Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases, premieres, current events, or occasionally just our own inscrutable whims. This week: The latest Fast & Furious movie has been pushed back a full year, so why not cope with its absence by checking out some other movies with car chases in them?
Not content to simply be one of the most talented physical performers the world has ever seen, Jackie Chan is also a hard motherfucker. Although his onscreen persona is of an indefatigable goofball (especially in the films he writes and directs himself), off screen Chan is legendary for his ability to stoically tolerate injuries that would make the toughest of tough guys weep. Here’s one example: On the set of his 1985 action hit Police Story, the martial artist dislocated his pelvis, burned the skin off of his palms, and sustained a back injury that, had he been born just a little less lucky, could have paralyzed him for life. And he still went out for a drink afterwards.
To be clear, none of this happened while filming the chase sequence that opens the film. (The injuries in question were from this stunt.) But Chan’s masochistic dedication to his art is obvious from Police Story’s first set piece. It starts as a foot chase, as Inspector Chan Ka-Kui (Chan) scrambles to catch up with crime boss Chu Tao (Chor Yuen) and his minions after they slip out of a police dragnet. Against a backdrop of makeshift dwellings built into the side of a hill, the cops and the bad guys fall all over each other, forming a chaotic tangle of people, animals, laundry, gas cans, tea kettles, and wicker baskets. It’s a comedic spectacle, no doubt. But for the characters, it’s also breathtakingly dangerous, thanks to the bullets flying in every direction.
Chu Tao and his men find a car. Three cars, actually, which take off in different directions, only to turn around after discovering that the cops have blocked all roads out of the settlement. There’s nowhere to go but straight through, and so they barrel into a fruit stand and down the hill, Chan close behind in a commandeered vehicle of his own. No one swerves or dodges anything, although Chan—ever the good guy—honks for pedestrians to get out of the way as he comes crashing through the flimsy structures. Glass and wood and sheets of corrugated metal are everywhere. Explosions that may or may not have been planned ahead of time are triggered left and right. The cars are battered and barely running by the time their undercarriages scrape the road below. Combined, this chase has the destructive power of a bulldozer—and it’s all happening for real. Recklessness was a given on Hong Kong film sets in the ’80s, especially Jackie Chan movies, where the boss was the biggest daredevil of them all.
Since then, the Chinese film industry has started taking on-set safety more seriously (although Chan, ironically enough, had one of the closest calls of his career in 2017, when he nearly drowned on the set of his film Vanguard). Hong Kong action filmmaking has also made its way abroad, thanks in part to Chan’s crossover success in the West. You can see his influence in Bad Boys II, in which Michael Bay pays homage to Police Story’s first sequence—or, if you’re feeling less generous, totally rips it off. 2017’s xXx: Return Of Xander Cage was less literal in its pilfering, but the spirit was the same when Vin Diesel skateboarded down the side of a mountain with techno pumping in his earbuds. Neither of those imitations, though, command the same jaw-dropping awe as that original car chase. Is it just that the novelty is gone, or is there a dark alchemy in watching someone put their actual life at risk for our amusement? Ask Jackie Chan—or Tom Cruise, for that matter.
Availability: Police Story is currently streaming on The Criterion Channel.