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Review: A ‘Police Story’ restoration puts Jackie Chan back on the big screen where he belongs

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Jackie Chan in the 1985 movie “Police Story.”
(Janus Films)
Film Critic

The only thing more perfunctory than the title of “Police Story” might be the story itself, and that’s precisely as it should be. A 1985 triumph of farce and fisticuffs that helped launch Jackie Chan as an action star beyond his already huge Asian following, this joyous movie was clearly made for an audience that likes to take its poison straight. (If you’ve never been part of that audience before, you’re in luck: It’s returning to theaters Friday in a new digital 4K restoration, alongside its 1988 follow-up, “Police Story II.”)

Chan himself knew that any cop-drama intrigue (devised in collaboration with co-screenwriter, Edward Tang) would be the thinnest of pretexts, a mere excuse for him to show off all the astonishing, opponent-pummeling, gravity-defying things his body could do. It should therefore come as no surprise that while “Police Story” barely coheres as a set of plot points, it completely soars as a compendium of glorious, indelible moments. It replays itself the same way in your memory, and much of it is very memorable indeed.

Chan, who co-directed the movie with Chen Chi-hwa, hurls us almost immediately into a frenzied shootout, followed by a downhill car chase that decimates a shantytown and leaves you wondering how all this could possibly be happening in the first 20 minutes. The ending is a symphony of shattered glass that turns a shopping mall into a lethal slip-and-slide playground, building to a high-wire stunt so spectacular it gets instantly replayed — twice, from different angles.

In between those elaborate bookends comes what may be the movie’s signature image, in which Chan’s absurdly reckless Hong Kong cop, “Kevin” Chan Ka-kui, dangles by an umbrella from a double-decker bus. It’s an example of Chan’s ingenuity at its purest, the kind of scene in which the actor and the character seem to merge not just physically but psychically: Just as Kevin will do anything to catch the bad guys, so will Chan do anything for the sake of an audience’s pleasure.

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Jackie Chan and Maggie Cheung in the 1988 movie "Police Story II."
(Janus Films)

That pleasure involves many sharp inhalations of breath as characters kick their way through car windshields, tumble out upper-story windows and leap off rooftops into swimming pools. It also involves a lot of laughter. The plot, such as it is, finds Kevin forced to play bodyguard to Selina Fong (Brigitte Lin), a key witness against the powerful drug lord Chu Tao (Yuen Chor). Multiple assassination attempts ensue, one of them hilariously fake, though the chief casualty may be Kevin’s relationship with his long-suffering girlfriend, May (an endlessly sympathetic Maggie Cheung).

A brazen mix of head-through-the-glass violence and pie-in-the-face slapstick, with a dash of Capra-esque working-class comedy for good measure, “Police Story” is remarkably seamless in tone and execution. The same can’t quite be said of the longer, lesser “Police Story II,” an enjoyably uneven sequel that sees Kevin extending his war with Chu Tao’s syndicate. The drug lord’s time between bars turns out to be all too temporary, and he’s vindictive enough to send his thugs after Kevin and May, whose on-and-off-again romance endures a fresh round of blows (including a heartbreakingly interrupted romantic getaway).

Like quite a few sequels, “Police Story II” — itself just one of many subsequent entries in the franchise — plays like a gleeful but not entirely necessary reminder of what its predecessor did so well. A shopping mall is not just systematically destroyed from within but bombed to smithereens. And speaking of explosives, there’s a lot more scatological humor, most of it thanks to Kevin’s immediate superior (Bill Tung) and a dramatically unmotivated case of indigestion. The busy plot bogs down in one too many labyrinthine detours, and Chan, directing solo this time, allows rather too much screen time to pass in which he isn’t destroying a restaurant, leaping over stairwells or jumping onto fast-moving trucks.

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But he always gets there eventually, and the movie in turn finds its sweet spot. If the choreography behind these intricate set-pieces is dauntingly complex, the satisfactions they produce could hardly be simpler. It’s the joy of watching Chan, a Buster Keaton of kickboxing, hurling himself into every stunt with total commitment, astounding athleticism and oddly unflappable, shaggy-haired grace. His death-defying exuberance is all the glue these movies need.

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‘Police Story’

Cantonese with English dialogue

Rating: PG-13 for violence, brief sexual humor and drug content

Running time: 1 hour, 42 minutes

Playing: Nuart Theatre, West Los Angeles

‘Police Story II’

Cantonese with English dialogue

Rating: PG-13 for violence, pervasive martial arts action and some nudity

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Running time: 2 hours, 2 minutes

Playing: Nuart Theatre, West Los Angeles

justin.chang@latimes.com | Twitter: @JustinCChang


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