Ranking the Police Story Movies

Police Story might just be the greatest action franchise of all time. But which movies are the best in the series?

This article originally appeared on Den of Geek UK.

After his disappointing experience in America filming The Protector, Jackie Chan returned to Hong Kong determined to make his own cop film his own way. The result – Police Story – kickstarted perhaps the greatest action franchise of all time; a series of films that still deliver thrills of a near-religious magnitude for genre fans.

Aside from the two reboots, the Police Storie movies revolve around Jackie’s maverick Hong Kong cop Ka-Kui Chan (or Kevin Chan, in the English dubs) with frequent appearances from his lovably inept superior “Uncle Bill” (Bill Tung) and his long-suffering girlfriend May (Maggie Cheung). The story continuity is a little ropey but instead each instalment offers a new, and usually more improbable, case for Ka-Kui to crack.

There’s a blend of comedy, drama and action in most of the films but the measure of each ingredient varies every time. What’s impressive though is the consistency of the franchise. While it misfires a little on a couple of occasions, there’s not a single film that plumbs the usual depths of a long-running series. At its best though, nothing comes close to the technical prowess, entertainment value and sheer energy of a Police Story film.

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I took a look back at the franchise and have ranked them in the order I enjoyed them (starting from the bottom):

Project S (1993)

AKA: Once A Cop, Supercop, Supercop 2

[Note: Confusingly, this was released in some countries as Supercop instead of Police Story 3 (which was also called Supercop) but its actual place in the franchise is between 3 and 4.]

After the success of Police Story 3: Supercop, director Stanley Tong decided to make a spin-off movie focusing on Michelle Yeoh’s character, the no-nonsense mainland cop Inspector Yang. 

Project S opens with Yang’s boyfriend leaving the mainland to make his fortune in Hong Kong. She’s bereft but determined not to abandon her duty. Years later, she is called to HK on a dangerous assignment and finds herself face to face with her former lover but not in the way she she’d hoped for. He is now – to her horror – a big league criminal and must be taken down! Now there’s a recipe for romantic melodrama and action if ever I saw one but, sadly, the film doesn’t capitalize on it.

It goes without saying that Michelle Yeoh kicks ridiculous levels of ass and Yang is a great character. However, Project S chickens out of giving Yang the kind of story that Ka-Kui would get and we spend more time in the first hour with her floundering male sidekicks (Emil Chau and Fan Siu-Wong) than we do with her. There are way too many surplus characters and even when Uncle Bill and Ka-Kui (in drag!) pop up, it feels less like an affectionate link to the franchise and more like yet another narrative complication that should be cut.

The action is decent enough – with Yeoh delivering a couple of strong fights – but by no means exemplary. Martial arts are mostly overlooked in favour of exhausting gunplay and the stunts are predominantly pyrotechnic. The daredevil inventiveness of Jackie Chan’s team is sorely missed. Project S isn’t terrible but plays more like a lesser In The Line Of Duty film than a Police Story film.

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Its biggest crime though is how badly it squanders Yeoh’s incredible talent. A missed opportunity indeed.

Police Story: Lockdown (2013)

AKA: Police Story 2013

Unrelated except in name to the rest of the series, here Jackie Chan plays Zhong, a no-nonsense mainland cop who goes to meet his daughter (Tian Jing) at a bizarro nightclub owned by the enigmatic but blatantly dodgy Wu Jiang (Ye Liu). It isn’t long before Zhong’s bopped on the head and wakes to find himself tied to a chair in the midst of a full-scale hostage situation. The club’s ultra-tight security system locks everyone in and it’s up to Zhong to get the baddies and save his daughter…

Noticeably darker than the other films, both in its visual style and subject matter, Police Story: Lockdown opens with Chan holding a gun to his own head and pulling the trigger, so you know you’re in for a rough ride. Literally the only levity comes in the end-credits outtakes and most of the film involves haunted characters giving each other dead-eyed stares and rambling about their past (highlighted in distracting flashbacks, only some of which are “reliable”). The emphasis here is on the drama and, while the three main cast members all give admirable performances, the characters never come to life. 

I’m not against the idea of a more claustrophobic, low-key entry in the series but, unfortunately, Lockdown doesn’t play true to that. The stories the characters tell each other are often contrived attempts to punctuate an underwhelming narrative with  tenuously connected action. There’s some Thai boxing, a car chase and a robbery but nothing that sticks in the mind or really fits the film. Chan has a couple of decent fights and flings himself around more than a man his age normally would but this talky Chinese Die Hard is one for, uh, die-hards only…

Police Story 4: First Strike (1996)

AKA: First Strike

In First Strike, Uncle Bill ships poor Ka-Kui to the Ukraine (then Russia, then Australia!) on the trail of a terrorist who’s stolen a NUCLEAR WARHEAD. This is the level of subtlety things have reached by the fourth official film in the franchise.

