The Accidental Spy

(2001, 2:35, Teddy Chen)
** = Worth Seeing

Continuing the mix of international casts and locations found in Police Story Four: First Strike, Jackie Chan and company set their sights further to the west, read American audiences, with mixed results. As the title suggests, Chan plays an ordinary man who in thwarting a bank robbery at a mall he works in, becomes involved in finding a bio-terrorist virus called Anthrax II. His search takes him from Hong Kong to Seoul and Istanbul, meeting Koreans, Turks, and Americans on the way.

Though a Hong Kong production, the look and shape of the film is for the most part modern Hollywood; glossy photography, shallow focus, close-up heavy and character driven. The filmmakers also adapts the Hollywood practice of multiple camera set ups and heavy editing for action sequences, thus further diluting the key elements of a Jackie Chan picture. Almost gone is the exhilaration of long takes and camera movements capturing the action choreography, though a comic fight scene in an outdoor market in Istanbul, with Chan in the buff, still retains the dynamism of Chan’s best work. (The credited director here is Teddy Chen, but I have a feeling that Chan had a major hand in calling the shots.) The film is also taken down a peg by a cloying “mickey mouse” soundtrack that makes sure the western audiences don’t miss the humorous bits of business during the action scenes. The irony of Chan and his company making the film more accessible to a western market is that the US distributor, the infamous Dimension Films, still cut 20 minutes and released it straight to video.

Even with all these weaknesses, The Accidental Spy doesn’t have the almost faceless characteristics of Chan’s Hollywood productions, where he farms out the dialogue scenes to an American director and has little control over the editing of his own action sequences. The film overall is fluid in its execution with decent use of the ‘Scope frame and, despite the fast cutting, there is none of the spatial disorientation and violations found in most current American action films. There is a certain amount of sadness rustling through the film in regards to Chan’s character being an orphan –his main motive in becoming wrapped up in espionage is to quell his curiosity that the man supposedly responsible for creating the Anthrax II virus may be his father– and Chan’s inability to save a orphaned young woman who has fallen victim to heroin addiction through her relation with an international smuggler. These melancholic moments give the film a bit more weight and allow Chan to demonstrate his range as an actor.

Yet the film’s strengths are weakened as it mechanically moves to deliver a show-stopping set piece in the third act, and switches gears from a spy story to vigilante wish fulfillment when Chan decides to personally take down the smuggler. As the sequence moves from an airfield to a freeway, complete with an overheated tanker that will explode if it does keep moving, ala 1994’s Speed, the editing jumps from one attraction to the next with little build or tempo. In this rush to add one set piece after another, there’s a lot of longwinded exposition between characters explaining what needs to be done to stop the truck, catch the villain, save the hostages, etc.. (When a Hong Kong action film has to rely on narration to illustrate action, you know it is in trouble.) Along with this manufactured feel, there’s the vigilante bent that leaves a slightly bad taste in the mouth. Any nuances or complexities in the film or Chan’s character get erased in the move to such simple mindedness, and ends up compromising and tainting the material. The film further stumbles near at the end, where Chan learns that his involvement in the bio-terrorist plot was not so accidental, along with a sequence playing over the end credits hinting at Chan’s character continuing his espionage adventures. Were Chan and his production company keeping things open for a new franchise? Box office receipts may prohibit that.

With all the bases –and markets– the film tries to touch, the end result becomes so top heavy as to be lopsided, and the cumulative flaws of The Accidental Spy renders the film below most of Chan’s Hong Kong work. Yet with all this, the film still retains fragments of what makes Chan and his films so dynamic and appealing, fragments that get totally lost when added to the Hollywood mix of his Disney and DreamWorks productions. Perhaps the dilution of Chan in America makes this viewer starved for a real fix of Chan, and while this Hong Kong entry does not contain all the proper ingredients there’s a sprinkling of enough as to keep one mildly content, though the lost opportunity or reluctance of delivering a genuine item lingers on.

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