Dragon Fist [龍拳] (1979)
AKA Dragon Hero, In Eagle Dragon Fist
Starring Jackie Chan, Yen Shi-Kwan, Pearl Lin Yin-Zhu, Nora Miao, Hsu Hsia, Ou-Yang Sha-Fei, James Tin Jun, Eagle Han Ying, Ko Keung, Wang Kuang-Yu, Chui Fat
Directed by Lo Wei
Expectations: Way low.
Dragon Fist opens like many kung fu films do. After a kung fu tournament to determine the greatest martial arts school in the region, the Tang San Clan is named the winner. The celebration is cut short by the villainous arrival of the leader of the Champion Clan. He wasn’t able to make it to the tournament, so he declares Tang San’s win false until he’s able to best his Snapping Kick technique. Jackie’s master puts up a valiant attempt, but the Snapping Kicks of Champion Clan prove too much, and he is mortally wounded. And if you assume that the next plot point is that Jackie Chan vows to exact revenge on Champion Clan, in the name of his master, then you’d be exactly right.
But what’s really interesting about Dragon Fist is that it after this clichéd opening, it largely diverges from and subverts the traditional martial arts plot. Wang Chung-Pin’s script (his only screenwriting credit) is exceptionally well-written, giving us a group of interesting characters all with their own desires and motives for the things they do. Don’t mistake this for some deep arthouse drama, but it’s definitely got a lot more going for it than I expected a late-game Lo Wei film to have. Dragon Fist is the last film that Jackie Chan made for Lo Wei before his two-film loan to Seasonal, and it’s easily the best film that Lo Wei directed Jackie Chan in (not counting The Killer Meteors, which features Jackie but is actually a Jimmy Wang Yu movie).
Dragon Fist isn’t an action extravaganza, but what’s here is very good. It’s a little rigid, but Jackie Chan’s choreography has definitely progressed and grown over the course of his contract with Lo Wei, and Dragon Fist represents some of the best work he did for the studio. There is something of a lack of invention in the fights, but many of them feature a couple of guys coming at Jackie pretty hard, and that’s always a good time. Dragon Fist is also a lot more serious than your usual Jackie film, even from the Lo Wei days, so crazy, inventive fights would kind of go against that tone. The finale is especially strong, though, as Jackie and crew do battle with the devious, meddling bastards of the villain clan. Jackie goes toe to toe with a man wielding spiked tonfas, and this is easily the best fight of the film. It consistently elevates itself and becomes more and more dire for Jackie, which again, is always a good time.
It’s interesting to consider this film in relation to the choreography on Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow, chronologically the next Jackie movie made after this one. The work seen in Dragon Fist is great, but at times you can almost feel Jackie hitting the “Lo Wei wall” when it comes to crafting truly inventive choreography, while Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow is Jackie finally let free to do anything he and Yuen Woo-Ping could come up for him to do.
And that’s about all I have to say about Dragon Fist. It’s not the most thrilling movie, or one that stands above other kung fu films of the era, but it’s a good movie on its own and it’s impressively well-written for a low-budget kung fu movie. I’d definitely recommend it to fans of early Jackie who haven’t yet taken the plunge. Jackie plays something of a Bruce Lee type of “seeking vengeance” character, and he does well with it, even if he’s much more suited to the kung fu comedy he’s usually associated with. Oh, and don’t get too excited when you see Nora Miao’s name in the credits as she does little more here than sit around or follow Jackie from place to place.
Next up in this chronological journey through the films of Jackie Chan: it’s the cash-in on Jackie’s great talent, the re-edited and much more available version of The Cub Tiger from Kwangtung, Master with Cracked Fingers!