more hair-raising sequence has Jackie trapped in the upper level of a double-decker bus with no one at the wheel, while most of downtown Hong Kong gets demolished in the process.
His martial arts are also still sharp: Jackie goes toe-to-toe with the gang leaders not once but twice, and while he’s not quite as agile as he used to be, he’s still amazing. (This double showdown thing is a little like history repeating itself: it plays the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.) Some of his fight work in the first half of the film comes off as a quasi-homage to his earlier Drunken Master II — at least two of the scrapes he gets into early on are because he’s too sloshed to fight back correctly, but he quickly becomes living proof that the best sober-up medicine is adrenaline.
The last several Jackie Chan movies have been American productions where the strategy seemed to be, let’s stick Jackie into an otherwise mediocre movie and see if he can improve it by dint of simply being in it. It hasn’t worked: The Medallion, both Rush Hour movies, Shanghai Noon / Shanghai Knights, The Tuxedo — the only thing interesting in any of them is him (and Chris Tucker in Rush Hour), and he barely makes them watchable. New Police Story seems to be an object lesson in two fronts: 1) Put Jackie back in Hong Kong where he belongs, and 2) yeah, let’s see the man act a little more, too.