The Fearless Hyena

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After years of honing his particular brand of Kung fu laced with broad physical comedy in such flicks as Snake In The Eagle’s Shadow and Drunken Master, it was soon time for a young Jackie Chan to take the next step in bringing actual punches to punchlines by stepping behind the camera.
His directorial debut was The Fearless Hyena, a film that, admittedly, didn’t exactly break the mold when it came to its plot, but gave Chan the opportunity to expose the world to his high kicking zaniness in a way that built exponentially on the brutal prat-falling that was fast separating him from his peers.
Taking the usual Hong Kong template that involves brattish students, aged masters, psychotic rivals and a final reel introduction of an inventive, flamboyant fighting style that eventually wins the day during the final showdown, Jackie makes these overused tropes as a framework to produce some truly stunning action/comedy choreography that has you gasping in awe before honking with laughter like a nitrus oxcide addicted goose.

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Ching Hing-lung is tour typical protagonist in a late 70’s Kung Fu flick, which means he lives in a remote village with his stern, material arts teacher grandfather and is almost pathologically mischievous, getting into an almost endless series of scrapes and escapades. In an effort to get him to quit his gambling and fighting, grandfather tries to get him to obtain a proper form of employment as a way to hide Ching’s proficient talent of whipping ass and it’s a good thing too, because an evil practitioner of Kung Fu treachery known as Yam Tim-fa (he of the capital “M” window’s peak) has been scouring the land with his trio of blade wielding subordinates and wiping out any members of rival schools they can find.
However, Ching, thoughtless shitheel that he is, falls in with the scheming leader Master Tee Cha of the loser school known as the Everything Clan and takes a lucrative job of boosting their reputation by training students and brawling with the top fighters from other schools to prove their superiority.
Ching proves to be victorious again and again through a mixture of raw Kung Fu talent and flat out con work as he adopts numerous different disguises and ploys to outwit faster and stronger opponents to increase his worth to Master Tee and soon the two are locked in a battle of wits to see who can leverage more money out of the other.
However, karma is about to land an impressive haymaker on our young hero after his arrogance leads him to rename the school after the name of his grandfather’s clan which draws Yam Tim-fa to the remote village like a shark to a paddling hemophiliac.
Tragedy naturally ensues, but can a mysterious stranger known as the Unicorn teach Ching the extra skills he needs to get revenge?

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You could tell that Chan was itching to hop into the director’s chair (possibly after flipping over the thing and then using it as a weapon in a hugely complex action scene first) because The Fearless Hyena fizzes with youthful energy that its star/director/writer seems uninterested to control and is content to unleash its unrestrained type of wackiness all over it’s fairly standard plot. By using such a standard, almost reductive, Kung Fu storyline it’s almost as if Jackie is making a decisive statement to the Hong Kong film industry while pushing the physical altercations into bold, new territory.
The fights are everything here, a conveyor belt of outlandish rumbles and kooky showdowns that takes the story of an arrogant action hero learning to be a man and funnels it through the filter of a Bugs Bunny cartoon if the eponymous rabbit had enough core strength to do pull ups while hanging from his ankles. This comparison isn’t even a metaphor as Ching literally adopts some of the animated character’s more sneaky methods, disguising himself in various other identities such as a mentally slow janitor or even donning full drag in order to throw off the game of a known sex pest. Elsewhere Chan gets into dizzying chop stick duel as he and the Unicorn both go to unfeasible lengths to snatch a bit of food from each other (since dutifully homaged by Kung Fu Panda) and the final showdown sees him avoiding the swinging blades of a trio of opponents before he can progress to the final, big boss. This battle sees Ching armed with a whole new fighting style that sees him harness the brawling powers of Happiness, Anger, Sorrow and Joy (although if we’re being picky, surely happiness and joy aren’t that different of emotions) that manages to confound his lethal opponent as Chang giggles his way through some of his enemy’s nastiest blows and slumps, sobbing all over him when he switches to sorrow. The mixing of the four styles makes it look like the bad guy is fighting someone with humongous emotional issues and not only is it incredibly fun to watch, its incredibly original – I mean it’s not every day you watch a martial arts technique that feels like it’s been taken from some of the characters of Pixar’s Inside Out.

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When placed in the context of Jackie Chan’s career trajectory, The Fearless Hyena makes perfect sense as his assent to director gave the living, lithe, legend ample room to explore and experiment in order to perfect his signature style, but he does makes the occasional boo boo. The insistence of adding cartoon sound effects to some sequences oddly removes some of the humour from certain situations as it feels like the movie is somehow scared you won’t laugh (a scientific impossibility when Chan is involved), but you can see that his confidence is growing with every minute that went on to produce the superior The Young Warrior and the legendary Police Story.
One other thing about The Fearless Hyena that hinted at this greatness to come is the crispness of Chan’s direction when people aren’t twisting themselves in pretzel-type positions to beat each other up and while I pointed out earlier that the overacting plot is somewhat overused, its shot in such a childlike, simplistic way that you could probably still follow the story without the need of dialogue – something that was impressively proved when the subtitles on the copy I watched actually went out of synch for a third of the movie.

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To call The Fearless Hyena a prototype or a stepping stone would be to do it a disservice as it shows its impossibly hungry star attempting to retrofit and rebuild the Kung Fu genre from the inside out as his unmatched comic timing is deployed with the precision of a mischief seeking chopstick.

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