Thunderbolt (Pik lik foh)

Hong Kong (1995) Dir. Gordon Chan

Kung Fu and motor racing, not a combination that would immediately spring to mind but in the crazy world of cinema anything goes. And if anybody is bold enough to give it a go, it would be martial arts legend and car fan Jackie Chan.

In Hong Kong, police are trying to crack down on a proliferation of illegally upgraded cars with the help of the local garage run by Chan Chung Tung (Yuen Chor) and his son Chan Foh To (Jackie Chan). Hoping for an exclusive on the scene scoop, TV reporter Amy Yip (Anita Yuen) attends the stake out. When the night is over her cameraman’s sports car breaks down and the Chans help them out, just as speeding car breaks through the police cordon, running down and killing a cop.

Foh To gives chase in the sports car eventually trapping the other driver Walter “Cougar” Kaugmann (Thorsten Nickel) in a police blockade, and with Foh To’s eyewitness account of the killing, Cougar is locked up. He manages to escape and exacts revenge on Foh To, kidnapping his younger sisters Dai Mui (Wu Oi-Yan) and Sai Mui (Annie Man) and holding them hostage until Foh To agrees to race him in Japan.

Thunderbolt comes from that odd period of Jackie Chan’s career where he is desperate to appeal to US audiences but won’t fully abandon his home audience, resulting in his output being somewhat confused as it mixes crowd pleasing action with storytelling that falls to engage from having no stable identity. I suppose the 1990s were Chan’s Globetrotting years since in his films he would always end up in the US, Europe, Australia, more than his home of Asia.

Although Chan only travels to neighbouring Japan for this film, the climactic racing scene was actually shot in Malaysia because of the rain in Japan; even then, local safety laws meant they had to film the race at a safe speed, so the end footage is sped up and one step away from having Yakety Sax (or the Benny Hill chase tune for you ignorami) as its musical soundtrack.

Elsewhere this film is notable for some of the fight scenes to feature stand ins for Chan, having broken his ankle during filming of his previous film Rumble In The Bronx the year before, which hadn’t fully healed. As admirable the efforts of Chin Kar Lok, Collin Chou, and Sam Wong were in replicating and mimicking Chan’s fighting style in the big fight at the pachinko parlour, the quick cuts and odd camera angles couldn’t disguise the fact this wasn’t actually Jackie.

Not that it prevented the fight from the usual blend of fast strikes and comic acrobatics as Chan was able to do most of the close up shots, but compared to the big multi-man punch up at the garage earlier in the film, one can see the difference when Jackie has been substituted. It seems location is not an issue – Hong Kong or Japan, everyone wants a piece of Jackie Chan and he is happy (or forced) to oblige.

When it comes to why Foh To is in Japan, the script tries to make it seem imperative but for a film that is uncharacteristically comedy light, the plotting is rather risible. Cougar is your typical arrogant foreigner antagonist for a 90s Chan film – tall, blond hair in a pony tail, wealthy, corrupt, and pantomime level acting – but instead of being a martial artist he is a racing driver.

Cougar is apparently wealthy enough to assume Hong Kong laws don’t apply to him so he drives fast and recklessly and can pay off anyone who tries to stop him or sell him out to the police. His lawyer/ girlfriend (Rebecca Penrose), a statuesque blonde willing to flirt for Cougar’s release, fails against Interpol agent Steve Cannon (Michael Wong) but does hamper him when lack of evidence for the hit and run means no arrest for Cougar.

However, knowing Foh To was a witness, Cougar sends some of his Chinese friends to the garage to offer Foh To a cash sweetener to stay quiet, but our man is too noble to be bribed. After kicking the snot out of all of them, Foh To bravely drops Cougar in it and he is jailed but not for long as his people are planning an audacious escape plan, turning this from an episode of Top Gear into a John Woo film.

Oh, but there is more – Cougar’s revenge against Foh To pushes the boundaries of credibility to breaking point seeing as he somehow gets away with it scot free, but does deserve full marks for originality. It’s certainly a memorable spectacle and no doubt an expensive one, but in this context somehow less the act of a deranged villain, more one would expect from a Buster Keaton film.

I realise I haven’t even mentioned the predictable but never-mentioned-until-the-last- minute romance between Foh To and Amy but we can take this as read since like all good action heroes, 41-year old Jackie always get his 24 year-old girl in the end. Clichés aside, we can’t accuse the script of is not being ambitious in maintaining the momentum, though not every idea is a winner, and director Gordon Chan seems a little overwhelmed at times in keeping everything on the same track.

Assuming not all petrol heads are martial arts fans, they have to wait until the blatant Mitsubishi promotion… er, big race at the end for their kicks but are greatly rewarded with an action packed race featuring manic driving and OTT stunts to make Hal Needham proud. Per the trademark outtakes in the end credits, at least it wasn’t Jackie getting hurt this time.

Thunderbolt is a perplexing film in that it is hardly essential Jackie Chan boasting one of the daftest plots of his works, yet the action is top notch. just enough to compensate for the naffness surrounding it.