Though he is an inter­na­tion­al star today, that was not always the case for Jackie Chan.  The American mar­ket held out for a long time before giv­ing in to him: in fact, it took the bet­ter part of two decades.  The Big Brawl was the first attempt to import him to U.S. screens and, bar­ring a cameo in The Cannonball Run, it took five years for anoth­er seri­ous attempt at mak­ing him a crossover star.  That sec­ond effort was The Protector, a glo­be­trot­ting cop flick that paired Chan with writer/director James Glickenhaus of The Exterminator and Shakedown fame.  While it didn’t make him an American star, the results are enter­tain­ing in their own quirky grind­house-with-a-bud­get way.

The plot begins in New York with cop Billy Wong (Chan) tak­ing revenge after thugs mur­der his part­ner in a bar.  His destruc­tive retal­i­a­tion — which involves shoot­ing up a bar and a boat chase — leads to his demo­tion.  However, Billy gets anoth­er chance at hero­ism when socialite Laura Shapiro (Saun Ellis) is kid­napped dur­ing a fash­ion show.  Billy real­izes it has some­thing to do with her father’s Hong Kong busi­ness ties and he talks his supe­ri­ors into let­ting him go there.

Soon enough, Billy is can­vass­ing the streets of Hong Kong with anoth­er New York cop, vet­er­an Danny Garoni (Danny Aiello), as back­up.  All signs seem to point to a well-con­nect­ed busi­ness­man named Ko (Roy Chiao) but he’s a hard man to get to — and Ko’s acolytes throw out an end­less array of ambush­es to stop the two cops.  It seems there is a major drug-export­ing oper­a­tion at stake for Ko — and he’s will­ing to force Billy and Danny into an explo­sive show­down to defend it.

The Protector was a pop­u­lar home video title but didn’t score big suc­cess at the box office, nor did it pop­u­lar­ize Chan with American audi­ences.  Chan’s fan­base gen­er­al­ly rejects it out of hand as a failed exper­i­ment that doesn’t use its star well.  However, an hon­est assess­ment of the film’s prob­lems will quick­ly lead to the con­clu­sion that Chan is the prob­lem here. He had a real­ly weak grasp of the English lan­guage at this point and his halt­ing, pho­net­ic deliv­ery in any scene involv­ing dia­logue is enough to make any­one cringe.

Chan deliv­ers impres­sive­ly on the phys­i­cal lev­el dur­ing the film’s many action sce­nes but his work as an actor seems lazy and dis­tract­ed here, even with the English lan­guage bar­ri­er fac­tored in.  He’s not in his com­fort zone and, as a result, he doesn’t seem inter­est­ed in giv­ing 100% out­side the action sce­nes. Aiello has to prop him up a lot with his sec­ond-lead per­for­mance: thank­ful­ly, he’s up to the task and his wiseass charm adds to the movie’s fun quite a bit.

However, that doesn’t mean that The Protector isn’t fun to watch.  In fact, if you view as an ‘80s action work­out instead of a Chan vehi­cle, it’s often quite enjoy­able.  It’s a lot like a pri­or Glickenhaus film, The Soldier: the sto­ry is basi­cal­ly a loose spring­board off of which a bar­rage of impres­sive action sequences are launched. The sce­nework is loose and some­times daft — look out for a hilar­i­ous “slow clap” scene in a police precinct office — but the plot stuff quick­ly steps aside for the action.  In oth­er words, The Protector is not a film to be watched for char­ac­ter devel­op­ment or tricky plot­ting.  It’s a con­tent deliv­ery sys­tem for hand-to-hand fights, chas­es and explo­sions.

On that lev­el, The Protector is a lot of fun.  Glickenhaus shies away from the “com­e­dy kung-fu” expect­ed from a Chan vehi­cle and instead goes for a high-octane, bru­tal approach to action.  He sets the tone for the kind of film it will be in the open­ing sce­nes, where a bloody shootout gives way to a foot chase that becomes a boat chase and then throws in a heli­copter for extra thrills.  There’s even a real­ly impres­sive stunt where a guy not only flies through a win­dow but also a neon sign, result­ing in an explo­sion of sparks and shat­tered glass.

A sim­i­lar­ly orgias­tic touch is applied to lat­er sce­nes, includ­ing an all-out brawl in the mid­dle of a Hong Kong mas­sage par­lor, com­plete with a scene of Chan kick­ing a knife-wield­ing masseuse in the face, and a fun bit where Chan has to leap from dock to boat using a motor­cy­cle and his feet to get at an escap­ing motor­boat.  Glickenhaus also isn’t afraid to throw in a lit­tle sexy mate­ri­al to up the ante: in addi­tion to the afore­men­tioned mas­sage par­lor scene, there’s also a scene where it is revealed that the drug pro­cess­ing plant is staffed by wom­en who have to strip naked before going to work.  In short, Glickenhaus knows the kind of pot­boil­er he’s mak­ing and he rev­els in its excess­es.

Thus, The Protector is an odd­i­ty in the Jackie Chan fil­mog­ra­phy but it fits just fine into the James Glickenhaus fil­mog­ra­phy.  With its seedy sto­ry aspects and lack of com­e­dy touch­es, it’s inevitable that the diehard Chan fans wouldn’t like it — but it wasn’t real­ly made for them.  The mar­tial arts film fan’s loss is the exploita­tion flick fan’s gain.