Crime Story/The Protector Double Feature (US - BD)
Gabe checks out two of Jackie Chan's unfunny features on Blu-ray disc...
Inspector Eddie Chan (Jackie Chan) of the Organized Crime and Triad Bureau is suffering emotional stress after shooting several men in self-defense. Chan is assigned to track down the kidnapped businessman Wong Yat-Fei (Law Kar-ying). The search takes him from Hong Kong to Taiwan, causing him to cross paths with some very powerful men in the Chinese underworld. Loosely based on a true story.
Crime Story was, for a period, known as a rare break from comedy for Chan. The first two Police Story movies are relatively serious, but none of his non-period, starring-role features were quite as gritty as this one, at least not until the unnecessarily bleak New Police Story in 2004. Crime Story is also largely forgotten by most passing fans (like myself), because it had the misfortune of being released at the height of Chan’s crossover stardom between Armour of God II: Operation Condor, Police Story 3: Super Cop, and Drunken Master II. The truth is that Chan’s dramatic acting is rarely in question. Even during his sillier roles, he tends to successfully exert a specially brand of stoic melodrama and putting him through the ringer physically holds basically the same threat whether the tone is serious or not. There’s also the matter of the severity of the melodrama in HK crime cinema – something I’ve never fully adjusted to, despite being a long time fan of the genre. There’s just no room for middle ground between the dizzying histrionics, something that can become unintentionally amusing in high doses. Crime Story balances reality and theatrics better than many similar films, but, without Chan’s base comedic charms, the tone is a bit exhausting. Just a bit.
Director Kirk Wong (Chan himself is credited as second unit action director) worked his way through Hong Kong filmmaking as an actor and director ever since the ‘70s. He took a shot at Hollywood direction with the Lou Diamond Phillips and Mark Wahlberg vehicle The Big Hit, but Crime Story likely remains his most celebrated film. Where action is involved, Crime Story is a pretty potent mix of the kind of frenetic action that accompanies the Police Story films and the more poetic violence of John Woo’s early HK work. Wong doesn’t go in for a lot of Woo-style super-slow-mo, but his pacing (which gets away from him on occasion, making this incredibly busy plot a bit difficult to follow), his inter-cutting between events, and his consistently gliding camera all recall the likes of The Killer and especially Hard Boiled. The major element Wong brings to this table is a stylized sense of lighting during the nighttime shootouts and fisticuffs. As the film progresses, his gaudy neons and monochromatic blues are a delightful contrast to Chan’s mostly undistinguished stunts, which finally step to the forefront during the explosive final act. The grim, occasionally vicious violence and (brief) frank sexuality occasionally feels just as forced as the drama, but without the benefit of expectations. It’s genuinely weird to watch Chan involved with something this raw, yet not so weird as to be a must-see curiosity, like The Protector. And speaking of…
Billy Wong (Jackie Chan) and Danny Garoni (Danny Aiello) are a pair of mismatched NYPD cops sent to Hong Kong to catch Harold Ko (Roy Chiao), a drug lord who has kidnapped the daughter of his former associate, Laura (Saun Ellis). Mayhem ensues.
Most people assume that Chan took his first major swing at the American film market with Rumble in the Bronx, which was a surprise hit when released in US markets in 1995. But the truth is that he was thrown to the Hollywood dogs as far back as 1980, when he made The Big Brawl with writer/director Robert Clouse ( Enter the Dragon, Gymkata, China O’Brien). The Big Brawl mostly flopped, but didn’t deplete the star’s popularity in Asia, so a second attempt was made in 1985 when Chan participated with The Protector. The Protector is not among Chan’s most popular films, especially not with fans that appreciate his unique cinematic voice, but, in retrospect, it’s a pretty amusing movie, mostly because it feels unlike everything else in his filmography. Throughout his career, Chan never worked with another director as ingrained in the grindhouse side of American action cinema as James Glickenhaus, the man behind such vicious, grimy, but ultimately entertaining pseudo-schlock, like The Exterminator, The Soldier and McBain. Glickenhaus’ influence looms heavily over this cut of the film, much to the chagrin of Chan and his fanbase, who’d prefer we watched Chan’s re-edited Hong Kong version (which is available in standard definition on this disc). The HK cut may be the ‘better,’ more acceptably Chan-ish movie and the negative experience reportedly spurred Chan to make Police Story later the same year. That film would go on to be a career defining mega-hit, but the US cut is the more ‘special’ movie, simply because, in the year 2013, there’s really no need for another ‘80s era cop film from Chan. It’s better to watch this ultimately unsuccessful attempt at 42nd Street copsploitation than revisit a lesser predecessor to Police Story.
