C is for Crime Story

I can pretty much watch Jackie Chan movies endlessly with no loss of interest. I admit it, I'm a fan.

But even I have to admit that Crime Story is not his most engrossing effort. It's a strange film, produced under apparently difficult circumstances, and in the end it accomplishes not very much, other than to make nobody involved look very good (except for the guy who set up the gag with the car hitting the motorbike -- that's an amazing bit of work).

The insider scoop on the film is that the director wanted to make a searing drama about police corruption and a troubled officer trying to do the right thing. Somebody thought this should be a Jackie Chan film, I guess, which is probably where the trouble started.

Jackie does not portray a troubled cop all that convincingly, and the story goes that he didn't want to do that, anyway, and eventually took the film away from the director to make it his own. The result is a half-hearted attempt at drama, coupled with a half-hearted attempt at a Jackie Chan film. Still, it's interesting.

The Heat rip-off at the opening (right down to the flak jackets the crooks are wearing) is a great example of how things are done in the HK style as opposed to the Hollywood style -- no great expanses of cars getting shot to pieces, no spectacular cinematography, but bone-jarring moments of Jackie getting crushed by moving vehicles, leaping away from explosions and rolling over obstacles.

It's weird seeing Jackie unload on bad guys, and the blood and gore in this sequence is obviously meant to tell us that this is no ordinary Jackie Chan film.

Which is neither good nor bad, inherently. But ultimately this film suffers from a struggle over the kind of story it's trying to tell.

Jackie Chan movies are about the triumph of the individual. About the ability of one person, if they are willing to endure enough suffering and expend enough effort and display enough skill, to change the world. The bumps and bruises that Jackie accumulates during the movie are the pains and troubles we all experience in our lives, and part of the joy of watching Jackie is the feeling that we, too, can overcome the efforts of the world to crush us. His films affirm for us our own importance in the world, and glorify our individual significance.

We may need help, we may fail at times, but ultimately, Jackie is telling us again and again that if we try, we can change our circumstances. And in doing so (in his truly great films, like Drunken Master II), we will transform ourselves.

A movie like Heat is not telling us this. And Crime Story, bless its schizophrenic little heart, isn't exactly sure WHAT it's telling us. An entirely unconvincing (although we can lay a lot of the blame for that lack on the feet of the atrocious dub that Dimension films provides) scene early on with a therapist tries to set up the idea that Jackie is suffering internally for his assorted traumas. This never really goes anywhere, and in a Jackie Chan film, it's probably a bad idea.

Kung-Fu films use external objects to tell their stories. Heroes are beset by external forces that they overcome in order to demonstrate their health, their growth, whatever. You can't just inject an "internal" story into this (I'm calling Crime Story a kung-fu film, here -- deal with it) framework because there's no room for it.

That's not to say you can't have internal growth in your hero. Jackie's Wong Fei-Hong in Drunken Master II transforms spectacularly from the brash young kid in the early train sequence to the composed leader of the angry steel-mill workers at the film's climax. But this transformation is expressed through the fight scenes themselves.

Crime Story isn't nearly so well-constructed, and its efforts to bolt an internal story to a story of representative violence is entirely unsuccessful.

Jackie understands (instinctively or consciously) that action movies aren't ABOUT action -- they USE action to tell their stories. When you attempt to combine story types, you are very likely to simply water down both. You could probably accuse Heat of the same problem, though the performances and the beauty of Mann's film do a lot to offset that issue. But Crime Story has no such ornaments to hide behind, and the fatal divide that tears it apart is much clearer to see. I like it for that reason -- Crime Story isn't a great film; it isn't even a very good film. But sometimes a failure is more interesting to me than a success.