The Accidental Spy Review

Simon Wyndham has reviewed the Region 0 DVD release of The Accidental Spy

Accident Prone
In recent years Jackie Chan has been making a name for himself in medium budget films in the US. Films such as Rush Hour and Shanghai Noon have now garnered him a following in the west. After Rush Hour Chan decided he would make one US film, and one Hong Kong film a year, each to be tailored to the audience that would see them. Recently he has changed his outlook. While working with the many US directors, as well as the new wave of Hong Kong ones, he has decided to let the films and directors speak for themselves rather than take control like he has done in the past, combining the best of Hong Kong and the US methods. This means that in the future we will see Chan’s Hong Kong films get a much wider worldwide release. The first of these will be The Highbinders, rumoured to co-star Rowan Atkinson. For now however we have The Accidental Spy.

Receiving it’s theatrical debut around Chinese New Year, the film has now been released onto DVD with a DTS soundtrack to boot. How does it fare? Read on, but beware this review may contain some spoilers, a first for a Jackie Chan film!

Aggresive like a Tiger… Beer!
The Accidental Spy stars Jackie as a gym equipment salesman called Buck Yuen who dreams of a more exciting life. He was orphaned as a child and has no idea of who his parents are. When Buck foils a robbery at a local bank he is spotted in the media broadcasts by a private detective played by Eric Tsang who is looking for orphans of around Buck’s age. A client in Korea is searching for his son, and Buck might just be him. On arrival in Korea Buck finds out that his would-be father is not all he seems, and hides a deadly secret that will lead Buck all over the world trying to save not only his life, but that of millions of others too!

Accidental Spy certainly had no expense spared on it’s production. The cinematography and editing is superb, so good in fact it could easily better many of the more stylish of the US films coming out at the moment. It’s lighting is moody, and in some places very ‘noir’ like, and it is all brought out by the plotline and characters. Yes, you read that right. This is a Jackie Chan film with a plot and characterisation! Much more than before Chan is called upon to actually act more than in previous movies. It’s nothing too deep of course, but certainly a step up from his previous films.

This very fact means that most of the action in Accidental Spy is far more plot driven rather than being the main focus of the film. Fans expecting wall to wall action had better avoid it as the action that is here is very short, though very well done. Having said that, the action sequences do come about fairly often meaning that the film rarely slows down. Chan proves to us that he has lost none of his innovation or his fight agility. His kicks are far more crisp and elegant for instance than his last Hong Kong film Gorgeous, something that given his back injuries took me by surprise.

Most of Jackie’s recent films have all had some kind of flaw, and you might well be wondering what Accidental Spy’s achilles heel is. As it happens Accidental Spy turns out to be the best film Chan has ever made, until that is the last 10 minutes or so. While the rest of the film is stylish, atmoshperic, and interspersed with some cool action, the end action to the film interupts it like a commercial break! It just seems to appear out of nowhere, literally. The bad guy is despatched extremely easily and the rest of the sequence is devoted to saving a lorry driver and his family Speed style from his burning petrol tanker. This is all very well and exciting as action sequences go, but it just has nothing to do with the rest of the film whatsoever!

Some are arguing that Chan is not physically able to do large scale end fights any more. I would disagree. The earlier fights in the film demostrate that this is simply not the case. If he can put up with the punishment that the stunts in the final sequence must have put on him, an end fight would have been a doddle to do instead! As it is, there is no confrontation with the main villain, a character who gives an exceptional performance earlier in the film. This is the kind of villain we should be seeing in the newer James Bond films, yet we see no satisfactory confrontation save for a brief fight with his henchman played by Brad Allan in the back of an open top Mercedes.

There is a minor plus point to the end of the film, so it is not all bad. Unlike most Jackie Chan films that just end, this one contains not only an epilogue, but also a small continuation of the story after the end credits have rolled so that you can view the product sponsors credits! Throughout the film, if nothing else Accidental Spy proves that Hong Kong film makers have not got the hang of product placement!

The video on this DVD is acceptable. Being a non-anamorphic NTSC image we cannot expect any degree of perfection. The black levels are ok and there is no pixellation anywhere. I did not notice any colour bleed either in the sunny Istanbul locations. Overall it is serviceable, and fairly detailed, but should be improved no end when Columbia release it later in the year, hopefully uncut in anamorphic form. It is also worth noting that the subtitles are not 16:9 friendly, meaning that to view them in zoom mode you will need to shift the picture to the top of the screen. Luckily because this is a 2.35:1 presentation there is no need to adjust the height of the picture as well. Given that more expense is being lavished on the films themselves, it is a shame that the Hong Kong DVD producers cannot push themselves to anamorphic transfers and 16:9 acceptability.

The sound on the other hand is a different kettle of fish. This is the first Hong Kong film I have seen with a true 5.1 soundtrack. Films like Tokyo Raiders have come close to doing this, but Accidental Spy really does use the surround field to good effect. Be it gunfire in the split surrounds, to the enveloping musical soundtrack and use of LFE, Accidental Spy is a definate step in the right direction for Hong Kong film sound. The musical soundtrack in particular is very good. Despite using the usual electronic orchestrations found in most of todays Hong Kong films, Accidental Spy uses real location relevant instruments giving some sections a very atmospheric appeal. Note that this refers to the Dolby Digital 5.1 track and not the DTS one due to this reviewers lack of budget!

On the extras front we have the usual limited supply. There is a making of documentarym though this is in Cantonese only and contains no subtitles. That said the behind the scenes footage is still interesting to watch. There are the usual biographies of the principle actors, and the theatrical trailer to the film. Overall there is nothing to set the heart racing.

If you can ignore the action that finalises the film Accidental Spy actually turns out to be Jackie Chan’s best film since the mid-nineties. None of his previous films have come close in production value or plot. This is certainly the closest Chan has ever come to making a truly epic action film, and if only he had ended it with a more personal fight rather than a cop out lorry chase it would in fact have been a Drunken Master 2 beater. For those wanting wall to wall fight action it will be a dissapointment. For those wanting a fairly decent plot, excellent cinematography and sound interspersed with some great action, then this is your film. Certainly I would recommend that non-Jackie Chan fans see this as a first time film. For existing Chan fans, we all know he is not the guy he was in the eighties. If he makes more films like Accidental Spy in the future I will be very happy indeed.

Simon Wyndham

Updated: Feb 27, 1999

Get involved
Continue the conversation over on The Digital Fix Forum
The Accidental Spy Review | The Digital Fix