I’ve only ever seen parts of The Protector when clips are included in documentaries on Chan and/or HK action cinema. These clips are almost exclusively used as examples of his specific talents being misunderstood by American filmmakers. Again, this one of a kind sample of wrong-headedness is worth seeing for all the reasons fans and critics will tell you to avoid it. Right off the bat, Glickenhaus introduces a group of gang members so flamboyant that they’d make Walter Hill’s The Warriors blush. His versions of New York and Hong Kong are full-on trash-towns where daylight and darkness make no continuative sense, and fitted with familiar character actors who burst into bloody messes the second Chan opens fire on them. His compositions are ugly, his action excessive and nonsensical, and his screenplay is dripping with every ounce of cop flick cliché imaginable. In the first 20 minutes, Chan’s partner is killed, he breaks the rules to violently avenge the death, is reprimanded by a screaming commissioner, and gets a slow-clap ovation from his colleagues for his efforts. The only surprise here is that he actually gets along with his new partner in the next scene. And, despite years of complaining, Chan is actually kind of good or at least entertaining in this epic miscasting. He growls an f-bomb with surprising conviction and his anti-chemistry with Danny Aiello is brilliantly off-kilter. More importantly for fans, Chan is given plenty of chance to show off his physical prowess between unlikely bouts of dialogue.
There hasn’t exactly been an excess of ‘80s and ‘90s era Hong Kong classics made available in the HD format, stateside. What we’ve got, be it through Disney, Miramax (Dragon Dynasty), or random HD streaming transfers on Netflix, has been average at best. Disney’s transfers were soft and sometimes noisy, and Miramax and Netflix’s tend to be a bit flat and exhibit quite a bit of print damage artefacts. In most cases thus far, these are upgrades over previous DVD releases, but often not enough to make fans particularly happy. This is often an unavoidable issue of cheap material being cheaply treated over a long period, not necessarily a deficiency on the part of the people transferring said film to digital format. Shout Factory is kind of new to this game and certainly deserves the benefit of the doubt. Anyone that can make Luigi Cozzi’s Starcrash look good is okay in my book.
Crime Story is available on a non-anamorphic, barebones Miramax release and an anamorphically enhanced, extras-packed Dragon Dynasty re-release. There is also a Hong Kong Blu-ray release available from Kam & Ronson Enterprises, but I have no real concept of its image quality. Unfortunately, this 1.85:1, 1080p transfer follows the precedent set by all of those other HD transfers I mentioned above. The image quality is generally sharper than an SD transfer would allow, though not quite as clean or crisp as we’d expect from Shout Factory’s gorgeous exploitation releases. Close-up details are just fine, but things tend to get mushy in wide shots, specifically those that use wide-angle lenses. The bigger problem here is that of edge-enhancement and other over-sharpening effects. Print damage artefacts are all over the place, though their frequency varies quite a bit from shot to shot. The worst-case scenarios are flecked with short white scratches, while the bulk of the transfer is simply covered in steady film grain. Colours are hit a miss, depending largely on the available light in a given scene. Whenever natural, source lighting is involved things are a bit muddied, especially browns, blues, and greens, while brighter sequences do better with the more vibrant and warm hues. Black levels are often heavily crushed, which is probably a case of overcompensation on the part of the disc’s producers. More often than not the cheaper filmstock used for these films didn’t produce the best blacks. Something similar occurred on Lionsgate’s semi-recent Infernal Affairs release.
The Protector is less easily available over the years on DVD. The only official US release comes from HBO/Rysher Entertainment. It is listed as featuring an anamorphic transfer. There is also a Japanese Blu-ray release that features both the US and Japanese extended versions of the film, but, like most Japanese releases, it ain’t cheap. This 1.85:1, 1080p transfer once again, leaves quite a bit to be desired. The issue here isn’t over-sharpening or edge enhancement, it’s an overall dullness and washed out quality. There’s little in terms of digital compression artefacts, but detail levels rarely look better than a decent DVD and at times are as muddied as a VHS transfer. The biggest close-ups stand apart while wide-angle shots are often smudgy. The print itself is about as dirty as the Crime Story print, but the lack of sharpness leads to a more blotchy brown grain effects. Colour quality is hit and miss, though, quite often this is the result of Glickenhaus’ unattractive, dark, brown palettes. The grimy hues generally add to the vulgar look of the film, but the lack of vibrancy in the tawdry reds and ‘80s pastels is certainly disappointing.
