"The Protector" is not the kind of film we're used to seeing on the Hong Kong Legends label. A quick glance at the opening scene -- where a bunch of New York hoods, dressed in Mad Max-style leather, big hair and caked New Romantic make-up (they look more like refugees from one of Duran Duran's latter videos than the hardened street criminals, they're presumably meant to be), stage a raid on a lorry carrying computers from Texas, while it is parked in a neon-lit alleyway full of dry ice -- will be enough to convince even the most casual viewer of this fact. This is Eighties cheese of the highest order. Anyone who adores the hideously naff (a quintessentially Eighties word!), glossy excess of that decade's mainstream cinema, with its music video aesthetics and simplistic, almost childlike plotting -- not to mention the showy, but somehow poorly paced stunts and the thumping synth-rock score -- will probably love this movie; it will please the same audience who love "Highlander", despite the inherent silliness which the passing of time has only enhanced and made even more apparent in this kind of film.
There is one group of people it definitely does not please though: the majority of Jackie Chan's fans! The film has a terrible reputation among them; and it is not too difficult to see why, being as it is, about as far away from what Chan's Hong Kong screen persona had been about up to this point as it is humanly possible to get. There is only one person who hates the film more than this hard-core Jackie Chan fan base -- and that is the man himself! Chan famously fell out with the film's director, the now almost completely un-remembered James Glickenhaus, who had previously directed a Death Wish-style exploitation flick called "The Exterminator" (1982). The film was Chan's second attempt to break out of the Hong Kong ghetto and reach an international audience. He'd previously made "The Big Brawl" (1980) but had failed to get the success he'd hoped for; but after his experience with "The Protector" it would be over a decade before he'd even try again (this time with considerably more success in the form of "Rumble in the Bronx").
In the film, Chan is a New York cop called Billy Wong. A typical buddy movie scenario is set up in the above mentioned opening sequence, designed to show the rapport and friendship between Wong and his Caucasian partner. But as soon as we see Wong's partner talking about his young son, and showing off the cute cuddly toy he plans to give the kid at the end of his shift, we just know the guy is destined to meet with a sticky end! This quickly comes about after the duo stop off in a bar before finishing for the night, which is then promptly held up by a gang of boiler suited goons, one of whom has the temerity to try and steal said cute cuddly toy! And if that isn't bad enough, Wong's partner is subsequently shot to pieces in the ensuing John Woo-style slow-motion shoot out! Perhaps nothing is more indicative of what annoyed Jackie Chan's fans about this movie than the fact that, rather than any of his Martial Arts talents, the first piece of action you see Chan engage in, is blasting a bad guy to death in a toilet cubicle! The film's flimsy plot is constructed so as to make use of both New York and Hong Kong locations in a transparent attempt to appeal to an American audience while still retaining Chan's Hong Kong fan base, but the film-making sensibilities on display are all Glickenhaus's and they quickly turn out to be of the more exploitative, Grindhouse variety.
The New York sequences give Chan no opportunity whatsoever to showcase his true skills; he has to make do with getting a few stunt jumps and rolls in here and there in otherwise lacklustre action sequences -- things he can probably do in his sleep! Instead the script calls for a vengeance-fuelled Wong to go around screaming swear words in broken English (something which was anathema to fans of Chan's happy-go-lucky comedy persona at this time) as he pursues his partner's killers through New York, ending up with a spectacular speedboat chase under the Brooklyn Bridge that culminates in a massive explosion in the shadow of the Twin Towers.
