Directed by the insanely prolific Hong Kong action veteran Wong Jing, Chasing the Dragon (China, 2017) is the filmmaker’s crime epic, a historical drama that charts the rise and fall of two notorious gangsters who thrived in the rampant corruption enabled by Britain’s colonial rule of Hong Kong in the 1960s. The title is slang for heroin addiction and looking for the next high but for the two men at the center of the film, it’s about power and money and carving out the island nation’s answer to the American Dream through an insidious partnership between the police department and the underworld gangs.
Inspired by a true story, Chasing the Dragon stars Donnie Yen, the zen master of martial arts action, playing against type as Crippled Ho, the Chinese immigrant who became a drug kingpin, and Andy Lau as top cop Lui Lok / Lee Rock (a role he played in two previous films), who centralized the system of graft as he rose through the ranks. Lau provides the smooth charm as the ambitious cop who bristles under the arrogance and abuse of power by the British officials but knows better than to challenge their rule as he consolidates his control. Yen brings his usual understated warmth as Ho, underplaying the ruthlessness as he builds his power base, and he trades in the grace and majesty of his martial arts style for a scrappy, street-fighting approach.
Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow / Drunken Master (Twilight Time)
Boyish, baby-faced Jackie Chan trained at the famed Peking Opera Academy, had an early career as a stunt man, supporting player and fight choreographer in scores of Hong Kong films, and was unexpectedly chosen as “the next Bruce Lee” in a series of stiff, serious revenge adventures. This misguided attempt almost ended his shot at stardom before it began; Jackie’s charms have everything to do with his outgoing personality and self-deprecating humor, and an acrobatic fighting style schooled in Chinese Opera. After a series of super-serious action film flops his career was practically written off. Then producer Ng See Yuen paired the young performer with director Yuen Woo-ping for a pair of films that played up his strengths. The rest, as they say, is history.
In Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow (Hong Kong, 1978), Jackie plays a menial servant in a school for martial arts who saves the life of an aged vagrant (director Yuen Woo-ping’s father Yuen Siu-tin, aka Simon Yuen), who just happens to be a martial arts master on the run. Cut to training sequence, toss in the sight gags, and unleash Jackie’s Chinese Opera style. It was the first time that Jackie got to display his gymnastic martial arts style and his facility for physical humor and it was a success, which of course demanded an immediate follow-up.
Jackie Chan’s landmark action spectacles “Police Story” and “Police Story 2” debut on Blu-ray stateside this week on a double-feature disc (reviewed on Videodrone here). These films were blockbuster smashes in Hong Kong and international hits everywhere except the U.S., and they changes the course of Hong Kong film industry.
If you like this brand of action cinema – and what’s not to like? – here’s a list of a dozen more landmarks from the madcap glory days of Hong Kong action cinema from “Police Story” to 1995. All of these were released on disc stateside (a lot of great Hong Kong action is still only available as imports) and while some are out of print, they can usually be found at surviving video stores that cater to fans of cult movies. Support one today! Those available on streaming services are also noted.
This is not a definitive list, mind you, just completely subjective a starting point: a dozen gonzo action films with a delirious sense if kinetic logic that made Hong Kong cinema of the eighties and early nineties the cult destination for films fans the world over.
Armour of God (renamed Operation Condor 2: The Armour of God for American home video) (1986, Echo Bridge Blu-ray and DVD / Netflix streaming) – Jackie Chan’s globe-trotting parody of the “Indiana Jones” films remains bright, colorful, and great fun. As befits an international adventurer, Jackie spends more time in grand set pieces and elaborate stunts than actual hand to hand combat, but the slam bang finale has more kinetic action than most American films offer in an entire feature. Try to get the Hong Kong import because the American version is cut.
A Better Tomorrow (1986, Anchor Bay DVD) – While not John Woo’s first films, I consider this gangster thriller the first “John Woo” film: his articulation of speed and movement, runaway-train pacing, and razor precise editing explode onto the screen unlike anything he’d created before. His elemental themes of ideals and family, duty and honor, emerge from the story of a high level triad and his younger brother, a rookie cop oblivious to his elder’s activities, but supporting player Chow Yun-fat shines them off the screen with his cool charm.
The Killer (1989, Vivendi Blu-ray and DVD) – The suave and silky Chow Yun-fat is the soulful hitman in the explosive crime thriller that established John Woo’s international reputation. Woo balances high octane action, hard edged violence, operatic melodrama and stylized editing that would make Peckinpah catch his breath into a magnificent obsession of an action movie classic.
Once Upon a Time in China (1991, Sony DVD) – Tsui Hark’s sweeping martial arts epic is a historical action picture as new wave pulp. Jet Li rose to stardom as Chinese folk hero Wong Fei Hung: healer, teacher, and wicked scrapper when his mild mannered ways are pushed to the limit. That’s easily done when the British, the Americans, and the French bring gunboat diplomacy to 1875 China. The history is pure flag waving heroics, but the set pieces are masterful, the color and the choreography are magnificent, and Jet Li get almost airborne while fighting on ladders swooshing back and forth in a grain elevator.