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.