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First Strike (1996)

FirstStrike_1First Strike [警察故事4之簡單任務] (1996)
AKA Police Story 4: First Strike, Jackie Chan’s First Strike, Final Project

Starring Jackie Chan, Annie Wu Chen-Chun, Jackson Lau Hok-Yin, Ailen Sit Chun-Wai, Yuriy Petrov, Bill Tung, Nonna Grishaeva, John Eaves, Nathan Jones, Terry Woo, Kristopher Kazmarek

Directed by Stanley Tong

Expectations: Very high!

First Strike released in the US roughly 11 months after Rumble in the Bronx, and in that time I had gone from knowing absolutely nothing about Hong Kong films to a seasoned fan of Jackie, John Woo, Chow Yun-Fat, Jet Li, Sammo Hung, Yuen Biao, Wong Kar-Wai, etc. thanks to my friends and their knowledge of tape trading. In fact, I had already seen First Strike a few times, so seeing it on the big screen was merely a treat instead of a new experience. Well… I suppose it was something new, since 20-something minutes were chopped out for the US release, and the original English & Cantonese soundtrack had been completely re-dubbed into English only (just like Rumble in the Bronx). I haven’t seen First Strike in probably 15+ years, so re-visiting it was in part like reconnecting with an old friend, yet also like seeing it for the first time with a more robust knowledge of Hong Kong film in place.

Jackie’s films had been progressively leaning towards international appeal since Police Story III, and First Strike does that more than any previous film. There are James Bond elements in both Supercop and Rumble in the Bronx, but First Strike throws Jackie into the framework of a James Bond story and lets him loose. It’s a great concept, unfortunately it doesn’t translate to the heights of action movie gold that you might think. Don’t get me wrong, I love this movie, but whenever there’s only one legitimate fight in a martial arts film, I’m always going to be disappointed at some level.

First Strike starts out firing on all cylinders, though. From the brief setup announcing Jackie’s goal of tracking the CIA’s only lead on some stolen Uranium, we’re off to the snowy landscapes of Ukraine. Before too long, Jackie’s engaging in a wonderful Jackie Chan version of the classic James Bond staple ingredient: the snow chase. The opening 30 minutes are a pure joy, perfectly balanced extremes of comedy and seriousness as only a Hong Kong movie can totally pull off, and wrapped up neatly with a fantastic action and stunt set piece. I especially love how off-step Jackie is within this traditional Bond setup; Bond is always suave and in control, while Jackie is freezing cold, totally unprepared for the situation and bumbling around wearing a furry seal hat. Jackie is never scared to show his pain or vulnerability, and I think this is a great humanizing factor that allows him to appeal across all culture and language divides.

From that point, though, the tightness unravels a bit. Not enough to affect my enjoyment, but definitely enough for a first-time Jackie viewer to come away with a disappointed point of view on Jackie Chan. Perhaps in the quicker-paced US version this is less prominent, with the focus more on his athleticism, but I haven’t seen that version since the theater in 1997, so that’s not for me to say. In any case, the middle section slows down a lot when Jackie reaches for leads by contacting the suspect’s sister who works at a Sea World-type of place, Annie (Annie Wu Chen-Chun). The jump to finding Annie doesn’t make a lot of sense (maybe I missed a connecting piece of info), but it does setup much of the film’s later triumphs, such as the “It’s an homage to Thunderball, but it’s way better than Thunderball” underwater sequence, the super-fun “Jackie on Stilts” scenes and the thing that everyone remembers about First Strike: the fight with the ladder. Yeah, I can totally roll with an odd plot point that allows for those gems.

Speaking of that ladder fight… Holy shit! It’s even better than I remember; it’s really one of the best fights Jackie ever filmed. It’s always been one of my favorites, right alongside the Rumble in the Bronx fight in the punk’s hangout. Jackie’s athleticism is on display in every moment, with a constant stream of iconic stunts and choreography all strung together for the ultimate in action entertainment. There’s a reason I used to watch this fight over and over again; it’s soooooo badass. If you show this fight to someone who has never seen Jackie Chan, it’s quite possible that the fabric of reality in their mind will tear, opening them up to a new understanding of what humanity is capable of. Do your part, expand the collective consciousness and show this fight to your uninformed loved ones! 😀

Jackie is definitely deserving of praise in pulling these amazing feats off, but ample credit must be given to Stanley Tong, who directed First Strike as well as choreographing the action with Jackie. Tong’s camerawork within the action is superb, placing us right in the thick of things without resulting to the horrific handheld that permeates the genre these days. There are bits of handheld, such as the cameraman on skis capturing that sequence, but they are brief and only further draw us into the scene. The ladder fight is also a textbook of action editing, showing how to bring every facet of filmmaking together to deliver the illusion of a flowing, singular experience when it probably took a couple of months to actually shoot it all and get everything right. With this kind of pedigree and talent for action, I have to wonder how and why Tong ended up directing Mr. Magoo as his only US film. I never saw it, though, maybe it’s got big action scenes! A lot of the stuntmen from Rumble and First Strike are credited on it, so maybe so!

First Strike is one of those Jackie Chan movies that’s not exactly a great movie by traditional standards, but it’s got a ton of great parts that add up to an incredibly fun time at the movies. While it is often billed as Police Story 4, it was apparently only unofficially named that after Jackie gave in to fans who kept requesting another Police Story. The Chan Ka-Kui character is never named — Jackie is simply referred to as Jackie — and the film feels completely different than the Police Story films (even Supercop). Bond fans should enjoy this one more than the average fan, as well, since it goes out of its way to hit on a lot of the tropes associated with that ever-popular operative. If only they put Daniel Craig into some koala underwear, maybe I would have actually enjoyed Spectre!

Next up in this chronological journey through the films of Jackie Chan is Sammo Hung’s Mr. Nice Guy! See ya then!

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