Police Story (1985)
By Matt Stevens
POLICE STORY: Region 2 DVD vs. Region 0 DVD vs. New Line Laserdisc vs. Tai Seng imported VHS tapes vs. U.S. dubbed version vs. extended widescreen Japanese Laserdisc.

Note: This is a long post. Comments on the Region 2 DVD are about halfway down.

The movie: After the horror of the Hollywood produced THE PROTECTOR, Jackie Chan returned to Hong Kong, devastated, frustrated and angry that for the second time, Hollywood courted him for a big budget U.S. feature, only to ignore his abilities, his advice and instead, attempt to turn him into what he is not: A Chinese Dirty Harry.

So Jackie returned to Hong Kong and made his own cop movie, POLICE STORY, and it is regarded as his greatest film set in “modern” times. Story, performances, direction, music are all as good as it gets with this film and the action sequences are so riveting, so powerful, so damned exciting, that many who saw it in a theater jumped out of their seats applauding and cheering when it was over. It received a well deserved standing O at the New York Film Festival back in 1985 (could be 86. I don’t remember the exact year).

Unfortunately, Jackie’s best film has long been seen at home in versions that are simply a disaster. The Tai Seng imported Hong Kong VHS tapes are panned & scanned from worn theatrical prints, with subtitles that are cut off on the left and right of the screen. These tapes are unwatchable.

The dubbed, cropped U.S. VHS tape, which has been long out of print, is a real abomination. The music score has been replaced, for no apparent reason, and the new music is cheap synthesizer stuff that is so laughable, it’s like listening to fingernails on a chalkboard. The dubbing is lame and the transfer is a mess. Thumbs way down.

New Line Cinema bought the rights to this dubbed edition a few years back and did a new sound mix with music that is taken from FIRST STRIKE and RUMBLE IN THE BRONX. The results are a use-less improvement, as the film is still cut, devoid of much of the humor and gratingly painful to watch because of the dubbing. The laserdisc is widescreen and the transfer is very good. But who cares?

Media Asia released a version of the 96 minute Hong Kong version on DVD through Mega Star over 3 years ago and the results were terribly disappointing for fans who had hoped for the Holy grail. The transfer on the Region 0 DVD was a conversion from a PAL source and suffered from heavy DVNR (digital video noise reduction), creating ghosting effects/trails and shimmering that even the most uncaring viewer would notice. Compression artifacts plagued the video and the transfer was so bright and washed out, there was no contrast. Making matter worse, Media Asia remixed the soundtrack, using all new foley effects, which actually sounded inferior to the original mono track! The sound was shrill, like it was recorded in a tin can, and was also frequently out of synch by as much as a full second. Many times things that had sounds no longer had them at all. Nothing about the new soundtrack was an improvement. It was a 100% failure and infuriated Jackie Chan fans around the world. The subtitles were even lame, with constant grammar and spelling howlers. The font even sucked.

In Japan, POLICE STORY was released on laserdisc and for years, it has been “the” version to own, despite the lack of subtitles. The 2.25:1 transfer was better than anything else out there (despite way too much artificial sharpening), the mono soundtrack was pure and undistorted, but more importantly, the film featured an extra prologue and opening credit sequence, plus an epilogue and alternate out-takes sequence that most fans regard as superior to the Hong Kong cut. My laserdisc will never go on eBay, I can tell you that. A PAL version of this was broadcast on Australian TV some years ago, but is apparently taken from the same print used for the Japanese LD.

Unfortunately, the footage for these extra scenes is lost or destroyed, according to Media Asia and the Japanese studio that released the longer version, so the brand new Hong Kong Legends DVD does not include the scenes in the film. Only the end out-takes sequence is included, and is taken from a widescreen analog (non-film) source.

Now, the new “HONG KONG LEGENDS” DVD: This is not the Holy Grail. But it IS, without a shadow of a doubt, the best version of this film, ever, despite numerous flaws that will infuriate purists (like myself), some of which probably cannot be helped. I’ll go through this one section at a time.