This lengthy opening gambit is just the prelude to the main story, which now sees Wong paired with another partner, this time played by "The Godfather" trilogy's Danny Aiello. Wong's vigilante excesses in tribute to his ex-partner have resulted in him being demoted to crowd control duties at a trendy fashion show which is being given by Laura Shapiro (Saun Ellis), the daughter of a wealthy New York business man. This job turns out to be anything but routine though, when a gang of masked criminals ab sail into the building and kidnap Laura under Wong and Garoni's (Aiello) noses. It turns out that Laura's father is suspected of being involved in a Heroin smuggling operation between Hong Kong and New York, with a Hong Kong big-shot called Mister Ko. Nothing has ever been pinned on either of them, but whatever the disagreement is between them that has led to Ko kidnapping Shapiro's daughter, might just give the opening that the New York Police force have been looking for to expose and stop the racket. Wong's Chinatown contacts and Garoni's knowledge of Hong Kong from his Vietnam days, make them the two best candidates to go over and lease with the British authorities who run operations in Hong Kong.
Now that the script has contrived to get Chan onto his home turf, you might think that we would get a bit more content that actually plays to the star's strengths; but sadly you'd be mistaken. The film now resolves itself into a series of set-pieces in which Ko's assassins repeatedly attempt to dispose of the two cops, but few of these scenes allow Chan much opportunity to let himself off the leash. A sequence set inside a masseurs, where the two cops are led by a traced phone call from Shapiro's right-hand man to Ko's people, results in Chan getting to display some of his Martial Arts skills, but the fact that Glickenhaus refused to let Chan direct his own fight sequences (something he'd been allowed to do even when under contract to Lo Wei in his early Chinese films) gives even this sequence a perfunctory feel. The whole thing was soured for Chan by Glickenhaus' insistence on playing up the female nudity in the masseurs scene, including full frontal nudity -- something which Chan knew would never be accepted by his Hong Kong fan base. Chan apparently wanted to walk out of the film at this point, but his contract was watertight and he was forced to carry on. Instead, he made full use of his rights to alter the film for its Asian release -- not only cutting all of the nudity from the film but re-shooting and extending the fight sequences to make them longer and give them a much more operatic feel.
Glickenhause's direction seems strangely stilted in many of the action sequences: a chase scene involving Chan jumping from boat to boat in a harbour, in order to try and apprehend a suspect, is edited so loosely that it's like watching Chan wade through treacle rather than the pacy, exciting spectacle it should be. Rather than making things flow quickly and in a punchy fashion, Chan's stunts are slowed down; and instead of just showing him pole vault onto a barge, for example, Glickenhause shows him testing the pole's sturdiness for its saftey before he jumps, slowing things down even more!
The film continues with the usual clichés that inhabit this kind of action flick: Wong and Garoni are treated with disdain by the British, toff Superintendent of Hong Kong, and even though Chan is in Hong Kong, the film continues to rely on the American obsession with guns -- particularly machine guns ("I never go anywhere in South East Asia without my Uzi!" says Garoni at one point). Only at the end, when Mr Ko (Roy Chiao) -- a comic book James Bond-style villain with little subtlety -- sets his Kung Fu henchman on Chan as he tries to save his partner Garoni, who was captured during the raid to spring Laura from captivity, do things come to life, with a fairly entertaining Martial Arts showdown between Chan and Bill "Super-foot" Wallace. Even this is shot by Glickenhause in a rather ordinary fashion (Chan extended it to turn it into a fitting finale in his Asian version) although there is a nice coda to the scene involving a circular saw!
There is no doubt that as an attempt to break Chan in the U.S., this is a fairly poor effort, since it doesn't have the strength of conviction to let Chan do what he does best. Nevertheless, as commentary speaker Andrew Staton (who is one of the few die-hard supporters of the film in its American cut) points out, Chan did use this non-comedy persona, developed for the first time here, successfully in many of his later films, most notably in the recent "New Police Story" (2004). The trouble with "The Protector" is that it places Chan in a serious role, in a film that is impossible to take seriously. Thus, it remains a classic of Eighties action excess, while maintaining its place near the bottom of Chan's large filmography.
The film offers an acceptable though hardly noteworthy transfer considering the "extra-bit" label Hong Kong Legends now feature prominently on their covers, and a fairly easygoing commentary by Andrew Staton, who spends most of his time defending the film from its many detractors while occasionally offering a few tit bits of information.