August 23, 1985
Here we are again. THE PROTECTOR – Jackie Chan’s widely panned second attempt at an English-language starring vehicle. I reviewed it in 2011 and my opinion hasn’t changed much, but as one of the very few straight ahead action movies of Summer of 1985, it seems important to address in this series. Action-wise, the summer was all about RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD PART II. Otherwise you just had the two westerns, PALE RIDER and SILVERADO, and three cop movies – CODE OF SILENCE, YEAR OF THE DRAGON, and this. YEAR OF THE DRAGON is less actiony and has so much more production value it doesn’t seem like a fair comparison, so the one to really hold it next to is CODE OF SILENCE.
And yeah, it makes sense. Chuck Norris and Jackie were both martial arts stars – in fact, guys who had early roles in Bruce Lee movies – who were now expanding their portfolios in the medium of post-DIRTY HARRY American cop movies. CODE is set in director Andrew Davis’s textured and gritty Chicago, but director James Glickenhaus begins THE PROTECTOR in a preposterously exaggerated b-movie vision of the South Bronx where crime is so bad it has literally become a post-apocalypse movie.
The opening scene involves a Texan truck driver having his shipment of computers jacked by criminals straight up dressed like they’re in THE ROAD WARRIOR. Three little people in fur vests, berets and pirate hats hot-wire the traffic light to get him to stop, and the barbarians attach chains to the back of the truck. A cop who comes across the wreckage later refers to “the fuckin Indians,” and I don’t know if that’s the name of the gang or if he just views his life as being in a western.
This is filmed in actual New York, not Vancouver, but is it any more accurate a depiction than RUMBLE IN THE BRONX? New Yorkers, let me know. In subsequent scenes it’s more of a normal gritty cop movie approach, which is a little bit of a letdown. I wanna see guys with hubcap battleaxes and grappling hooks and shit. But I guess in the world of this movie it’s only the Bronx that has gone ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK.
Jackie plays Billy Wong, NYPD cop and ten year resident of the United States, though he doesn’t really sound like it. According to Glickenhaus in the book The Untold In-Depth Outrageously True Story of Shapiro Glickenhaus Entertainment by Nadia Bruce Rawlings, Stephen A. Roberts and Marco Siedelmann, Golden Harvest misled him about how good Jackie’s English was at the time. He says he knew it well enough to “kind of understand you,” but not to “act with an English speaking actor, ad lib off them, anything.”
So what? So he doesn’t talk that much. Not a problem. Possibly an advantage.
Jackie fans have always hated this movie for not understanding what a Jackie Chan movie is supposed to be like. It mostly avoids comedy, and probly has less action than his best movies, so it disappointed anyone who thought he could make the same sort of movies for English speaking audiences. But none of that is relevant anymore. We don’t need him to break through here, we have tons of great Hong Kong movies of his, and since I also enjoy the other type of movie this is trying to be besides a Jackie Chan movie, I’ve always felt it was better than its reputation and enjoyed it as an oddity in his filmography.
What I forgot is that after maybe 20 minutes of sleazy Glickenhaus cop movie it stops seeming that different. He’s pretty much the usual Jackie except that he
only mugs like once, and once or twice they have him be an asshole in the American policing tradition. So, like, his partner Danny Garoni (Danny Aeillo not long before the “Papa Don’t Preach” video) tells him he got demoted for kicking somebody’s teeth in, and Billy bitterly adds, “and he screamed police brutality.”
(Yeah, actually that does sound like police brutality, Billy. They were teeth.)
Billy’s previous partner Michael (Patrick James Clarke, Ryan’s Hope) got shot to death in one of those routine incidents where they’re at a bar and three coke-snorting biker dudes with machine guns come in to rob the place by announcing it to everyone inside and then the police heroically intervene by turning it into a massive, deadly shootout rather than just letting them take what’s in the register. Billy chases one of them across the city in what Garoni later calls a “fireworks display” – commandeering a speed boat and then climbing onto a cable dangling from a helicopter to launch the boat into the shooter’s escape boat.