The film is the 96-minute version. This is Jackie Chan’s cut (he directed the film). He prefers this version. Since the extended sense cannot be found, HKL cannot be blamed for this. The alternate ending/out-takes are presented here as an extra, so that is a nice bonus and I applaud them for including it.

The transfer: Easily the best I have seen for this film. Color saturation, contrast, etc. are all improved upon when compared to the other versions of this film. The level of detail here is unmatched. A vast improvement over what we have been watching these many years. Grain is sometimes present, but most of the time it is due to the extra clarity of the DVD format. In a few shots, it’s clear the element used is aging and suffered damage. This can be seen 3 minutes & 15 seconds in, where a faint vertical line appears for just over 3 minutes. There are some other spots and scratches, but they are few and far between. HKL’s digital restoration process is amazing in removing these flaws, while not adding ghost trails or noise.

The brightness level does fluctuate in a few scenes. Viewers familiar with older films will know what I refer to. Check out BEN-HUR for a clear example of this. What a shame films that are less than 20 years old are deteriorating all throughout Asia. Hong Kong studios have neglected their films and the original negative for POLICE STORY was in a terrible state when HKL got a hold of it. There is nothing that could have been done to improve the transfer, short of a multi-million dollar restoration, and we all know that won’t happen. 20 years from now, POLICE STORY may only exist on DVD and that will be a crime. With Media Asia’s vast wealth, they should be forced into restoring and preserving these classic films (Media Asia now owns 90% of all Hong Kong films). Did you know PROJECT A’s original negative is lost and had to be recreated from an IP?! Terrible, but true.

"MPEG2 compression artifacts are not a problem on this DVD. I only noticed them a few times during the film. However, when zooming in, they can be seen. Some high bit rate DVD’s don’t show artifacting, even when zoomed in (2.35:1 to 1.85:1 zoom). I think HKL should step up the video bit rate to the 6mn level, instead of the 3.8 to 5.5mb level they average."

While watching this DVD, I found the aspect ratio to be wider than normal for a 2.35:1 film and now I know why. The image has been vertically squished, making everything a little too short and fat. After comparing this DVD to the Media Asia transfer, the Japanese transfer and the U.S. transfer, I was positive of this.

HOWEVER, some in Europe say they are not seeing this distortion, so we may have a case here of pure PAL equipment showing the film properly, but NTSC DVD players like the Malata N996 or U.S. DVD ROM drives having a conversion problem. So HKL may not be to blame here.

Those of you with the MALATA N996 or other DVD players with X-Y scaling capabilities will be OK. I was able to correct the aspect ratio with the XY feature by raising the vertical height by just 3 clicks (hit “Feature” on the remote, go to XY Scaling and then hit the UP Arrow 3 times).

Those of you who do not have an anamorphic display should not notice this, as during the downconversion process of taking an anamorphic transfer and turning it into a 4:3 letterboxed image, the distortion is decreased to where it simply cannot be seen.

For the record, this is the second Hong Kong Legend DVD to have a problem like this. MAGNIFICENT BUTCHER has the opposite distortion, with the image too tall, causing me to use the XY scaling to lower the vertical height by 3 or 4 clicks. Again, those reporting this do not have pure PAL equipment, so HKL may not be to blame. None of their other DVD's show this problem.

The soundtrack: Here is where purists (like myself) will lose it. The original mono soundtrack is not included. HKL has been releasing these films with 5.1 remixes wherever possible. In the past, the only films that were released with their original mono tracks were the ones where the original sound stems were missing and all that was left was a combined track. Many retail stores in England will not stock DVDs if the soundtrack is mono and many of their Joe Six-pack crowd will not buy them. So 5.1 is a must. I wish they would include the mono originals, but it is rumored that Media Asia will only let them release them in 5.1 or mono. Not both.

POLICE STORY’s new 5.1 soundtrack is actually quite good, but it does not contain the original sound effects and instead has the replaced sounds that are heard on the Media Asia DVD. First let me comment on how this soundtrack actually sounds to the ear.

