Thursday, October 19, 2006

Review - New Police Story

There’s a scene in Lethal Weapon 4 in which veteran detectives Riggs and Murtaugh are licking their wounds after a particularly bruising encounter, and they begin reciting the mantra “I’m not to old for this shit, I’m not to old for this shit” to themselves, gradually getting louder and louder as if they’re willing themselves to believe that it’s true. I thought of Riggs and Murtaugh while watching New Police Story, and I imagined Jackie Chan sitting in his trailer just before every take, mumbling the words “I’m not too old for this shit, I’m not too old for this shit”.

Jackie Chan is 52 years old, and he was pushing 50 when he made New Police Story. He’s still doing the stunts that made him famous, but New Police Story is notable for having far less action than you might be entitled to expect, and instead the bulk of the running time is made up of dramatic scenes which give Jackie a chance to stretch his acting muscles instead of showing his fighting skills for a change. Is this a conscious decision on the part of executive producer Chan? An acknowledgement that his days of high-kicking may soon be behind him, and an opportunity to broaden his range? Whatever the reason behind these choices, they create an imbalance which pretty much kills the movie.

And it all started so well. The film opens with a funny and well-developed hostage situation which Chan foils in some style, and then we meet the crooks who will provide our hero with such a stern test over the next two hours. They’re a bunch of extreme sport-obsessed teenagers who use their skateboarding skills and computer know-how to execute a huge bank heist, and then they hang around until the police arrive so they can have fun killing a few coppers while they’re at it. They give themselves points for each cop they shoot; they treat everything they do as if it’s just another computer game.

Chan is Officer Wing, Hong Kong’s most celebrated detective, and he takes charge of the case, appearing on TV to reassure the city that these hoodlums will be brought to justice within days. He leads a team into the gang’s headquarters - a seemingly abandoned warehouse - and this leads to the film’s first excellent set-piece. The whole building is booby-trapped, with gang leader Joe (Daniel Wu) sadistically picking off Wing’s colleagues one by one from his computerised nerve centre. Wing can only watch, bemused and horrified, as his team-mates disappear, and he eventually finds himself in the middle of a huge open room with his fellow officers hanging from the rafters - wounded but still alive. Joe forces Wing to play games for their lives, and when he fails to perform the tasks set for him he must watch as their ropes are loosened and they plummet to the floor with a sickening thud.

This is a great sequence; tense, clever and surprisingly affecting - but then the movie just deflates in front of our eyes. Wing is traumatised by his failure to protect his team, and he slips into a drunken stupor, alienating his friends, colleagues and his young girlfriend; and for about an hour the film grinds to a halt as we witness the embarrassing spectacle of Jackie Chan displaying his emotional range. He drinks, he cries, he drinks some more and then, yes, he cries a bit more too. Chan seems to be in tears every five minutes in this film, but the glaring fact of the matter is this - while there are few more entertaining sights in cinema than watching Chan flatten opponents in a blur of fists, the man simply isn’t an actor. His inept attempts to signal depth and pain here see him constantly screwing his face up in a variety of ways, none of which express recognisable human emotions (apart from indigestion, perhaps), and every gesture is overblown and melodramatic.

With New Police Story often trying to favour emotions over action, Chan’s amateurish acting is a major flaw, and the film’s flimsy script doesn’t help either. The long scenes of exposition which makes up the bulk of the middle section are appallingly written, and character development (aside from Chan and his young partner Nicholas Tse) is scant. In fact some of the supporting players, such as Wing’s girlfriend, barely exist as characters at all, which causes the later scenes in which their lives are endangered to fall flat. Director Benny Chan shows little grasp of pacing or restraint, and he allows many scenes in this dire period of the film to trundle on far beyond their natural length.

Young actor Nicholas Tse does inject the film with a bit of life, though, and it’s the appearance of his character which motivates Wing to get his life back on track. Tse’s Frank Chen is a mysterious young police officer who turns up out of the blue and goes out of his way to support Wing, to re-ignite his passion for the case which defeated him a year previously, and to build bridges with his frustrated girlfriend. Wing’s fury is stoked when he finds out the criminals have turned the death of his partners into an online video game (necessitating some dire dialogue such as: “if we can just crack this level we can find out where the next heist will take place”) and he eventually resolves to take down this crew in typical Jackie Chan style. About time too.

The final half-hour is a lot of fun. Chan and Tse partake in a terrific barroom brawl, in which the young Tse’s fighting skills almost overshadow his illustrious co-star, and the rest of the film continues in this entertaining vein. There’s some abseiling down the side of buildings, and then we come to the film’s best set-piece; a barnstorming sequence which sees an out-of-control bus cause havoc while Chan desperately tries to stay on the roof. The film then builds up to a strong finale which features lots of Lego and makes good use of the Hong Kong Convention Centre’s spectacular architecture.

But the question remains: is it worth sitting through the numerous mind-numbingly dull and amateurish scenes New Police Story offers in order to enjoy those few entertaining sequences? I don’t think it is. The title might claim that this is a ‘new’ story, but it’s really just a watered-down version of the same Jackie Chan films we’ve seen so many times before; and those hoping that this would be a return to the form Chan showed in his earliest Hong Kong films, before he fell into a seemingly endless cycle of Hollywood buddy movies, will be sorely disappointed. While Chan doesn’t quite have the same spring and speed he once possessed, it’s still a thrill to see him jumping, kicking and falling in his own inimitable fashion; but the more sporadic nature of his action scenes here, and his over-reliance on his poor acting skills, makes one wonder what his future holds. He’s not quite too old for this shit just yet, but what will he do when he is?