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THE PRISONER (aka JACKIE CHAN IS THE PRISONER)

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung, Tony Leung
Director:  Chu Yen Ping
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1, Dolby Surround
Video:  Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio:  Columbia Tri Star
Features:  Commentary Track, Talent Files, Trailer
Length:  96 Minutes
Release Date:  February 20, 2001

Film *

Every star, no matter how bright, has to have one project that ranks as the worst of his or her career.  For me, that star is Jackie Chan, and that project would be his film The Prisoner, aka Jackie Chan is The Prisoner.  My first clue should have been that I couldn’t find so much as a mention of the movie in any of my books on Jackie, who admits in his autobiography I Am Jackie Chan that he’s appeared in a number of pictures he’s not proud of simply as favors to friends and associates in the business.  I would imagine he considers this picture an even worse embarrassment than the time he made a cameo in drag for Stanley Tong and Michelle Yeoh’s Supercop 2.

My second clue should have been when I realized that Jackie didn’t dub his own voice for this American version of the film…something he’s done for all previous American releases, including another picture he’s more or less disowned, Twin Dragons.  It’s kind of a distraction to hear the wrong voice coming out of his mouth!

Making its DVD debut, The Prisoner is actually ten years old, and marks another pairing of Jackie with his old opera school brother, and a martial arts star and director in his own right, Sammo Hung.  That fact alone intrigued me…after all, this pair made some of the best Hong Kong action movies together, from the two Project A films to the Winners and Sinners and Lucky Stars series, to the acclaimed Dragon Forever and the surprisingly moving Heart of Dragon.  But, in the first place, to call this film a pairing of the two stars would be misleading…they only share a few precious minutes of screen time at the very end of the picture.  In the second place, it’s even more misleading, in my opinion, to call this a Jackie Chan movie.

I knew I was in trouble when Jackie didn’t even appear on screen for the first 20 minutes of the film…instead, the plot of the movie is established when a cop (Leung) decides to go undercover as an inmate in a harsh prison to discover why a supposedly long-dead convict turned up at a crime scene he was investigating.  Cut off from his fellow officers, he must learn to cope with the brutal reality of prison life, and maintain his cover while trying to learn what he came there for.

Hung plays a fellow prisoner…a pathetic fellow with a penchant for escaping just long enough to see his estranged son, before being recaptured and put in solitary for his actions. 

Finally, we get to see Jackie, who winds up in trouble with a gang when he refuses to throw a pool match.  After a brief fight scene where he accidentally kills the gang’s big brother, he winds up in the prison as well, but with members of the outfit on the inside and out for blood.

The fight scenes are not only amazingly few and far between, they are composed without inspiration, and with seemingly no awareness of the talent on screen.  Jackie, who has built his reputation on his jaw dropping action sequences, his comical use of props, and his amazing stunts, does none of the above here.  He’s basically no more than a Steven Segal or a Jean-Claude Van Damme, kicking and punching his way through, where the main attraction is not his style, but watching the bad guys fall.  Sammo Hung, who showed mainstream American audiences what he was capable of on the TV series Martial Law, is equally misused.  Even worse, when the two stars are FINALLY united on screen at the very end, they fight with guns in the action finale.  Guns.  They might just as well made a film with Fred Astaire and ask him to stay in a wheelchair for the duration.

Everything about the film is anti-Jackie Chan, from the copious and unnecessary amounts of graphic violence (we see lots of bloodshed, scenes of torture, and a man being burned alive among other things) to the ridiculous smatterings of profanity…not that I’m a language prude, mind you, but Jackie has always prided himself on the fact that his movies are considered family entertainment in Hong Kong…yes, there’s kung fu type violence, but nothing graphic, and no foul language. 

In addition to the fact that Jackie misses the first reel, after his initial appearance is up, he vanishes from the screen for another 20 minutes!  This represents an unsightly pattern that adds up to maybe 12-15 minutes tops of screen time for the man whose name appears above the title.  Some Hong Kong studio head pulled a major league bait and switch on the audience here.

But even Jackie on screen can’t lift this picture out of the throes of boredom.  Not even his most die hard fans, of which I am one, are going to be entertained by this bloated, misguided attempt at an action film.

Video ***

Columbia Tri Star, usually considered the champion of the anamorphic enhancement, actually forgoes it for this presentation…yet, for once, I don’t feel like complaining.  If somebody making decisions felt this film wasn’t worth the expense or effort, how could I argue?  Still, the picture looks surprisingly good considering its age and the lack of proper film preservation inherent in Asian cinema.  Colors are bright, well-rendered, and natural looking throughout, and images are generally quite sharp and crisp, save for a few low light settings which exhibit minor amounts of softness and grain (nothing distracting).  The print itself is remarkably clean.  No real complaints.

Audio **1/2

With a choice of surround offerings, I opted for the 5.1, and found it a mostly decent listen.  The dubbing, as mentioned, was a particular distraction to me considering Jackie didn’t supply his own voice, but apart from that, it was done clearly and without audio problems.  The action sequences aren’t much, and by and large, the rear stage and .1 channel are used sparingly until the climax, which erupts with a fair amount of dynamic range, discreet signal usage, and bass.  I noticed no noise or distortions along the way.

Features **

The disc contains an interesting commentary track with a martial arts expert, Phillip Rhee, whom I can only guess would have much rather talked about Jackie’s normal fighting style than the by-the-numbers action sequences here.  There is also a video trailer for the film (not a theatrical one), and some talent files for the three stars.  The menus also have a bit of animation and sound to accompany them.  One other thing…for the first time I’ve seen on a Columbia Tri Star disc, you’re not allowed to skip past the opening studio logo or the FBI warning.  I hope that’s not a sign of things to come!

Summary:

Jackie Chan’s best movie is a film called Miracles, and it’s also available on DVD from Columbia Tri Star.  Treat yourself to it, and leave The Prisoner in solitary confinement for a while longer.