When regarding the ingenious nature of Jackie Chan, action cinema’s beloved whirlwind of punching and prat falls, it’s easy to hold up his 1985 classic, Police Story, as the true cementing of a martial arts legend – and why wouldn’t you – It’s obviously the greatest example of the actors talents that’s ever existed.
However, to go right to the origins of Chan’s affinity with punchlines that contain actual punches, you’d have to go back to 1978, when not one, but two movies were released that provided a devastating one-two blow that made Chan a star of Hong Kong cinema virtually overnight.
Both made by martial arts demi god Woo Ping Yuen, the second film was the more famous Drunken Master, but the very first to give us the Jackie Chan we recognize today was Snake In The Eagle’s Shadow.
Put upon orphan Chien Fu works hard as the janitor at the kung fu school that adopted him, but as he tries to scrub floors while being beaten and bullied by the abusive teachers, he longs for a life with maybe a little less daily blunt force trauma. Meanwhile, the feud that exists between the different kung fu styles in every movie like this has started to get out of control when Sheng Kuan, the high master of the Eagle Claw technique has decreed that all masters and students of the Snake style of kung fu be killed and one of its last surviving masters, the elderly Pai Cheng-tien, is on the run disguised as a beggar.
Taken in and fed by the kindly Chien, who has no idea that the old bugger could obliterate him with a flick of his little finger, the two become friends and Pai agrees to teach the young man some moves under the condition Chien never call him master. As various assassins and Eagle Claw students scour the town looking for their prey, Chien finds that the skills Pai taught him paying off when it comes to finally defending himself from the feet and fists of those who would deem him an easy target, but when he beats a student of the Mantis style after they invade the fighting school where he works, Sheng Kuan recognises the Snake style and sneakily befriends Chien in order to smoke out the old master.
However, while Chien is a natural when it comes to martial arts – he even creates his own style, temporarily dubbed Cat’s Claw – he’s still pretty damn slow on the uptake when it comes to identifying the murderous conspiracy he’s found himself of the middle of, but when he finally cottons on, he challenges the vicious Sheng Kuan and his murderous henchmen to one, final duel.
If you examine Snake In The Eagle’s Shadow purely on its plot, you may well wonder what all the fuss was about as Woo Ping Yuen directorial debut shares the basic story of probably hundreds of similar movies about feuding clans, clashing martial styles and clueless apprentices, but while the story is about as fresh as a four day old omelette, it’s the execution that makes it stand out.
First, it feels decidedly breezier than the occasionally stuffy and melodramatic epics that had been pumped out non-stop by studios like Shaw Brothers for over thirty years as a typically convoluted plot involving misunderstandings, mistaken identities and clandestine training sequences rapidly whizz past like a roundhouse kick. Also the addition of a more blatant farcical type of action played to the strengths of its future megastar such as Chien fighting off an attacker with a staff while Pai essentially puppeteers him from behind, helping him block, dodge and nail his opponent clean in the chops.
Another thing that stands out is that despite its setting, Snake In Eagle’s Shadow employes some interesting music cues as among the various snippets of existing western scores the movie “samples” (try steals) lurk some bizarre instances of synth-pop and disco as tracks from Jean-Michel Jarre’s Oxygéne and Space’s Magic Fly accompany Chan busting out some stellar acrobatic moves to genuinely thrilling effect.
Of course, while the cast is stacked with incredibly capable fighters from the world of movies (Pai is played by Siu-Tin Yuen, the director’s actual father), its obvious from the get go that Chan was nothing short of a fucking star as his famously amicable and amiable nature marks him out as an endearingly good Good Guy that flies in the face of usual, tough guy hero tropes. Even when he isn’t staggering his audience with his physical comedy (witness him repeatedly thwart a bully’s dirty shoes from touching his clean floor armed only with a couple of cloths), he’s winning up over with non-physical comedy too, such as his inability to immediately grasp the concept that the local Christian missionary is actually an assassin whose eventual demise (by groin punch, no less) is one of the all time great, cheesy, grotesquely overblown movie deaths of all time. Of course, Chan’s athleticism is a thing to behold with his usual disregard of anything even remotely approaching self preservation already shining through (that missing tooth he’s sporting during the climatic fight is a direct result of it actually getting kicked out of his fucking head during filming) and while producers at the time were trying to push him as the next Bruce Lee, Chan and Yuen went and forged their own path to great success. I have to also admit that it’s somewhat fascinating to see a younger Chan test out his embryonic style for the first time during a period in his career before he amassed his infamous string of joint-loosening injuries.
Action fans weaned on a more modern, less theatrical style of on-screen scraps may find this more jerky, staccato style of classic Kung Fu a bit too quaint when compared to the bloody energy of recent Indonesian fare, but the latter simply couldn’t exist without the boundaries (and bones) broken by such masochistic mavericks and to negatively compare two styles from such different time periods would be like trying to compare Friday The 13th with Hereditary.
Common consensus states that both Chan’s and Yeun’s second collaboration, Drunken Master, is the superior of the two movies, but if that’s true, then that makes Snake In The Eagle’s Shadow one of the most awesome, templates that’s ever existed that ended up forging one of the most beloved action heroes the genre has ever seen.