June 2015's Kung Fu Movies: #01/20
Jackie Chan's steady migration from the margins of Hong Kong action cinema to its center reached its tipping point with this fun, old-style (read: dumb) 1978 kung fu comedy, which made him a bonafide box-office star.
Chan stars as Chien Fu, a lowly orphan treated like a slave by the kung fu school that took him in. With the school's master away on a trip, his lazy underlings use the defenseless Chien Fu as a "punch bag" to demonstrate the power of their martial arts training to prospective enrollees. Chien Fu can't even muster the self-esteem to object to this shoddy treatment — until he meets a mysterious old man (Simon Yuen), who happens to be one of the last remaining practitioners of "Snake Fist"-style kung fu, on the run from the dastardly "Eagle's Claw" devotees who are out to destroy him.
Snake in Eagle's Shadow was the directorial debut of future-legendary choreographer Yuen Woo-Ping, and he, Chan, and Yuen's father Simon, orchestrate some wonderfully fun fight sequences that are strong enough to make the generally shoddy work in all other departments inconsequential. Chan has a great presence and is full of boyish charm, despite his proclivity for broad clown-facing, and he makes for a sympathetic unlikely hero. the chemistry between Chan and Yuen was so strong that they reprised these exact same types a couple of years later in the even better Drunken Master.
It's going to be a recurring theme this month that I enjoy most kung fu movies from this era from under the crushing weight of cognitive dissonance: the majesty of the sublime stunt and fight scenes are usually in stark contrast to staggeringly unsophisticated stories, characters, and slapstick pratfalls. Watching Jackie Chan from the late 1970s through the mid-1990s is like watching an Ernest P. Worrell movie in which Jim Varney frequently breaks into wonderful Gene Kelly-esque dance numbers in between his cheap mugging and falling over.
Snake in Eagle's Shadow has a lot of inspired set-pieces that showcase Chan's amazing physicality as well his and Yuen's innate genius for utilizing practical locations, props and situations as the foundation for dazzling bits of showmanship. But this early effort is also still mired in the cheap, throwaway trappings of the many uninspired z-grade kung fu movies that were churned out in force by the Hong Kong movie machine in the 1970s.
Although Chan didn't shake off the juvenile humor for decades, his 1980s movies were still about 200% more polished and ambitious in terms of their situations and characters than is this one, so I wouldn't rank it among his best movies, even though it is significant in his path to making better ones, and a fine amount of fun on its own.