City Hunter (1992)

D: Wong Jing
S: Jackie Chan, Richard Norton

In the wake of the big budget US-based 'comic book' films (Batman, Dick Tracy), Hong Kong director Wong Jing (God of Gamblers) has tackled the popular manga title with more gusto than any American film to date has been able to muster. Frantic to a fault and including references to various popular cultural icons including the Street Fighter II video game, City Hunter manages to upstage its own exuberant star, Jackie Chan (Dragons Forever). Dazzling set design, outrageous comic action scenes, and a sense of tongue-in-cheek assurance succeeds in containing Chan within the framework of the movie, so even though he gives it his all as ever, those who enjoy the movie are likely to do so for reasons other than the fact that he is in it (and this is no mean accomplishment).

Beginning with a series of direct-to-camera scenes of exposition and flashback which are obviously shot on sound stages (lit with purple gels and photographed at odd angles), the film's 'comic book' aesthetic is signalled clearly long before the final freeze frame cuts to an actual manga drawing. The story involves the eponymous character, a private detective with an eye for female flesh and a grasp of martial arts which does not prevent him from comically injuring himself on numerous occasions. When hired to find the daughter of a wealthy Japanese businessman, he finds himself fending off not only the attentions of his old partner's jealous sister (who sees him as her boyfriend in spite of his wandering eye and a promise to her brother never to lay a hand on her), but a mysterious female detective on the trail of a group of terrorists who are about to seize a luxury liner on its maiden voyage.

The plot is not totally irrelevant insofar as its pastiche of familiar generic elements grounds the madness in a persistent unreality typical of its source material, but it is essentially a premise for a series of elaborate set pieces. The film is nearly half-way through before Norton and his minions make their move on the ship, by which time there have already been chases, fights, and in-jokes enough to make your head spin. Chan punches, kicks, and bug-eyes his way through all of it with a perfect live-action cartoon performance complete with massively exaggerated reaction shots. Luckily, as noted, he is more than in place amid a visual palette inspired by comic book pastels and rendered with a brisk, crisp, clean sense of style by the director.

Supporting performances from the female cast are also vital. The casual misogyny and level of physical violence directed towards women could have campaigners screaming from the rooftops if they took the time to watch it, but spirited performances from the three female leads help to reinforce the sense of tongue-in-cheek absurdity. For all that Chingamy Yau makes a formidable action foil as the all-kicking, gun-toting female detective (who is made up to resemble computer game character Lara Croft at the climax in one of the many references to games in the film). Joey Wang also has some great facial expressions and reaction shots, with Miss Japan Goto Kumiko more or less holding her own as the damsel in distress. Action support is more traditional from martial artists Gary Daniels and Norton, though Norton gets to play some broad comedy too before finally going one-on-one with Jackie in the final scenes.

City Hunter is a lot of fun if you are of a mind to enjoy it. Not all of it works, but the cumulative effect of the relentless insanity is pleasurable enough in retrospect. Among the many highlights likely to linger in the mind are the Street Fighter II battle (where Chan and Daniels battle in the costume and fighting style of characters from the game), an ersatz dance number in which Chan wields Yau like a swing partner as she blasts bad guys with a pistol strapped to her thigh, and a clever bit of business which references the Bruce Lee-Kareem Abdul Jabaar fight from Game of Death (which plays in the background as Chan battles not one but two enormous basketballers in a cinema, taking cues from the master on how to defeat them). Colourful (definitively), high-energy (though it takes a little time to settle into the style), and a showcase for Chan's talents which proves how important the setting can be in enhancing the object on display. One for action and comic book fans, and, rampant sexism aside, pretty suitable for a fairly wide audience.

Note: The Region 2 UK DVD from Hong Kong Legends is typically well-presented, with trailers, interviews, and an informative commentary by Bey Logan.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2003.