Billy’s captain (Victor Arnold, SHAFT, WOLFEN) sarcastically calls him “Billy Wong. Supercop,” and lambastes him for his “hot dog stunts,” but as he exits the building another officer starts one of the most unnatural slow claps I’ve ever seen. ‘Cause he killed a guy and two boats.
On this viewing, admittedly, it seemed pretty slow in the middle. The good news is that Aiello is all over the movie, with his usual lovable meathead presence adding the comic relief to serious Jackie. They’re assigned to security at a fashion show for a “fabulous collection of shimmering cocktail wear,” where their expertise in police brutality and hotdog stunts fail to stop a platoon of ski-masked gunmen from rappelling through the skylights like Batman villains and kidnapping an heiress (Saun Ellis, whose only other credit is the Michael Cacoyannis historical drama SWEET COUNTRY). The bad news is that as soon as they follow the investigation to Hong Kong it starts to seem less different from those other Jackie movies it’s not as good as.
In the aforementioned book, Glickenhaus says that Chan chose him as director because THE EXTERMINATOR had “creamed” his earlier American vehicle THE BIG BRAWL at the box office. That pretty much checks out – they came out within a month of each other, and EXTERMINATOR did make more money. According to Glickenhaus:
“I think Jackie just assumed I was going to be just like everyone else in his life, which was, ‘Yes Sir, what do you want done, you’re the best, let’s all go out and party.’ Which I had no interest in, and I had no interest in making another Hong Kong Jackie Chan film. So I told them that, and they said no problem, he wants to make a U.S. film that will work in the U.S., and I got total creative control, final cut, wrote the script, everything.”
The director doesn’t hide that he’s just as disrespectful of Jackie’s work as fans assumed, saying he preferred “realistic” martial arts to “this Hong Kong opera/ballet stuff that had been around.”
“Bruce Lee was a real martial artist,” he says. “Jackie Chan was not a martial artist, he could not do martial arts… His idea of martial arts, I just thought was stupid, a joke.”
I think Glickenhaus is just showing off there. It’s not as if he constrains the movie to boring realism – if anything, people hit by gun shots fly farther than they do in most movies. But obviously his attitude wasn’t gonna make for a smooth production. Chan didn’t like how he shot the action, and offered to direct those scenes himself (as he’d done on HALF A LOAF OF KUNG FU, I believe). But keep in mind, there were conflicts on his “real” movies too – for example Chan clashed with the great Lau Kar-leung on DRUNKEN MASTER II, and took over directing the final fight. In this case he went back afterwards to shoot some more action, replace the nude women in some scenes (some EYES WIDE SHUT U.S. cut type shit) and re-edit everything. Glickenhaus declined to participate and said “look, knock yourselves out” as long as it didn’t play outside of Asia. (I don’t doubt that Chan’s version has improvements, but I watched the original Glickenhaus cut on Tubi for Summer of 1985 historical accuracy.)
THE PROTECTOR apparently didn’t do as well as THE EXTERMINATOR or THE BIG BRAWL (let alone CODE OF SILENCE). According to the-numbers.com, it opened on 89 screens, in 24th place below week 5 of KISS OF THE SPIDER WOMAN. In almost all ways CODE is a better movie – a more involving story, more interesting confrontations, and a sincere attempt to interrogate police acting as a gang, blindly supporting each others’ abuses, and considering Chuck Norris a worthless sonofabitch traitor for merely signaling disapproval. THE PROTECTOR doesn’t accomplish any of that. But strictly in the “having a martial artist do cool action hero stuff in this cop movie” department – a pretty important department in my opinion – THE PROTECTOR is the clear winner.
One of the best sequences is in a harbor in Hong Kong, when Billy is on a dock and a guy gets away on a small, slow boat. Billy does a series of moves that including jumping a motorcycle onto a boat, climbing across various structures, a roof-to-roof pole vault and a roof-to-roof jump. I like the somewhat slow pacing of the scene, giving him time to look around at his surroundings and consider his strategy. Thoughtful parkour.
