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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. (Salvo number four, Miramax's version of 1991's 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, who has since signed on to direct a Mr. Magoo feature in Hollywood.

Go figure.
The original Hong Kong version of First Strike was released last year in some Asian countries as Police Story 4 -- a putative follow-up to Supercop, which in Asia was Police Story 3. But the connection is tenuous: With an eye blatantly set on the American market, even Police Story 4 simply called its hero -- whose name in the Police Story 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 have become far broader than in the earlier movies. Chan is no longer a simple cop fighting Triad corruption; he's now assisting the CIA and the former KGB in the battle against international arms dealers. In short, the put-upon Chen Ka-Kui has grown into the Bond-ian "Jackie Chan."

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 secreted 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's one of the good guys.

As usual, particularly in Chan's more recent films, plot is not of the essence. While First Strike isn't nearly as shaggy a piece of construction as Rumble in the Bronx was, 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's followed by Chan fighting off two Anglo giants, which is followed by Chan using a folding ladder to fend off an entire club of martial artists, followed by 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 there were 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 Hong Kong original -- more evidence of Chan's cocking an eye toward the U.S. -- there's very little excruciating dubbing.

Much of the film's current swiftness can be chalked up to New Line's trimming. The Hong Kong release, which was never shown in the States, was roughly one hour and 46 minutes long. For the American audience, the movie has been cut by no less than 20 minutes -- without, miraculously, 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 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 Jackie 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.

Longtime Chan fans may be put off by the Bond-ing of their hero. (Of course, longtime 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.
Directed by Stanley Tong. With Jackie Chan, Jackson Lou, Chen Chun Wu, Bill Tung, Jouri Petrov and John Eaves.

Rated PG-13.
88 minutes.

 
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