The greatest filmmakers leave you asking questions. And when the filmmaker is Jackie Chan, the question stays the same: “How the fuck did he do that?” The Brattle Theatre recently began a seven-film program of movies starring Chan—each one plays the late show on Saturday, then the early show on Sunday—with one of his earlier directorial efforts, The Young Master [1980.] It gets you asking that question before the first reel is over. The opening sequence watches Chan’s character takes part in a competitive version of a traditional Chinese lion dance. Two teams of two men are involved—Chan’s character leads one side, his traitorous brother leads the other—with each duo joined beneath a decorative hide. One’s the head and one’s the tail, but they move in unison, sprinting up platforms, diving across stages, all while fluttering their ornately-textured “skins” for the sake of the crowd. It’s visual spectacle, athletic exhibition, and cultural ethnography wrapped together, which is to say that it’s a set piece in a Jackie Chan movie. Typical works of martial arts cinema often play like technical demonstrations. Chan achieves something grander, and he achieves it often. These aren’t merely demonstrations of what the human body can do, or of what culture can create. They’re celebrations, too.
The Young Master is one of the earlier films in the Brattle program, along with Drunken Master  (which already screened) and Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow  (screens on 8.27.) They weren’t early in his career, though, given that Chan kicked around the film industry his entire life; he was trained and educated in Hong Kong’s famed Peking Opera School system, and was working on film sets by the mid-60s. So what these three late-70s films do represent is his first period of “stardom”—a time when he was making wuxia films distinctive with his personally-honed slapstick-comedy style. The rest of the Brattle program forms a sampler of the genres Chan worked in during the years that followed. City Hunter  (screens on 8.6 and 8.7) is a action-movie spoof indicative of his purely comedic efforts. Police Story 2  (screens on 8.13 and 8.14) is a heavy-hearted cop-drama played for high stakes, indicative of the action movies he made after scaling back his work in the martial-arts scene. And the two latest films in the program—The Legend of Drunken Master  (screens on 7.30 and 7.31) and Supercop  (screens on 8.20 and 8.21)—come after he’d achieved the status of an elder statesmen. In the years and decades that would follow, Chan would get bigger budgets, and feature in more prominent movies, but the concluding sequences of those two films represent the peak of his artistry. His movies pushed cinematic physicality to its limits. Legend and Supercop push as far as the screen can handle.
In Drunken Master, the concluding sequence sees Chan battling a colonialist trying to illegally sell national art objects; he finally unleashes his eponymous martial-arts expertise, which everyone’s been begging him to do the whole time. In Supercop, Chan’s Hong Kong-based police detective works with the Chinese government (pre-handover) to nab international criminals in Malaysia during the big finale; that’s the moment where he earns his nickname, which everyone’s been mocking the whole time. So each movie is about Chan trying to live up to his own title. In Legend of Drunken Master, he does it by cycling through the various drunken boxing fighting styles while simultaneously taking swan dive bumps from floors to fire pits, all with the grace of a concussed swan. In Supercop, he sprints toward his enemies across various platforms, from the roof of a moving train, then up to a ladder dangling from a spinning helicopter, all with the physical intensity of an Olympic sprinter. What astounds you is not just the stunts, nor the speed, but the aesthetic experience of observing them. Lau Kar-Leung directed Drunken Master and Stanley Tong directed Supercop, but Chan was the credited action coordinator for each, and his signature is found everywhere; he was known to spend weeks and months shooting individual action sequences, often improvising and making alterations on the day. The resulting scenes are impressively fast without being incomprehensible; magnificently precise without being overly mannered; pleasurably timed without being schematic. The end credits of these movies usually include behind-the-scenes footage of the stunts being produced. It’s significant that this never feels like a superfluous inclusion. These are marvels of moviemaking. You want more even after they’ve finished.
Supercop first played the Brattle 23 years ago, back when it had a different title. It was called Police Story 3, and the Brattle was exhibiting it within a highly-successful program of films from Hong Kong (a monthslong subsection was dedicated to Chan.) It would not be officially released in the U.S. until years later, and when it was, it had more than just a different title. Dimension Films had dubbed the movie, cut out some culturally-specific dialogue scenes, and replaced the soundtrack with what they felt was a more American-friendly selection, which obviously included a “Kung Fu Fighting” remix. For genre movies made in Hong Kong but released internationally, this was standard operating procedure. Which meant that every trip across the border incurred some risk. The Legend of Drunken Master lost its original title (Drunken Master II,) its original ending (which was thought to be in ‘bad taste,’ and was thus deleted,) and much of its soundtrack (not American enough!) when it was dubbed and released in the U.S. All things considered, that’s a light sentence. This movie lost two or three minutes in the transition. Others lost 20 or 30. So you’d probably be surprised to learn of its current fate. All the cross-borders editing has made the original version of Drunken Master II a legitimate rarity. If you want to see that movie uncut, in its original language, and its correct aspect ratio, then you have to know a guy, know what we mean?
With that said, the Brattle team has worked to procure some of the best exhibition materials available for the chosen films. Four of the five remaining movies will screen on 35mm (Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow is the exception, it will play via a restored digital print—it will look very good, and it will be very short on texture.) But in this case, even “best available” can be a hodgepodge. Police Story 2 and City Hunter will play with their original audio tracks, The Legend of Drunken Master and Supercop will screen in their dubbed U.S.-release versions, and Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow will be dubbed as well. As the other films in the Chan catalog transition to digital formats for theatrical exhibition, they’ll be locked into new states once more. In some cases, they might be returned to their original form. In others, they might have scenes or sequences removed in perpetuity. The descriptions alone should suggest the cultural value of these films. And seeing them—once you get past the how-did-he-do-that-ness—confirms that. Jackie Chan movies represent one of the most extraordinary experiences you can have in a movie theater, and it’s safe to say that they’ll be screened forever. But you never know how they’ll be screened, so the chance to see these prints—before anything else is lost from them—feels as essential as moviegoing can get.
“STARRING JACKIE CHAN” CONTINUES AT THE BRATTLE THEATRE UNTIL AUGUST 27. 40 BRATTLE ST., CAMBRIDGE. SCREENINGS ON SATURDAYS AT 11:30PM AND SUNDAYS AT 12:30PM. $9.