Jackie Chan trades slapstick for seriousness in Kirk Wong’s semi-real action thriller.
“You don’t know the agony of being a policeman. Risking one’s life for a paltry pay only.”
For a few years now Jackie Chan has opted to play serious roles over his trademark slapstick goofballs. We’ve seen it in both reboots of Police Story, and in films like The Foreigner and the Shinjuku Incident. They give Chan a chance to flex his acting muscles and do action scenes that have a bit more dramatic meat to them – and for the most part they’ve been pretty successful (certainly much more successful than his more recent attempts at mainland-directed non-comedy). But he’s been sneaking in serious movie roles his whole career, and nowhere was it more evident than his turn in the surprisingly dark 1993 crime story fittingly titled Crime Story.
Jackie Chan continues his trend of playing characters who share some characteristic of his real name by playing Eddie Chan of the OCTB branch of the Hong Kong police. He’s been receiving therapy for PTSD after killing several bank robbers in self-defense. He’s assigned the task of looking after businessman Wong Yat-fei (Law Kar-ying) who, in the midst of a scandal involving worker’s rights and pay, strongly believes somebody is out to kidnap him. This turns out to be true. A group of criminals, headed by HKPD’s own Detective Hung (Kent Cheng), apprehends Wong’s car and kidnaps him. Chan finds himself at the head of the investigation, chasing leads and criminals in Hong Kong, and even through Taiwan.
Right out of the gate we’re given a Chan who’s receiving psychological help, which immediately sets up that this story isn’t kidding around. It doesn’t really go anywhere, but the tone is set pretty quickly which helps the audience identify that, despite its title, this won’t have anything to do with Police Story (and in fact, the title could be seen as a reverse of that film series). To that end Chan plays his role well, and if I hadn’t already seen his dramatic chops in other films would have been pleasantly surprised at how well he’s able to play his usual affable nice guy, but with a slightly grittier overtone. That that the film is somewhat based on the real-life kidnapping of businessman Teddy Wang who was taken in 1990 was undoubtedly part of the reason the story was treated so seriously.
There’s also a running theme about blue collar workers treated unfairly that runs throughout, and a criticism of working conditions in Hong Kong. It’s never so overpowering as to undermine any of the thriller and action elements, but the theme seems to play a very big role in the plot, from Wong’s paranoia that his workers are conspiring against him to the overworked cops such as Hung, who feel resentment towards their work and resort to elaborate crimes and heists. It’s subtle for the most of the film, but helps add a layer of thematic resonance and verisimilitude to what could have been a shallow and so-so film. By taking its subject matter seriously and drawing from real elements director Kirk Wong allows us to immerse ourselves a bit more than the average thriller.
Interestingly, as the man who directed the action in the movie, Jackie can’t seem to fully click with Wong’s drama, directing his usual larger-than-life set-pieces which defy reality in a way that doesn’t quite work when you’re not doing comedy. As exciting and excellently performed as some of the stunts are (especially the car chase during the kidnapping) the tonal shift is a bit jarring in places, and it’s not helped by the occasional moment of brutality and high body count, as if to indicate that this is indeed high stakes stuff. It’s so hardcore that it almost veers into silly territory. This is an issue that’s often present in his more serious movies – see New Police Story – but it doesn’t happen enough to ruin any of the viewing experience.
Without Crime Story, it’s hard to say whether Jackie would have pursued his dramatic career more. The film works as the predecessor to many of Jackie Chan’s modern thrillers, and boosted by a solid story and excellent cast, he’s able to break out of his shell and show us that he’s more than Buster Keaton-inspired shenanigans. It’s for the best, really, because there’s only so much Kung Fu Yoga we as a society can really take.
Verdict: Its tonal balance is sometimes out of whack, but more often than not Crime Story passes as a gripping, well-told martial arts thriller.
Overall entertainment: 8.5/10
Crime syndicate: What was the point of them?
Blood oaths: Why not
Chinese title: Just as bad as the English
Taiwanese cops: Fire machine guns blindly into crowds, apparently
Mercy killing: I didn’t think Jackie had it in him
Crime Story (1993)
Also known as: 重案組, lit: Crime Squad
Director: Kirk Wong
Writers: Teddy Chan, Cheung Chi-sing
Jackie Chan – Inspector Eddie Chan
Kent Cheng – Detective Hung Ting-bong
Law Kar-ying – Wong Yat-fei
Puishan Au-yeung – Wong Yat-fei’s wife
Blackie Ko – Captain Ko
Pan Lingling – Psychiatrist
Christine Ng – Lara
William Tuan – Superintendent Cheung