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.
It took so long for Hollywood so long to finally find a way to harness the unique mix of martial arts mastery, dance-like grace, playful humor, and giddy charm that had made Jackie Chan a superstar throughout the rest of the world that he was almost too old to show off the extent of his physical prowess on display in his most jaw-dropping sequences. But if it curtailed his most daring physical stunts, age has not slowed his output and he’s returned to China as active as ever. Which is not to say his films are as good as ever—even with the variety of genres letting him jump from action comedy to thriller to drama, they are in inconsistent bunch—but even in the sloppiest films, Chan is a joy to watch in motion.
In Railroad Tigers (China, 2016), Chan is the leader of a scruffy band of rural railroad porters who stage raids on Japanese trains running through occupied China in World War II. They drop into moving trains, steal food for the villagers, and leave their mark by drawing flying tigers on the bodies of the unconscious Japanese soldiers and engineers, often badly drawn that the authorities can’t always make out the images. So yes, it’s an action comedy as well as a period caper and a mission movie, and Jackie shares stunt duties with a cast of younger actors. It’s not just Jackie who stars but the award-winning Jackie Chan stuntman association.
The opening heist is a terrific sequence, directed by Ding Sheng with a rollicking energy I haven’t seen in Jackie’s films for some time, and it raises hopes for a better film than the one that finally leaves the station and sends the squad of amateur guerrillas on a military mission to blow up a key bridge on the Japanese supply lines.
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.
Police Story / Police Story 2 – Jackie Chan Double Feature (Shout Factory)
In the Hong Kong action movie explosion of the eighties, when the craziest, most kinetically energetic and narratively surreal action movies were pouring out of the Hong Kong studios at a breakneck pace, Jackie Chan’s Police Story (1985) was one of the films that both defined and redefined the industry while firmly establishing Jackie Chan as a worldwide superstar. Everywhere except the U.S.
Chan had been making successful films for years but this was something different. In Hong Kong, he was moving into modern action comedy in Wheels on Meals and adding color, different cultural backdrops, and more spectacular stunts to the martial arts fight movie with Project A (all with his opera school buddies and fellow stars Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao). But Chan had chafed at the way American productions tried to fit him into a generic mold in his bid for a U.S. crossover film, The Protector. He came back to Hong Kong with lessons learned.
Police Story was his answer to the American action blockbuster and the first of his aggressive appropriations of American hit movies remade as Jackie Chan spectacles. It was modern and urban, filled with gritty action and juvenile slapstick, and it incorporated Jackie’s brand of acrobatic martial arts (with all its comic flourishes) with big budget set pieces and eye-popping stunts. He lavished production value on the film. The story is almost inconsequential, something to do with a case against a mob boss and his drug operation. Ka Kui Chan, a committed officer on the elite CID division of the Hong Kong Police, is assigned to “protect” a reluctant witness (the great Brigitte Lin) and then framed by the mob as a corrupt cop, sending him on the run to clear his name and take out the gang one man at a time.
The only logic is kinetic: one action follows another with ingenuity and physical integrity. It opens on mission gone wrong that turns into a car chase through a hillside shantytown reduced to rubble by the careening vehicles smashing through huts and blowing out walls as inhabitants scurry for cover, and it ends with a brutal one man battle with a criminal army in the six-story atrium mall that sends combatants through plate glass windows, down escalators, and over railings. In between is a satire of office politics, a slapstick romance between a smug, chauvinistic Chan and his fresh-faced girlfriend May (a very young Maggie Cheung) — an innocent who gets almost unbearably knocked about for laughs — and an almost non-stop mix of acrobatic set-pieces, physical comedy, and fast and furious fight scenes. It’s the whole raison d’etre for the film and Jackie walks a fine line through the action, which is both potentially deadly and yet much of it played for humor. The cleverness and the comic potential blunt the brutality of the battle.
As a director and a savvy manager of his brand, Chan knew what audiences wanted and he delivered in spades. Like his American heroes, Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin, he presented his most elaborate and daring fights and stunts in long, unbroken takes, the better to show his fans that he did at all, with no stunt doubles or cheating shots. And then he showed it again, and again, from other angles, to give everyone their money’s worth. And just to prove his credentials, he plays it all again in a closing credits montage, with clips interspersed with behind-the-scenes footage and outtakes from stunts gone wrong.
Bob Hope: Thanks For the Memories Collection (Universal)
Bob Hope was the snappy urban wiseguy with an easy line of smart remarks and a comic cowardice behind the confident front, a one-liner comic whose timing, self-effacing demeanor and audience rapport took him from stage to radio to screen. This collection mostly revisits the younger Hope, before he hit the road with Bing Crosby and Dorothy Lamour and slid into a more cynical byplay. Hope is funny in those films, but he’s much more likable in the four earlier films of the set, three of them making their respective DVD debuts. Thanks for the Memory (1938), named after the Hope signature song (which he sings with co-star Shirley Ross), is a slim little comedy of the idle class in depression-era New York notable largely for Hope’s easy banter and the cast of moochers who keep landing in his apartment.
The heart of the set, however, belongs to his three pairing with Paulette Goddard, beginning with the oft-filmed haunted house chestnut The Cat and the Canary (1939). You know the story even if you’ve never seen the play: the family of the deceased gather in a spooky old mansion of an eccentric millionaire for the reading of the will and must spend the night in the place (which is located in the middle of a bayou swamp). Goddard is the bubbly heroine who is named sole beneficiary, a spooky servant goes around predicting things like “One will die tonight” and there’s an escaped patient from the nearby asylum (in the middle of this swamp?) running around. “Don’t big old empty houses scare you?” asks one relative (Nydia Westman doing a Zasu Pitts kind of goofy comic relief). “Not me,” quips Hope, here playing a semi-famous actor meeting what’s left of his family tree. “I’ve played vaudeville.” It’s hokey stuff with hidden doors and secret passages and a hidden treasure, which director Elliot Nugent stages with all the style and tension of a sitcom. But Hope and Goddard have marvelous chemistry and Hope is completely amiable, using wisecracks to cover up his discomfort and fear. “I always joke when I’m scared,” he confesses to heroine Goddard. “I kind of kid myself into being brave.” Hope’s delivery makes this less a laugh line than a confession and a promise; he’s got integrity and the courage to both reveal his vulnerabilities and overcome them. Goddard, meanwhile, is a spunky beauty with crack timing, a born comedienne too often called upon to play the straight man and provide the sex appeal. She does both admirably in Cat and was rewarded with a return engagement with Hope.