It’s remarkable how much Jackie Chan’s movies have improved since his 1985 American starring debut in “The Protector.” Maybe Chan should have not have placed so much trust back then in writer-director James Glickenhaus, whose major screen credits include “Suicide Cult,” “The Exterminator,” “The Soldier,” “Shakedown,” and most recently “Timemaster” (1995). “The Protector” is an amazingly dull movie given its high quotient of action, sex, violence, nudity, chases, explosions, profanity, and helicopters; and not even the formidable presence of Mr. Chan and Danny Aiello can save it.
Jackie Chan’s most valuable assets have always been his innate charm and his graceful, acrobatic martial-arts abilities. I don’t suppose this sunk in too well with writer-director Glickenhaus because Chan’s charm is in precious little evidence and his martial-arts stunts are limited to a few jumps and spills. Without Chan’s contributions, the film is nothing more than a clichéd, wannabe thriller.
Not that the characters or plots in action movies are supposed to have much depth, but in this movie both elements are flat-out vacuous. Chan plays a New York City police detective named Billy Wong, who we’re told has been in America for ten years. That and the fact that he’s unmarried is all the information we ever find out about him. Except that he’s good at punching people out. Fortunately, he’s in New York, the only city outside of Chicago, L.A., and San Francisco where movie crime always occurs; otherwise, he’d have nothing to do. Think of him stuck in Fargo without the Coen brothers. He’d be a pet shop owner.
The plot begins with the hijacking of a big rig by a gang of punks, literal punks with punk-rock haircuts and tattoos and such (this was 1985, after all). They knock out the driver to steal a load of computers, and Billy and his partner show up to interrogate him. As far as I could tell, that’s all that comes of this opening episode. Unless I missed something (and there’s every likelihood I did because by ten minutes into the film I was already bored), there is no connection between the truck robbery and anything that comes after it. It’s just there. And unlike those James Bond pre-title segments that are fun but have nothing to do with the rest of the film, either, this one is monumentally uninteresting.
Once Billy and his partner are off duty, they stop in at a neighborhood bar, where, in the best action-movie tradition, the place is held up by a group of thugs in hoods. Or was it hoods in thongs? I forget. Anyway, a gunfight ensues, Billy kills three of the four masked holdup men, the remaining bad guy kills Billy’s partner, and Billy chases him down and blows him up. Billy’s reward for this daring escapade is to be demoted to crowd control by his superior, a police captain in the best (worst?) movie mold, by the way, ceaselessly screaming and yelling. That seems to be a prerequisite to being promoted to police captain in the movies; you have to be able to scream and yell a lot.
So now about twenty minutes of film time has elapsed, and the only thing we’ve got is Billy and his new partner, Danny Garoni (played by Danny Aiello), working a fashion show. Neither of the first two episodes have anything I could see to do with anything else that follows. But I guess even fashion shows can be dangerous places in the hands of a hackneyed plot writer, because the detectives are only there a few minutes when, wouldn’t you know it, a group of thugs in masks (different group, different thugs; maybe the same masks, I don’t know) show up and kidnap the daughter, Laura (Saun Ellis), of a hoodlum kingpin named Shapiro (Ron Dandrea). Why would they do this and who sent them? Turns out, says Billy, that Shapiro has a big-time heroin trafficking partner named Harold Ko (Roy Chiao) in Hong Kong, and Ko is peeved at Shapiro for something or other. So, figures Billy, the solution is for him and Garoni to go to Hong Kong and rescue the young lady from Ko’s evil clutches. Never mind that they’re saving the daughter of a villain equally as dastardly as Ko; a lady in distress is a lady in distress. Anyway, that’s the beginning of the real plot, what little there is of it, and rest is standard chase, jump, punch, and shoot.
Now, here’s the thing: “The Protector” isn’t just badly written; it’s uniformly awful all the way around. The acting is mechanical; the action is gratuitous; the pacing is humdrum; and the background music is trite and redundant. Jackie Chan beats up people and things blow up. That’s all you need to know. If it’s good enough for you, the picture works, although, to be fair, a moment or two of typical Chan humor creep into the screenplay unnoticed, bringing a faint smile to one’s face now and again.
Everywhere Billy and Garoni go there are beautiful young women, and wherever they go, they fight and chase somebody. There are chases by car, air, speedboat, rope, motorcycle, pole vault, you name it. And while the good guys are cornered about 800 times, of course, the heavies never just shoot them. When guns ARE fired, it’s in the old-fashioned manner of early cowboy movies, with a flick of the wrist for each shot. More cars blow up, and the Hong Kong Superintendent of Police screams and yells at our heroes. You see, it isn’t just in America; screaming and yelling must be a prerequisite for every police commander everywhere.
In the movie’s finale, Billy takes on a multitude of baddies, unarmed. But not before he has to fight two giant kung-fu experts in Rocky-like battles royal. Still, don’t just shoot him. Then more things blow up and the movie comes to a close. None too soon. “The Protector” is rated R for occasional profanity and nudity in the most unexpected places.
The screen presentation is a standard 1.74:1 ratio, enhanced for widescreen televisions. The quality isn’t much to brag about. The image is dark toned throughout, with mostly browns, reds, and blacks predominating the picture. Gray and black areas show little shading or contrast, and people and objects in shadows are often hard to discern. There are some jittery, wavering lines, and a bit of grain showing, too. Colors are generally lifeless, overall, although not necessarily faded. I think they were probably that way initially. Drab. Like the movie.
The sound comes at us via Dolby Surround Stereo, with a monaural signal fed to the rear channels. It’s fairly limited in its tonal range, somewhat tinny, and slightly bright. There is only a modest left-to-right stereo spread as well as modest back-speaker information, except, of course, for the inevitable helicopter. It’s serviceable audio at best.
I’m sure Warner Brothers were sensing only a minor seller here and offer little in the way of bonus items to support the title. Why spend money if it isn’t going to sell to anyone but hard-core Jackie Chan fans, anyway? Hence, we get merely a Chan filmography and a cast list, thirty scene selections, and a theatrical trailer. That’s it. English is the only spoken language provided, but English, French, and Spanish are offered as subtitles.
Chan followed this stinker with “Police Story,” which he wisely directed himself. It wasn’t a huge improvement, but it added more humor and was so successful it generated several sequels. Of the bunch, I recommend “Police Story III” (1992). Better yet, try “Rumble in the Bronx” (1996), still one of Chan’s best movies, or “The Legend of Drunken Master” or the silly “Rush Hour” pictures or “Shanghai Noon.” Anything, in fact, but “The Protector.”