Jackie Chan’s First Strike, directed by Stanley Tong, is another example of the only kind of action film I seem to get any enjoyment out of anymore. Most of them are so artificial and unbelievable: special effects overwhelming the human element. But the remarkable Jackie Chan does action at the human level. This he gets away with mainly because he is such an unusual human being, blessed with skill, speed and balletic grace which has hardly been seen on the silver screen since the heyday of Gene Kelly. Moreover, he has a sense of humor. Part of his determination to keep everything on the human—and therefore believable—level is that he makes fun of himself and presents himself in undignified, even humiliating circumstances. When a bad guy appears he is three times Jackie’s size and seemingly impervious to his blows. Jackie is obviously hurt by him however, and is evidently in danger of being maimed—if the big fellow can catch him.
Likewise, we see him running into things and falling down. A long opening sequence involving a chase over some ski-slopes depicts the hero in a ridiculous polar bear hat and a thin shirt and vest, shivering with the cold. When he comes to fight with another bad guy he again winces with pain, and another one (who turns out to be a good guy, sort of) makes him take all his clothes off, which causes him exquisite embarrassment.
I like all this very much. What I don’t like is the cheesy, Hong Kong style drama, involving the Russian mafia and rogue CIA agents and Chinese crime bosses who cover half the world with an almost Bondian array of transportation and exotic backdrops. Especially cheesy is Jackie’s relationship with “Uncle Bill” (Bill Tung) his superior (and uncle) in the Hong Kong police whom he is constantly ringing up and asking what to do. This may be funny to Chinese audiences, but it does not work for me. At times when the fantastical plot (involving—surprise!—the smuggling of a nuclear warhead out of the Ukraine) was being laboriously worked out I became impatient for another action sequence.
This is partly, too, because the dialogue is mostly witless and trite. “They forced me to be a double agent,” says Tsui (Jackson Lou), the ex-CIA man; “I had to do it to save Natasha.” Tsui also explains to his sister, Annie (Chen Chun Wu), that he has been forced by the same bunch of Russian thugs— “the new, improved KGB” calling itself the FSB—to be horrid to his father: “If I hadn’t done these things for Gregor, I would have died three years ago,” he explains. This is feeble plotting as well as feeble dialogue.
Even among the action sequences, I thought the underwater scenes at something called Oceanworld in Australia did not work very well. Jackie Chan’s chief assets are his quickness and his gravity-defying stunts, both of which do not appear under water. And the shark jokes got old pretty fast. But one will not soon forget the wonderful battle between Jackie and three men with broomsticks in which he engages in all his trademark movements, fending off the attackers with whatever comes to hand—most remarkably a ladder. Two or three more scenes like that and this would have been a wonderful movie. There were a couple of scenes involving his climbing up buildings or jumping, some nice falls on the ski slopes (but anybody can fall) and one memorable sequence of him on stilts, yet still able to kick a man with a gun in the face, but nothing else quite so perfect as the broomsticks.
Also on the plus side, I like the relative absence of overwhelming firepower (which of course never quite manages to hit the hero) and the gentle fun poked at the Bond ethos. When Jackie arrives in Australia, brought on board a Russian submarine (why couldn’t he just have hopped on a plane?), he is impressed with the luxury of his surroundings, which include a live koala bear on a eucalyptus tree in his room. “I feel almost like James Bond,” he tells Uncle Bill. “Only without the beautiful girls.”
Yeah, where are the girls? There is a pretty and charming heroine called Annie (Chen Chun Wu) for Jackie to rescue, but there is never so much as a hint of any romantic interest between them—or between anybody else. The Bond fun continues when Jackie is given one of those kinds of high-tech guns that breaks down and fits in a special case. A hit man’s piece. Jackie comments: “Wow! Now I am double-oh-seven!” But the Bond babe never puts in an appearance, not even for ironic or satirical purposes.