There is not a lot of bass, but there never has been. The surrounds are used mostly for ambient sounds and the exceptional music score, which is one of the best scores for a Jackie Chan film. Compared to the Media Asia remix, this 5.1 soundtrack is undistorted and cleaner, with a more natural sound field AND, more importantly, sound that is always in synch. No more punches and gun shots that are a full second too late. It’s essentially a L/R stereo mix, with some enhancements to bring it out.

HKL says they were provided the original mono soundtrack to POLICE STORY, only to find it was badly damaged, with entire sections missing. A decision was made to use the Media Asia 5.1 tracks (which have replaced sound effects) to try and create an acceptable soundtrack for this film. Of course, controversy ensues. Entire nations rise up in revolt.

This 5.1 remix is not a true representation of the original mono track. There are sounds that have been added (the honking horn when Jackie drives the car down the shanty town, as an example) and many sounds that are just missing (the loud crash when that same car hits the stone side of the hill). The shattered glass during the finale does not have the punch of the original mono mix, but it also does not sound distorted and completely lacking bass, like with the Media Asia mix. Most punches and kicks are from the Media Asia library and sound similar to the original sounds. Many times I had to play them one after the other to be sure they were different.

Dialogue on this release is somewhat distorted in a few sections. Probably due to damage. I compared the damaged sections and the Japanese LD does not have the problem. However, the Media Asia DVD does. Not quite as noticeably, but it’s there.

Good news: The laughably bad distortion and dropouts that plagued loud punches, explosions and gunshots with the Media Asia sound mix do not plague the HKL soundtrack at all. There is a major difference in that regard. However, the kick of the very well produced mono original is lost. I’m not saying that the mono track is outstanding. But I do think it has a slight edge in some departments.

The only real improvement with this soundtrack is the more spacious feel of the music score. It moves into the surrounds and sounds cleaner than before. But I wonder how it can be so good, while the original sounds are supposed to be so unusable? I’d love to know the real story behind all this.

Yes, I would be happier with the original mono, but the remix is not an abomination (remember, I am one of the critics of Warner’s SUPERMAN remix and am pretty upset at what Anchor Bay has done with SUSPIRIA). It’s a begrudgingly acceptable alternative to no film at all, or that ridiculous Media Asia abomination. So a reluctant thumbs up on the sound.

English Language dub: It’s here. I refuse to listen to it. It was also remixed. Knock yourself out.

Subtitles: What an improvement! Easily the only good translation this film has ever received. Your Region 0 DVD is officially a coaster.

Menu design: As usual, it takes what seems like ten minutes to get past the forced copyright warnings and Media Asia logos. This shit should be illegal. You can’t even hit stop. The menus are quite nice, though I wish they included the original music over the new techno stuff.

Extras: Plenty to talk about here.

First, an audio commentary by Bey Logan that I have not had a chance to listen to (he always does a fine job though).

A Jackie Chan Bio that is strange in how it’s presented, but informative, nonetheless.

Some yawn inducing photos.

A 20 minute Jackie Chan interview, in English, and absolutely worth watching. We even see him back at the shopping mall as he talks about the film. Very cool.

Trailers for other upcoming HKL releases (Game of Death & Iron Fisted Monkey).

And what most people have hoped for, the Japanese Outtakes montage, as seen on the very rare Pony Canyon laserdisc. It’s 2 minutes and 50 seconds long and clearly taken from the laserdisc master. This does include the scene outside the mall, where the characters move their separate ways and the bad guys are put into the squad cars. A nice touch and I wonder why Jackie deleted it. Note: It took HKL a full 12 months to secure the rights for this footage from the Japanese studio, which did not want to show it outside Japan! Asian studios are the absolute worst.

There you have it. That’s everything. So what are fans to do? Clearly, the only good way to see this film, outside a theater, is to view the HKL DVD, despite its shortcomings. We’ll never know if Media Asia is full of shit or of HKL is lying their asses off. But there is no doubt that this is the only acceptable version of POLICE STORY available to English speaking fans.

The new and popular MALATA N996 converts the PAL signal perfectly and the picture quality is outstanding, both in 480i and especially in 480p. I urge any that can to invest in this player.

Those of you waiting for an NTSC version like this, I hope your rocking chair is comfortable.

Matt Stevens