John Hyams’s commentary track on the recent Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning Blu-ray includes an illuminating anecdote about professional martial artists and the long-term implications of movie fights. He explains that real-world reputations are made and broken on the basis of on-screen fight records, and consequently a respected fighter—Jean-Claude Van Damme, in the case of the Hyams film—cannot lose to a relative amateur simply because a screenplay demands it. Audience perception, in other words, matters more than the whims of the diegesis; in the martial-arts world, authority and prestige dictate action.
Jackie Chan never seemed to care about reputation, at least not in the sense that Hyams describes it. The qualities one traditionally associates with iconic action stars—toughness, proficiency, a sense of utter infallibility—have always been conspicuously absent in Chan, a fighter who always seemed to fall into victory rather than actively claim it. There’s a reason he’s long been considered the Charlie Chaplin of cinematic martial arts: His unbridled physicality and proclivity for self-wrought disaster prove that he’s an obvious heir apparent to the master of the full-body blunder, a performer of such unparalleled precision and timing that he makes inevitable victory look like a practical mistake. Chan teaches us that anybody can punch and kick, but it takes real talent to get hit and fall down so grandly.
The Police Story films find Chan getting hit and falling down with peerless aplomb. Though ostensibly sub-Hitchcockian wrong-man mysteries, with a liberal serving of cop-drama clichés rounding out the narrative framework, the films are better enjoyed as purely cinematic catalogues of set pieces and sight gags, spectacles of breathless physical excess. Like many of the most compelling martial-arts movies, the Police Story films more closely resembles a dance picture than any kind of action blockbuster, with meticulously choreographed fight sequences standing in for fan-baiting musical numbers.
In both films, these scenes are clearly the principal, if not exclusive, source of the film’s appeal: Chan traverses the Hong Kong cityscape as though it were some private urban playground, tumbling headlong through parkades and shopping malls like the floors were lined with crash mats—which, even behind the scenes, they are not. An early chase in the first film through a hillside shanty town, one entirely typical of the series’s distinct pleasures, finds Chan holding on to the side of a double-decker bus as it barrels down a precariously winding road, forced to skip across the rooftops of oncoming traffic while fending off the villains trying to kick him off from inside. A Police Story 2 highlight, meanwhile, has him fighting a half-dozen men in and around a literal jungle gym, doing backflips on see-saws and hurtling down slides. This isn’t so much exemplary filmmaking as it is bravura stunt work, but Police Story is a veritable case study in the value of the latter.
In all fairness to Shout! Factory, martial-arts fans—the ones who dig through bootleg stores in Chinatown for every low-budget obscurity—aren’t exactly accustomed to seeing their beloved films in anything remotely resembling high definition. That said, the transfers of the two films included on this disc simply don’t meet the standards set by most mass-market Blu-rays, as the image is overly diffuse, plagued by print damage and just generally unclear. Those familiar with Police Story from late-night TV broadcasts or import DVDs will find this a notable improvement, but only (very) relatively; it’s obvious that the raw materials just aren’t in the shape required to beautify them convincingly. Sound, mercifully, is a different case altogether, with each film including four (!) distinct soundtrack options—both 5.1 and 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio tracks in both English and Cantonese—that should satisfy both language purists and those who want the full-blown bootleg dub experience.
Shout! Factory understands that this double-feature Blu-ray is something of a fans-only affair, and much of what’s included in the extras department should duly please the diehards. An alternate ending and an extended opening for the original Police Story are a nice touch, and an exhaustive gallery of deleted scenes—some of which are so brief that they span literally seconds—show that some real thought went into what is essentially fan service.
As Shout! Factory’s double-feature Blu-ray ably proves, the Police Story films confirm Jackie Chan’s reputation as a master of pure physicality.