Dragon Lord [龍少爺] (1982)
AKA Dragon Strike
Starring Jackie Chan, Michael Chan Wai-Man, Suet Lee, Mars, Tien Feng, Paul Chang Chung, Tai Bo, Cheng Kang-Yeh, Anna Ng Yuen-Yee, Cheng Mang-Ha, Wu Jia-Xiang, Fung Fung, Ho Gaam-Kong, Whang In-Shik
Directed by Jackie Chan
Expectations: Moderate, but hopeful. I’ve somehow avoided seeing this until now.
Every review of Dragon Lord written years after release probably calls it “the transitional film,” but I don’t care. Dragon Lord is Jackie Chan’s transitional film, bridging the gap between his early wuxia/kung fu comedy period and the death-defying stunts that would define his later work (and career). The end fight of Dragon Lord is really one of the first glimpses of the Jackie Chan that everyone knows, i.e. incredible choreography that seamlessly integrates the environment, crazy stunts that make you gasp and good ol’ fashioned fightin’. It’s just that Dragon Lord, being the transitional film, isn’t all that great on its own.
The main reason is that its story is a disjointed mess. So when I read that they began shooting the film without a script, and only a slight story gestating in Jackie’s head, it made perfect sense. A good portion of this movie is unrelated to the other parts in terms of story, so it’s best to try and watch the scenes for what they are instead of what they aren’t. For instance, there’s an extended sequence of Jackie and his buddies playing Jianzi, an Asian shuttlecock game played without hands like soccer. Being a Jackie movie there’s tons of fun choreography mixed into the game, and it’s an interesting scene to watch just on a human movement level. Does it relate to anything in the story, though? Nope, not really at all. But it does have the distinction of inspiring Stephen Chow’s Shaolin Soccer, so that’s something.
The transitional aspect also helps to sink the film in more ways than not allowing Dragon Lord to achieve its own rhythm or identity. Jackie came back from America and his experiences on The Big Brawl and The Cannonball Run rarin’ to integrate stunt work into his films. There’s a concerted effort here to put Jackie into situations that will allow for dangerous stunts and falls that in the best case scenario would be just as involving as a great fight scene when they’re strung together as only Jackie Chan can. While it is interesting to see Jackie try his hand at what would become the thing that defines him, it comes at the cost of the fights. Pretty much everywhere there would’ve been a fight, there is only a small scuffle and a stunt or two. The first legitimate fight of any real length is the end fight against the Big Boss, for God’s sake! It’s not surprising that Dragon Lord flopped at the Hong Kong box office, especially after his last HK film was the masterful, fight-filled Young Master.
But boy, what an end fight it is! It’s not quite enough to make me forget everything else, but it does go a long way to making me appreciate the film. The film up to this point is mostly just a straight comedy, with the stunts and martial aspects intersecting once in a while. But the end fight manages to combine them all into a wildly entertaining scene, representing the culmination of the transition evidenced throughout the film. In this fight you can feel the explosive Jackie films of the ’80s taking shape and getting ready to unleash themselves on the unsuspecting public. Upon initial release, Dragon Lord might have been a disappointment, but with hindsight it becomes a much more fascinating film that its disjointed nature would make it first appear.
Dragon Lord is one for the true Jackie fans to check out and spot how their hero is finding and nurturing his iconic screen identity. If you’re more of a casual Jackie fan, maybe just catch the end fight and move onto something better.
It should also be noted that I watched the version available on the Hong Kong Blu-ray, which is not the most widely available version of the film. The Blu-ray features the alternate cut which ends with the pyramid scene, and does not feature the end scene with the cannon. It is my understanding that this was the initial cut of the film, but right before its release Jackie moved the pyramid scene to film’s opening, and shot the cannon ending to give the film a comedic stinger (which reminds me a lot of the final scene of Drunken Master II which serves a similar purpose). That version must be even more disjointed, as the pyramid scene caps the film nicely, even if it is really odd and anti-climatic to have a lengthy sports scene after an exhausting final fight. Either way, Dragon Lord is a disjointed film with some highlights for Jackie fans.
Next up in this chronological journey through the films of Jackie Chan is a real doozy: Chu Yen-Ping’s “sensational” Fantasy Mission Force starring Jimmy Wang Yu! See ya then!