Project A [A計劃] (1983)
AKA Super Fighter, Pirate Patrol, Mark of the Dragon
Starring Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung, Yuen Biao, Wong Man-Ying, Dick Wei, Tai Bo, Mars, Kwan Hoi-San, Lau Hak-Suen, Wong Wai, Lee Hoi-Sang, Hon Yee-Sang
Directed by Jackie Chan
Expectations: Super high. I haven’t seen this in forever, and I remember it as one of my favorites.
While there were a few great Jackie Chan movies before Project A, this film marks the beginning of the true “Jackie Chan-style” Jackie Chan movies. Jackie’s movies are known for featuring incredible stunts & amazing fight choreography tied together with a fun, comedic bow, but none of the films prior to Project A truly exhibit this in the way that later films have made us expect it from him. So, even if it was just an OK movie, Project A would be notable. But it’s not “just OK,” it’s a load of fun with some of the most impressive stunts you’ll ever see.
It’s the early 1900s or so, and pirates are a constant threat off the coast of Hong Kong. The coast guard has been unable to capture the pirates, and their efforts have cost the police force much of their budget. On the eve of the coast guard’s full-scale assault on the pirates, the rapscallions blow up their ships. Somehow these wretched pirates must be stopped! It’s a fun premise, and it allows Jackie, Sammo and Yuen Biao tons of opportunities to shine. The setting is unique and makes the film feel fresh and very different from other Hong Kong films.
Project A is not without fault, though, and the main offender is the story. It’s not anything that ruins the film, it’s just so thin of a storyline that it’s barely more than a few good reasons to film fights and stunts. You’d think it would be a simple, easy-to-follow film, but I got lost quite a few times, and I found myself “waiting for the action” instead of being actively involved in the twists of the story. Not a good sign, for sure. Also: the characters are fun to spend time with, but they aren’t solid enough to really remember or care about. Jackie is basically just Jackie in a sailor suit, and Sammo’s character isn’t much more than an old friend turned thief.
Thankfully, though, no one in the audience should be coming into Project A with the expectations of a gripping storyline or deep character work. It’s all about the fights and the stunts, and those impress and dazzle with ease. The combined athleticism of Jackie, Sammo and Yuen Biao is really something to behold, and I envy those who haven’t seen them work together and will get to experience this for the first time. Later films are better showcases for them, but their work in Project A is undeniably impressive. How many movie stars can you think of that willfully fell from a three-story clocktower to make their movie more badass? I can’t think of any American action stars that would have the balls to even consider it, but Jackie did it three times in order to get the fall exactly as he wanted it! The stunt was done in homage to the wonderful Harold Lloyd silent film Safety Last!, but I wonder if Jackie knew that Harold wasn’t actually hanging over the street? I just found out myself a couple of years ago (thanks to this video).
My favorite action sequence, though, is the bike chase. Everything about the scene is wildly inventive and will inspire hushed repetitions of “Holy shit!” It embodies everything that’s great about Jackie Chan’s “use your surroundings” choreography. Each moment feels organic, like Jackie is actually responding to the situation and doing his best to stay one step ahead of his pursuers, but at the same time you’re aware it’s all highly choreographed. My favorite gag comes when Jackie knocks on a doorway as he passes, and the guy inside opens the door just in time to knock a thug off his bike. The stuntmen in Hong Kong films are perhaps the best in the business, especially at this point in time, and they really know how to fall and make it look real. As great as all the stars are, it’s also the fantastic stuntmen surrounding them that make Hong Kong action films the high water mark for the world.
Project A is a swashbucklin’ good time filled with police rivalries, pirates and turn-of-the-century hijinks. It’s a truly unique film from a country with a reputation for producing tons and tons of movies that are considered very similar (even if they aren’t). If you’re a Jackie fan and you haven’t seen this one, get on it! The American release has some of my favorite jokes cut out, though, so I suggest importing the Hong Kong release.
Fans of Shaw Brothers film will also want to pay special attention to the pirate’s lair towards the end of the film, as it bears a striking resemblance to the various bandit lairs seen throughout the Shaw films, and the pirate chief (Dick Wei) even boasts a gigantic throne made of bone.
Next up in this chronological journey through the films of Jackie Chan: we’re heading back to America for Hal Needham’s Cannonball Run II! See ya then!