Ka-Kui’s 007-inspired adventure is suitably madcap but the many double-crossings are too convoluted and the characters barely existent. Just as Ka-Kui was developing more of a personality in parts 2 and 3, this sets him back to being a clown who coasts from one calamity to the next, inadvertently saving the day in the process. Much of the film is comedic and the violence is toned down to give First Strike a family-friendly vibe.

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The US cut is missing 20 minutes (only some of which is action) although even the full HK version is quite tame, with no-one getting shot and the various duffings-up played more for yuks than ouches.

However – and it’s a big however – the stunt work here is brilliant. Almost ostentatiously brilliant, it’s so confident, so utterly over-the-top and so far, far in advance of what anyone else was doing at the time (or indeed even now).

Jackie was working with a huge budget and wasn’t afraid to show it. The chase down the icy mountain on snowboards, snowmobiles and helicopters is just staggering. I shrieked when a snowmobile flew inches over Jackie’s head and, seconds later, shrieked again when he leapt off a helicopter just before it blew up. And this was just in the first third of the movie. It keeps building and building, leading to a frenetic final 20 minutes involving an actual shark, some underwater brawling and a whole bunch of other craziness I won’t spoil. It’s pretty much one “WOAH!” moment after another. 

So yeah. It’s hard not to enjoy First Strike, despite its shortcomings, because Jackie Chan’s just so damn good at what he does and few films show it off more outrageously and with such flair.

Police Story (1985)

I’m probably going to get crucified for this but I think the fact that something  rightly regarded as one of the greatest action films ever doesn’t even top the list of its own franchise just proves how strong the series is.

Police Story blew me away as a kid when I first saw it but, as an adult, I can see that – while its ability to astonish remains intact – it is quite rough around the edges. Granted, this rawness gives it a certain charm, and nothing in the franchise comes close for brute force and enthusiasm, but Police Story does have its flaws.

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Jackie Chan came up with the set-piece stunts for the movie before anything else and had Edward Tang co-write a story around them. It shows. Ka-Kui’s first onscreen mission is to bring down Hong Kong drug lord Chu Tao. After an attempted bust goes awry in the eye-popping, budget-trashing opening scenes, Chu’s secretary Salina (Brigitte Lin) winds up as the only witness who can break open the case. Ka-Kui is assigned to protect her in the run-up to the trial but her true allegiances remain uncertain…

The plot sounds simple but plays quite disjointedly. Its implausible twists and wildly unrealistic characters ensure that even the emotional beats in Chan’s fierce monologue about police corruption don’t hit as hard as they should. The comedy, while typical of the era/genre, doesn’t always work either. There is a LOT of comedy in Police Story – far more than I’d remembered. Some of these scenes are classic Chan clowning and guarantee a chuckle or two but others are awkward and even stressful to watch (the “telephone tangle” scene in particular feels like it goes on forever).

So it’s a testament to the action that it so firmly sweeps all of this under the rug. Every stunt and every fight in this film is first rate but perhaps the main reason Police Story is immortalised in the hearts and minds of action fans is the finalé. I can’t even stress just how good this is. Those last ten minutes are heartstopping, no matter how many times you watch them – moment after moment of blinding choreography so intense and brutal yet so graceful and brilliant, you’d be forgiven for thinking Chan was superhuman.

The infamous stunt where he abseils down the Christmas lights (during which he sustained second degree burns, back injuries and a dislocated pelvis) is still one of the best ever committed to film. It’s a mighty powerful end that ensures you come out of Police Story feeling utterly exhilarated.

Police Story 2 (1988)

Things aren’t looking good for Ka-Kui at the start of the first sequel. Hilariously, he’s relegated to traffic duty after being held responsible for all the damage done in the first film. To make matters worse, Chu Tao is out of jail on “compassionate leave.” Chu has just three months to live and wants revenge on Ka-Kui, so keeps sending his goons to torment him and his girlfriend May…

There’s actually a decent character arc developed here with Ka-Kui juggling the two disparate parts of his life – his job and his relationship, both of which he cares deeply about – and it feels a lot more believable emotionally than anything in the first film. Once he gets embroiled in a blackmail/terrorism plot as well, the suspense ramps right up and I found the last half an hour flew by in what seemed like about five minutes.

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Where the first film beats this is, of course, on its sheer craziness. Police Story is off-the-chain nuts and you can tell that Chan was ravenous to impress the world. There’s less of that hunger here but, despite this sequel’s reputation for being subdued, it’s still loaded to bursting point with ridiculously deadly stunt work, beautiful martial arts choreography and eye-popping pyrotechnics. I mean, the final fight takes place IN A FIREWORKS FACTORY and you can’t get much more bravura than that.

Watching the outtakes at the end with Chan and his merry band sustaining injury after injury, bleeding and burning their way through the gag reel, it’s obvious that the danger level and the thrills are still way past a normal film’s limits. Maggie Cheung couldn’t even finish shooting the movie, she sustained such a severe head wound. Mad props go to Benny Lai’s bad guy too, as a high-kicking deaf-mute with a penchant for exploding toys. His and Chan’s brawling is up there with the most exciting in martial arts history.