Dragon Dynasty’s special edition re-release DVD of Crime Story featured 5.1 Cantonese and English options, along with an original Cantonese 2.0 mono option (that HK Blu-ray reportedly features both a Cantonese Dolby TrueHD 7.1 track and a dubbed Mandarin Dolby Digital 5.1 EX track). This disc also features DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 Cantonese and English dub options, along with the original 2.0 mono Cantonese. I watched the bulk of the film in 5.1 Cantonese and was mostly impressed with the generally natural stereo and surround enhancement. I use the word ‘natural’ pretty loosely, of course, since, even in mono, most period HK soundtracks are largely produced in post with ADR and heavy foley work. The dialogue and basic effects remain centered and clear with only minor bleeding effects during sequences with busier ambience. The directional movement is devoted mostly to car stunts and shootouts, and occasionally makes little dynamic sense (sometimes there’s just car noise for the sake of car noise), but overall the immersive qualities are relatively crisp and effective. The mono track is still probably the preferred way to go, however, mostly because it's louder and sharper than the multi-channels track. The only real shortcomings here are the volume levels of Mark Lui and James Wong’s musical score, which is definitely quieter on the more crowded mono track.
The Protector comes fitted with a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and 2.0 Mono soundtrack, both of which are largely presented in English. This is not a dub track, however – this is the American release’s standard soundtrack. This time, the artificiality of the 5.1 mix gets in the way and fills the channels with odd echo and reverb effects. Even the most simple footstep sound racks back into the surround channels. At worst, it sounds like all five channels are simply blurting the same thing slightly off-sync. I very much recommend sticking to the 2.0 track in this case, which features more natural and dynamic sound ranges and none of the weird artefacts. The busyness of the single channel treatment is certainly an issue when Ken Thorne’s score duels with explosive sound effects, but there aren’t huge issues with garbling or warbling bass levels. For the most part everything important is clear and decently separated with only minor bits of dialogue going missing between louder musical moments.
The extras begin with Crime Story and an interview with director Kirk Wong (10:30, SD). Wong discusses pitching the story to Golden Harvest, shooting for realism, working with his actors, and shooting stunts. Next up are some deleted scenes (6:23, SD). These scenes apply almost exclusively to Chan’s developing romance with his appointed psychiatrist. Extras end with two trailers.
The Protector extras begin with Chan’s alternate HK cut of the film (1:28:20, SD). This version is presented in standard definition and single channel mono, dubbed Cantonese sound, but, frankly, doesn’t look that much worse than the HD version. The picture quality suffers from dimmer colours, edge enhancement, combing, and minor ghosting effects, but is certainly watchable. Fans should be happy to see the film from Chan’s preferred point-of-view (which includes cutting all the gratuitous nudity). Next up is From New York To Hong Kong (9:30, HD), an interview with director James Glickenhaus. Glickenhaus doesn’t have a sense of humour on the subject and discusses his part in the production with a somewhat dour tone. The extras also feature then and now location comparisons (4:20, HD), a vintage behind the scenes featurette (5:00, SD), and trailers.
This first of hopefully many Jackie Chan double feature collections isn’t exactly a must-own in terms of content, but Crime Story and The Protector end up complimenting each other better than expected. Crime Story often feels like a po-faced retread of the first two Police Story films, but really comes together for a raucous and violent final act. The mostly reviled The Protector deserves a second look by exploitation fans and on a double feature with something like Michael Winner’s Death Wish 3 or Bill Lustig’s Vigilante. Unfortunately, neither film looks particularly great here in their first North American 1080p releases. Crime Story is close to the mark, while The Protector features a definitively flat and dull DVD-style transfer. Assuming the price is right fans still might want to spring for these, especially since the extras include a standard definition copy of Chan’s version of The Protector.
* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.
Review by Gabriel Powers
Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian
Release Date: 15th January 2013
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 Cantonese and English, Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono Catonese and English
Extras: Interview with Director Kirk Wong, Deleted Scenes, Interview with Director James Glickenhaus, Behind the Scenes EPK, Hong Kong Cut of The Protector (in SD), Trailers
Easter Egg: No
Director: Kirk Wong, James Glickenhaus
Cast: Jackie Chan, Danny Aiello, Roy Chiao, Moon Lee, Kent Cheng, Christine Ng
Genre: Action, Adventure, Drama and Thriller
Length: 198 minutes
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