[11 August 2007]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
When fans and admirers inside pop culture think of Jackie Chan, the image is usually the same. In a clever combination of Buster Keaton and butt kicking, lighthearted hero and slightly goofy good guy, we find a noble defender capable of some consistently comic-tinged slapstick action. It’s a carefully controlled persona, one perpetrated by skillfully selected scripts and a film façade that uses humor to brace some serious –and quite dangerous – stunt work. It’s a reputation built on real life risk (Chan is the new Evel Knievel of self-imposed bodily harm) and the torturous demands of his Hong Kong cinema roots. Together, it forges an intriguing dynamic, a joyful juxtaposition of bravery with bumbling, the sly reduction of risk by linking the hazard to the demented delights of old fashioned physical comedy. It’s made Chan famous and fabulously wealthy.
And yet it may surprise fans that one of the most successful films of their favorite martial arts jester was also one of his most serious and solidly suspenseful. Based on the real life case of a kidnapped billionaire, and one cop’s unstoppable determination to find the fiends responsible, Crime Story stands as a unique effort in the Chan canon. Tapping into the then trendy mob war mania that was sweeping Hong Kong cinema (thanks in part to John Woo’s massively influential The Killer and Hard Boiled), this tough as nails thriller finds our usually likable hero suffering through some bad law enforcement mojo. A rich real estate magnet with some questionable business practices is snatched by a secret organization made up of fellow entrepreneurs, criminal types, and a lone rogue policeman. Their goal – tap into his massive wealth as a means of righting wrongs within their own poor professional lot. It is up to Chan’s steely eyed inspector to piece together the clues and solve the case.
Indeed, the first thing you notice about Crime Story is how familiar it all feels. We in the West have had only limited exposure to the amazing output of China’s genre-jumping populist cinema, and in that regard, much of the movie feels like one of the archetypal efforts that we’re more or less accustomed to. Smoky, ersatz jazz plays in the background and defiantly ‘80s neon lights flicker behind the action. Wong’s lens arcs and sweeps around scenes, avoiding the slow motion bullet ballet of his fellow stylists. He stages stand-offs in typical chaos supporting set-ups, but then also allows his actors to use the space to amplify the anarchy. During the last act battle between one man army Chan and a cast of corrupt hoods, the apartment block setting is literally blown apart in one of the most spectacular stunts seen on film. Yet Wong keeps our concentration on the character, the interwoven stories of Chan, the corrupt cop, and the off screen victim all working to elevate the angst.
Equally intriguing is the one element Chan fought hardest to remove from the film. Crime Story was supposed to be a serious psychological study on how the increased violence in Hong Kong (and the surrounding sanctuary provided by places like Taiwan and the Mainland) drove one stalwart policeman to basically break down. There was to have been long passages where a therapist delves into the cop’s complicated psyche, trying to decipher if the mandate to kill (as part of his job) was destroying him inside. Naturally, our good-natured, comedy oriented star wanted none of this, and he was tireless in his efforts to remove it from the script. So it’s safe to say that Crime Story is just the slightest shadow of its former self. But Thanks to Wong’s way with the storyline, we still feel the emotional pull of the material, and dread the outcome of this intricate game of cat and mouse.
Fans may feel a bit cheated by the lack of signature stuntwork here, but it’s not all pistols and posturing. During the finale, Crime Story makes up for its lack of aggressive acrobatics by going balls out on one amazing setpiece after another. The minute Chan steps on the boat to find the important clues to link the case to his fellow cop, the movie is relentless. This amazing actor falls from ferocious heights, jumps off walls with a gymnast’s grace, runs through fire and surrounding explosions, and even does some of his well-loved prop pantomime. Sure, the initial car chase is nothing so special, relying more on strategizing than standard vehicular mayhem, and when Chan chases a suspect through a Taiwanese strip joint, the level of invention is not up to his usual showboating. Yet the tense nature of the narrative, meshed with the memorable performance from our lead (who cares if serious doesn’t sell tickets, he is wonderfully effective here) turn Crime Story into a genuine genre gem.
Representing the 17th title brought to DVD by Dragon Dynasty, the added elements offered to supplement this film are what make this disc so special. As stated before, Wong is upfront and personable, describing how Jet Li was linked to the film. The death of the star’s manager at the hands of the actual Triad caused him to balk. The director also talks about the real life policeman who provided the backdrop for the story. Wong recalls how the cop responded to the numerous phone calls for advice (he wasn’t getting paid, which sort of ticked him off) and how the script was constantly being rewritten during production. It’s a sentiment supported by writer Teddy Chen, who is also interviewed here. In addition, we see a few deleted scenes which tend to support the original intent of the film. Aside from the excellent technical specifications, what makes packages like this essential is the desire to add context and other complementary elements. It helps us understand both the movie and the men who made it even more.
Such perspective is important when viewing Crime Story. You’re typical Chan fan who only knows him as the joking, genial lantern of manic martial artistry will probably wince at the concentration on story over stunts. Few will find their happy hero so winning, especially when he continues to let his loyalty to the force let a corrupt cop off the hook – even at the end. There will the obvious comparisons to Woo, the unfavorable critical assessments in view of the much lighter, and much more popular, Police Story films. But whenever an established name challenges the standards that made him or her a star, the initial uproar is deafening. Luckily, when it dies down, we are left with the movie itself – and in that capacity, Crime Story is a classic.