Jackie can

First Strike packs a stronger punch than most recent Chan films

New Line's release of Jackie Chan's First Strike is salvo number three in Chan's invasion of America. (Miramax's version of the 1991 Operation Condor, the last film on which the star also took a director's credit, is due out in May.) Like its predecessors, Rumble in the Bronx and Supercop, First Strike was directed by Stanley Tong Kwai-Lai, who has since signed on to direct a Mr. Magoo feature in Hollywood.

Go figure.
The original Chinese version of First Strike was released in 1996 in some Asian countries as Police Story 4--a putative follow-up to Supercop, which was itself Police Story 3. But the connection is tenuous: With an eye blatantly set on the American market, even the original simply called its hero--whose name in the series has been variously presented as Chen Ka-Kui, Chen Chia-Chu, and Kevin Chan--"Jackie Chan." And although Chan the character is still a Hong Kong police officer, his exploits in the battle against international arms dealers have become far broader than in the earlier movies. In short, the put-upon Chen Ka-Kui has grown into the Bond-ian "Jackie Chan."

(Also with an eye to America, last year's Chinese version of First Strike had a much higher percentage of English dialogue than any previous Chan film since the awful 1985 The Protector, with Danny Aiello.)

First Strike starts with Chan being assigned to trail a suspect to the Ukraine. After a spectacular chase sequence--featuring helicopters, snowmobiles, and snowboards--in which Chan ends up almost dead on a frozen lake, our hero is sent to Moscow and then Australia, where the rest of the story takes place. Renegade CIA agent Tsui (Jackson Lou) has stolen the detonator to a nuclear device and concealed it with his innocent sister Annie (Chen Chun Wu), who works at the Australian equivalent of Sea World. When Chan is framed for murder, everyone is out to get him: He must convince Annie and her friends he is one of the good guys.

As usual, particularly regarding Chan's recent films, plot is not of the essence. While First Strike isn't nearly as shaggy a piece of construction as Rumble, the story is, once again, just an excuse to stage a series of beautifully choreographed fight and chase scenes. The big snowmobile sequence starts within the first 15 minutes. It is followed by Chan fighting off two Anglo giants, followed by Chan using a folding ladder to fend off an entire club of martial artists, followed by a finale of Chan on stilts in a Chinatown riot, Chan fighting underwater to retrieve the detonator, and Chan foiling the bad guys' escape by boat. The downtime between action scenes is often slow, but there's so little of it that it doesn't much matter.

There are also fewer embarrassing moments here than in Rumble: The dramatic scenes are overwrought and formulaic, but there are no adorable crippled kids, tearful gang members, or half-baked romances. And, thanks to the amount of English dialogue in the original, there is very little excruciating dubbing.

Much of the film's current swiftness can be chalked up to New Line's trimming. The original Hong Kong release (never shown in the States) was roughly one hour and 46 minutes. For the American audience, the movie has been cut by no less than 20 minutes--miraculously, without removing any subplots or major incidents. I've only seen the original once--and that was nearly a year ago--but with one exception, I couldn't pinpoint any missing shots.

That one exception is, sad to say, a bad one: The underwater kung-fu scene was hilarious, building logically through a sequence of gags involving Chan, a bad guy, a shark, a scuba tank, and a number of bleeding thumbs. While some might argue that the scene went on too long, New Line appears to have shortened it by cutting off the punch line.

That single example isn't such a big deal, though it does exemplify the most worrisome aspect of New Line's repackaging of Chan. Instead of emphasizing the wonderful comedy that distinguishes him from other action stars, the company seems set on tailoring him more and more in the style of traditional American heroes--that is, making him increasingly like the tired stuff to which he's supposed to be an antidote.

That criticism registered, the rest of the changes in First Strike feel like improvements. The film moves much more swiftly now. Even the Americanized music helps: The score accompanying the folding-ladder fight enhances the rhythm of the scene.

Long-time Chan fans may be put off by the Bond-ing of their hero. (Of course, long-time fans already feel that little he has done in the past five years, with the exception of Drunken Master 2, matches his amazing stretch of classics from 1983 to 1992.) But nobody who loved New Line's Rumble will be disappointed with First Strike. And, given its relative dearth of howlers, First Strike makes a topnotch introduction to Chan's work for anybody who missed last year's two releases.

Jackie Chan's First Strike.
Jackie Chan, Jackson Lou, Chen Chun Wu, Bill Tung, Jouri Petrov, and John Eaves. Written by Stanley Tong Kwai-Lai, Nick Tramontane, Greg Mellott, and Elliot Tong. Directed by Stanley Tong. Opens Friday, January 10.

 
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