In addition to the motorcycle and boats there will be another helicopter, a van, a car that he shoots and causes to flip and explode. Many forms of transportation are represented. I always appreciate that. (Also a cargo crane is involved. That’s more of a tool than a transport, so I’m listing it separately.)
There are other bits of color unrelated to Jackie, like the “portable six shot 20mm cannon” super-gun that’s introduced early on just to set up Garoni saying, “Give me that fuckin thing, come on!” and using it to take out a sniper with one shot.
The same results could’ve been achieved if he just pulled out his own regular gun. Obviously he went with the better artistic choice.
And the climactic duel is legit. Billy’s most dangerous opponent, Benny Garucci (Bill “Superfoot” Wallace, A FORCE OF ONE, KILLPOINT, L.A. STREETFIGHTERS, MANCHURIAN AVENGER), has the perfect introduction: he’s an asshole security guy at the beginning who calls Billy a racial slur, and (this is important) Danny says that he’s an “ex karate champ.” In the climax in a warehouse, Garucci’s gangster boss Mr. Ko (Roy Chiao, ENTER THE DRAGON, GAME OF DEATH, GAME OF DEATH II, INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM) sics him on Billy by saying, “There only remains one last piece of entertainment.”
Yeah – Mr. Ko gets it! He understands the proper structure. And Garucci dramatically takes his coat off, holds it out, drops it, jumps down off the crate he’s standing on, does the “c’mere” gesture.
In my opinion the fight is way better than expected from American directors filming Hong Kong stars, whatever the era. Lots of knocking each other into somersaults, grunting and getting back up and fighting through the pain. Highlights include a flying head butt and a huge table saw that we keep seeing on the table before it’s used. Billy keeps grabbing other things next to it – it’s almost like Butch picking up the different weapons in PULP FICTION. And then it expands into fighting other henchmen while moving around the different levels of the warehouse, making use of a slide, a net, a pile of barrels, launching off of tied-to-a-chair-Garoni, kicking this dude through a boarded up window…
Furthermore – and I suspect Mr. Ko secretly knew this – that whole fight is actually the next-to-last piece of entertainment. Ko flees to a helicopter, leaving a big muscleman bodyguard (David Ho, Pumola in BLOODSPORT, and a foley recordist on MULHOLLAND DRIVE, unless IMDb fucked up) to block Billy. And those two end up in a fight on a big plank that gets lifted by the aforementioned cargo crane.
It’s kind of like the end of CHINA STRIKE FORCE, but all real footage, no green screen.
So as much as I enjoy Chuck Norris and his robot pal shooting up their equivalent warehouse, this is the better final battle of the two Summer of 1985 martial artist cop movies, for sure. That counts for something in my book. THE PROTECOR is not one of the 1985 classics, but I consider it a worthy lowbrow contribution to the season.
Summer of 1985 connections:
Danny Aiello was also in THE STUFF.
You see the side of what appears to be a Charlie’s Angels pinball machine. That’s all I noticed.
There’s some prominent bathroom graffiti that says “SAVE SOVIET JEWS”?
James Glickenhaus directed four more movies: SHAKEDOWN, MCBAIN, SLAUGHTER OF THE INNOCENTS and TIMEMASTER.
Danny Aiello had already been in THE GODFATHER PART II and ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA, so there’s no way we can credit this as a breakthrough in his career. But two years later he was in MOONSTRUCK. Let’s assume this got him cast. I don’t know.
THE PROTECTOR didn’t make Jackie Chan into a movie star in the U.S. like he hoped it would. Instead, his disappointment with how it turned out inspired him to make POLICE STORY, which led into his period of contemporary, stunt-heavy classics, propelling him to even bigger stardom at home and growing his legend elsewhere, so that when he finally did catch on in the states and started making not-as-good movies in Hollywood it wasn’t a total waste.