Police Force [警察] (1973)
Starring Wong Chung, Lily Li Li-Li, Alexander Fu Sheng, Wang Hsieh, Helen Ko, Wang Kuang-Yu, Wong Shu-Tong, Tung Lam, Fung Hak-On
Directed by Chang Cheh & Ulysses Au-Yeung Jun
It’s never nice when a film pulls a bait-and-switch, but Police Force is one such film. It’s possible that I was an accomplice in this, though, because as soon as I saw Alexander Fu Sheng kicking ass in a karate tournament I got so revved up that anything short of a kung fu barn-burner might have disappointed. But Police Force is only an action film some of the time, and even then a fair portion of the action is more gun-based police stuff than straight kung fu.
Fu Sheng plays a karate master (or a “Karate Kid” as the villain calls him 🙂 ) who is inexplicably singled out by Kao Tu (Wang Kuang-Yu), a petty robber, as a good mark for a job. Really, dude? You just watched Fu Sheng annihilate the competition at the karate tournament, and then decide to target him? OK, whatever! Sometime later, Kao Tu and his buddy assault Fu Sheng and his girlfriend (Lily Li) on a mountain, but Fu Sheng manages to kill one of them before Kao Tu does him in. Fu Sheng’s death fuels Lily Li and Wong Chung’s movie-long search for his killer, but as a viewer it felt deeper than that. Within these 15 minutes of screentime, Fu Sheng is so electric that his charm and energy leaps off the screen with incredible force. This was his first substantial role and he absolutely kills it. There’s no way to watch this movie and not think that he HAS to star in future films. Star power is something that certain people just have, and Fu Sheng has it in spades.
This works for the movie because Fu Sheng’s presence is so overwhelming and likable that you can easily understand why his friends would dedicate themselves to finding justice for his death. It also works against the film, though, as neither Lily Li or Wong Chung have what it takes to command your attention in quite the same way. I love both of them and they turn in great performances here, but it’s just not enough. Coupled with a somewhat slow, methodically paced film, I was left wanting and often thinking back on the opening 15 minutes when Fu Sheng was kicking ass at the karate tournament (exquisitely choreographed by Lau Kar-Leung and Tang Chia).
Police Force is one of Chang Cheh’s co-directed films, this time with Ulysses Au-Yeung Jun. In Chang Cheh’s memoir he mentions how in these co-directed films he often took the role of an executive producer, and the other director would execute all or most of the actual directing work (kind of like George Lucas’s role on Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi). He specifically mentions The Delinquent working like this, and judging from the overall quality of Police Force I’d say that this was the case here as well. The film bears some specific Chang Cheh traits, like excellent use of intense slo-mo to punctuate especially brutal or emotional moments, or the idea of a film looking into a specific sub-culture in an almost documentary-like manner (in this case, the Hong Kong police), but overall it feels far too sloppy and emotionally cold to fit in alongside Chang Cheh’s other films of the time. This could also be my way of explaining away a Chang Cheh film that I didn’t completely love, but even without substantiation I don’t think this is the case.
Police Force might be uneven, but it does offer an interesting look inside the Hong Kong police department. Did you know they played bagpipes at their official functions? You do now, thanks to Police Force! The production worked together with the police department, who allowed them to film an actual cadet graduation ceremony and enrolled Wong Chung in the cadet academy so he could get a first-hand taste of what policemen must go through. The “air and sea chase” finale also contains a lot of footage that is apparently real police boats and helicopters. The realism is felt throughout these scenes, as well as the rest of the film. The slow pace reflects what I imagine a lot of actual police work is like. Paperwork, questioning people for information, dealing with superior officers and placating their needs as well as your own, following up on a coincidental occurrence that has the potential to turn into a lead, etc. There are action sequences here and there, but the focus of the film is definitely on providing a relatively realistic view of police work.
Police Force may not be the film I wanted it to be, but it remains entertaining regardless. The look inside the Hong Kong police is unique, and the film is almost entirely shot on location around Hong Kong, something fairly rare for the Shaw Brothers at this time. Fu Sheng fans will definitely want to see where the star’s indelible legend began.
Next up in this chronological journey through the Shaw Brothers Martial Arts catalog is the rare Wu Min-Hsiung film The Big Fellow! See ya then!