City Hunter and the Dartboard Cinema of Wong Jing

At one point it was somewhat embarrassing to admit this, but I’ve long been a fan of Wong Jing, the director of CITY HUNTER. Both the embarrassment and the fandom deserve explanation.

The embarrassment is down to the fact that, at least at the time I was most heavily interested in Hong Kong Cinema, I was actively trying to get people to look beyond the more obvious aspects and get them to see what I was drawn to (transcendent genre cinema) and not just cheap thrills (even though there were plenty of those, too.) Wong Jing is defined by cheap thrills, so he didn’t really serve my purposes in that regard. These days Hong Kong style action is a standard and talent with Hong Kong roots are global superstars, so my worries on that front are all gone.

So I’m free. FREE! Wong Jing’s movies are dumb fun!

So, who is he? Wong Jing is a Hong Kong writer, producer and director who’s had his hands in a lot of successful films over the past 30 years. He’s worked with every major Hong Kong star including multiple hits as a director with Stephen Chow and Chow Yun Fat; producer on dozens of films including the highly influential and successful YOUNG AND DANGEROUS and A MOMENT OF ROMANCE; and, early on in his career, writer on a string of classic kung fu movies including DREADNAUGHT, THE MAGNIFICENT BUTCHER and THE PRODIGAL SON.

His output varies wildly. Looking at his long career there are huge peaks and valleys. For every classic like GOD OF GAMBLERS (with Chow Yun-Fat) or ROYAL TRAMP (with Stephen Chow) there’s are five mediocre films like CROCODILE HUNTERS (starring Andy Lau) or FUTURE COPS (featuring three of the four “Four Heavenly Kings” of Canto-pop, Andy Lau, Jackie Cheung, and Aaron Kwok.) The only true defining thread in his career is that he’s completely uninhibited as a filmmaker. He does what he thinks the audience will enjoy and that’s as high as he aims. That drives critics and many fans crazy, but, to Wong’s credit, that strategy has sold a lot of tickets over the years.

This is definitely a guilty pleasure for me. I recognize that he’s not a great filmmaker. There’s a reason he’s been less successful as the years have gone on. The expectations for Hong Kong cinema have grown alongside the audience and influence so his dartboard-of-cheap-thrills method of moviemaking has had less traction. Back in the day when someone like Chow Yun-Fat would make a dozen movies in a year and the industry as a whole was working at a breakneck pace, it took a lot to stand-out. Making wild films designed to please as broad an audience as possible was a pretty good strategy. When that formula worked, the results were pure fun.

That audience pleasing impulse is clearly evident in CITY HUNTER. It’s precisely the sort of film that draws me to Wong Jing. CITY HUNTER is relentless. Wong throws everything he can think of at the screen, hoping something sticks. It’s an hour and forty-five minutes of bare (but not naked) flesh, cornball jokes, fights of all shapes and sizes, and clever stunts superimposed on top of not one but two different pop culture licenses (the manga of the title and the STREET FIGHTER video game series.)

Jackie Chan is the star here, playing the titular City Hunter. It’s not a typical Chan role. He plays a bit of a ladies’ man, which is a little weird by itself, and his goofiness is cranked up to the max throughout the film. He doesn’t have a serious moment and every take is played for maximum dorkiness. It’s not all great comedy, but what the film lacks in consistent quality it makes up in volume. Bits are developed and discarded at a frenetic pace. Running jokes, like the fact that Jackie is hungry, are mined for all they’re worth. There are five Jackie-is-hungry gags I can think of off the top of my head and I bet there are a couple more sprinkled throughout that I just can’t remember.

Interestingly, in the middle of all this goofy fun on-screen, off-screen was tense. As often happens when Jackie is involved, the star and director ended up fighting throughout the production. It was so bad Wong Jung made an entire film, HIGH RISK (staring Jet Li), designed to insult Chan.

1980s/1990s stalwarts like Joey Wong, Chingmy Yau (star of Wong’s most “Wong Jing” film, NAKED KILLER) and Leon Lai fill out the cast and they all gamely tackle the bonkers CITY HUNTER universe. Maybe they were having fun, even if Chan wasn’t.
The overall goofiness of the film and the fact that Chan is all-in on comedy is best exemplified by one of the two centerpiece fights in the film. There’s always been opportunity in Hong Kong for western actors to play villains if they’ve got some martial arts skills. This film has two of them- Richard Norton and Gary Daniels.

The fight in question features the main henchman, played by Gary Daniels. Daniels is clearly channeling Jean-Claude Van Damme in this film. He spends a lot of time shirtless and fights in muscular, “kickboxer” style. It would have been the natural order of things for him to face off with Chan in the “under-boss” fight pitting his “Van Damme” style against Chan doing his more technical and acrobatic martial arts.

Instead, we get about 15 seconds of the fight you’d expect and then we get Daniels and Chan, along with the Hong Kong rap duo Softhard (FYI: the song they perform earlier in the film is called “Gala Gala Happy” just in case it infects your brain and you find yourself singing it) morphing into characters from the STREET FIGHTER video game series and fighting in an effects heavy sequence that’s played entirely for laughs. The good news is, it’s pretty funny. It’s a wonderfully ridiculous sequence.

Even better news is the fact that the final boss fight, with Richard Norton, more than makes up for the lack of real hand-to-hand combat between Daniels and Chan in their final encounter. The finale is a weapon-heavy, prop-filled classic. It’s frenetic, precise (watch for a sequence with chairs halfway through) and, like the rest of the film, occasionally pretty funny. Chan and Norton both ham it up throughout and, for some reason (maybe the hip hop influence of Softhard) Chan does a lot of break-dancing during the fight. But there’s also about five minutes of furious stick-fighting.

Like the film as a whole, it’s a fun blend.

This article was originally published on the Brattle Film blog in 2016.