It may be a controversial viewpoint but I actually enjoyed this more than the first. Its tighter plot and tonal consistency make it flow more smoothly (there’s one prolonged fart joke but otherwise this keeps the humor at a lower key) and it’s just a simple but brilliantly effective action picture.

Police Story 3: Supercop (1992)

For the third film, Ka-Kui is shipped off to mainland China in pursuit of an riotously evil drug lord called Chaibat. Once there, he’s ordered to partner up with straitlaced Inspector Yang (Michelle Yeoh) and go deep undercover in the underworld. This buddy cop setup may be familiar but it’s so flawlessly executed, you won’t care. In fact, you’ll probably struggle to find anything that comes close in terms of buddy movies. It makes Lethal Weapon look like Harmless Toy.

The chemistry between Chan and Yeoh is brilliant with both of these A-Listers giving top class performances, rich in drama, comedy and choreography. The supporting cast is an all-star line up too; Maggie Cheung, Yuen Wah, Ken Tsang, Bill Tung shine brightly and even the legendary King Boxer himself Lo Lieh pops up for a cameo. Charisma explodes from every frame of Supercop and keeps the pace zippy and the vibe fresh.

The humor is laugh-out-loud funny and the action truly off the scale, some of the best Chan ever made (and that’s saying something). The gunfights – often a chore in these films – are exciting, lightning-paced and ahead of their time. The martial arts are infrequent but gleefully acrobatic and perfectly choreographed.

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What really packs a punch though is a final breathtaking chase through the roads, the rails and the skies; a breakneck series of setups that will have even a hardened action fan screaming, gasping and cheering with disbelief and joy. It’s impossible to comprehend how much discipline, effort and risk goes in to producing scenes like these and sad to realise that most films now would just CGI it or use lazy tricks. Quite simply, nothing beats the visceral rush of seeing performers like Chan, Yeoh and the whole JC Stunt Team performing stuff that pushes boundaries, defies reason, cheats death and takes cinema to the very edge of its potential to thrill.

Heartfelt and highly technical, Supercop is blockbuster action as a work of art. Just be careful of the US re-cut with the unfortunate soundtrack (warning: includes gratuitous Tom Jones)…

New Police Story (2004)

Less a sequel and more of a reboot, Jackie Chan plays a different Inspector Chan here (Wing Kwok not Ka-Kui) and creates fresh, even higher octane thrills for a new generation. There are a couple of nice nods to the original – the bus chase and the sliding down the exploding lights in the finale are both stunt remixes – but otherwise this is a totally new story…

…and what a story it is too. Chan finds himself a broken man after leading a squad of cops to their deaths in an elaborate Saw-style trap, created by a young gang of high-tech X-Games addicts who commit crime as the ultimate adrenaline rush. They’re nihilistic, spoiled and super-intelligent; a deadly combination that proves too much, until Chan gets partnered with a driven young rookie (Nicholas Tse) who pushes him to crack the case and serve out justice.

The script (by Alan Yuen, who also wrote and directed the phenomenal Firestorm in 2013, a must-see for HK action fans) is full of twists – the humor is pared down and replaced by emotional resonance that stays just the right side of sentimental and makes the action feel even more gripping. Caring what happens to Chan and his friends on a deeper level makes for some genuine edge-of-the-seat suspense. Wing Kwok is more complex than Ka-Kui; broken but brave, someone you can root for to save not just the day but also himself. One of Jackie Chan’s noblest heroes, for sure.

The action is phenomenal too, with Chan upping the ante on spectacle. I don’t want to spoil the stunts but there are a few that just make your eyes pop out (even moreso when you realise they’re being performed by a 50 year old man!). Sure, there are some wires and harnesses involved and it’s less raw and cavalier than the stuff he was doing in 1985 but I was still left gasping in awe watching him – for example – abseil down a skyscraper using a pair of handcuffs.

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Chan’s dramatic performance here is one of his best too – he really gets chance to emote and some of the scenes (especially one painful moment between him and Charlie Yeung, who takes over the Maggie Cheung role as his girlfriend) are properly poignant. The supporting cast is fantastic too – Tse is chic and charismatic; Yeung the open bleeding heart of the movie; the villains are a wicked mix of nasty and cool; and Charlene Choi (of Twins fame) provides comic relief to sweet perfection.

There’s barely a moment of New Police Story that isn’t white knuckle and, taken outside of the historical context of the originals, it’s the strongest of the franchise for me. From the stylishly shot opening scenes to the operatic climax and a surprise conclusion that’s genuinely moving, it’s pretty much perfect. To deliver something like this so late into his career is more proof of Jackie Chan’s enduring magic.

Nobody does this stuff better.