Jackie Chan: Action Auteur

This is an article I wrote about the Jackie Chan films Police Story and Police Story II for an unfortunately now defunct site:

Jackie Chan: Action Auteur

Tons of ink and digital pixels have been spilled talking about how Jackie Chan risks his life to please his audiences, and for good reason. Are his stunts amazing? Yes. Without question. But whenever anyone talks or write about Jackie, all they focus on is the action. This is a huge disservice to the man. What is missing in the conversation is Jackie Chanʼs immense talent and ability as a filmmaker, a director, an auteur. Thatʼs right. Auteur. The snooty French auteur theory talks about how even in a collaborative medium such as film, a singular voice can influence and imprint a movie with their vision and style. In Police Story & Police Story II, Jackie Chan was the director, co-writer, star and stunt coordinator.

How better to define singular vision and influence on a picture?

Prior to Police Story, cop movies had degenerated from intense thrillers and dramas such as The French Connection and Serpico into hackneyed procedurals that resembled something on television, only with bigger budgets, movie stars and excessive macho posturing. The genre had become so worn out that the only way to make a cop film stand out was to combine it with another genre like comedy (e.g., Beverly Hills Cop). Enter Jackie Chan.

Even as he became the biggest star in Hong Kong, Jackie had always seen Hollywood as the pinnacle of movie making. For good reason: No one made movies better than Hollywood. However, after his second attempt to break into Hollywood on the James Glickenhaus movie The Protector, Hollywood had lost a little of its luster for Jackie. On the set of this dull cop film, Jackie realized that American directors had no idea how to shoot action. To make matters worse, the non-action bits, aka the story, was pedestrian and flat. Jackie knew he could do better. So he did.

Jackie realized that he could make his movie stand out by grounding the action in realism. Instead of the tough-guy macho posturing of Hollywood action stars, Jackie created an everyman character who could get hurt and even be scared and humiliated. His character wasnʼt always right, but he always did the right thing. This made Jackieʼs character relatable to the audience, and it had the effect of making his amazing feats of action even more astonishing. This wasnʼt an ex-Navy Seal or Special Forces soldier hanging off the side of a bus with an umbrella, this was you and me.

Itʼs easy to focus on Jackieʼs stunts and amazing action sequences and miss all the hard work and craft that goes into making them. Jackieʼs camerawork is not flashy like American directors. It is better than that: It is effective. The camera does

not move around unmotivated. Instead it is always in the right place at the right time with one goal in mind: clarity. This makes the action more believable, as it allows the audience to see everything to create the illusion that what you see is really happening and there are no tricks. Except there are. There are wire pulls, hidden pads, impact powder and other tricks of the stunt trade used to make the action more exciting hidden in plain sight by the illusion of reality created by the director, Jackie Chan.

Another technique that Jackie Chan uses to control the ride on which he takes his audience is editing and pacing. Jackie designs his action and edits his film so that his action sequences are fast and frantic. Take the finale of Police Story, which many people affectionately call “Glass Story” for the seemingly endless panes of glass that Jackie and his team break, or the playground fight sequence in Police Story II. As soon as Jackie dispatches one assailant, another joins the attack. This fighting frenzy flows at a rapid pace one right after the other, creating excitement with its machine-gun pace and never giving Jackie a break or letting the audience catch its breath. But this, too, is an illusion. What Jackie, the filmmaker, has done is edited in a moment that showcases a stunt or painful fall. It works like this: FIGHT FIGHT FIGHT FIGHT BIG FALL/REACTION! FIGHT FIGHT FIGHT BIG STUNT. In the glass mall sequence, youʼll see Jackie fight with multiple assailants before a bad guy hits Jackie with a briefcase and sends him face first into a pane of glass.