Dragon Fist (1979)

dragonfist_4Dragon 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.

threestar


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).

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The Fearless Hyena (1979)

fearlesshyena_1The Fearless Hyena [笑拳怪招] (1979)
AKA Crazy Monkey, Revenge of the Dragon, Superfighter 3, The Shadowman

Starring Jackie Chan, James Tin Jun, Yen Shi-Kwan, Lee Kwan, Chan Wai-Lau, Cheng Fu-Hung, Ma Cheung, Wong Chi-Sang, Wong Yiu, Eagle Han Ying, Ricky Cheng Tien-Chi, Dean Shek Tin

Directed by Jackie Chan

Expectations: High.

threehalfstar


The Fearless Hyena was chronologically the next movie that Jackie Chan made after the smash hit Drunken Master. Jackie left the Lo Wei studio a struggling performer and returned a mega-star, Hong Kong’s latest screen obsession. This gave him a good amount of room to bargain with Lo Wei, and even though the stubborn Lo didn’t like relinquishing control, after some cajoling he allowed Jackie to direct his first film, also the final film of Jackie’s original contract with Lo Wei.

The Fearless Hyena follows the same basic structure as Jackie’s Seasonal films, Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow and Drunken Master. The film opens with the requisite “bad guy killing a good guy” scene that serves as a reminder that there is a plot, even though the first hour of the film largely avoids actively engaging it. But like Drunken Master, The Fearless Hyena has enough going for it that the lack of a strong narrative is only a minor issue. I’m hesitant to even call it an issue, as the film works fine as is. What holds everything together are the amazing, tightly choreographed, hilarious fights. They aren’t up to Drunken Master standards, but they’re quite impressive.

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Spiritual Kung Fu (1978)

Spiritual-Kung-Fu-001Spiritual Kung Fu [拳精] (1978)
AKA Karate Ghostbuster

Starring Jackie Chan, James Tin Jun, Mo Man-Sau, Li Tong-Chun, Lee Kwan, Dean Shek Tin, Ko Keung, Lee Hoi-Lung, Lee Man-Tai, Wang Kuang-Yu, Wong Ching

Directed by Lo Wei

Expectations: Moderate.

twostar


Lo Wei’s Spiritual Kung Fu may have been released to the public just a month and a half after Drunken Master blew up the Hong Kong box office, but it was made well-before as an answer to Half a Loaf of Kung Fu, Chen Chi-Hwa’s kung fu comedy starring Jackie Chan. After many requests from Jackie to allow him to include comedy in his films, Lo Wei finally relented and let Jackie and Chen make Half a Loaf of Kung Fu. But upon seeing the finished film, Lo was furious and he shelved the film (until 1980). He didn’t find it funny at all, and he made Spiritual Kung Fu in order to show Jackie what a real kung fu comedy should be like. Spiritual Kung Fu lucked out being released after Drunken Master, because at that point the public craved anything Jackie Chan. It gave this film box office receipts that came close to equaling those of Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow, and which also bested many Shaw Brothers films destined to be memorable classics (such as The Five Venoms & Crippled Avengers).

So I suppose knowing all that, the big question about Spiritual Kung Fu hangs around its comedy. Is it funny? Do the laughs feel similar to the kung fu comedy of the two Jackie Chan/Yuen Woo-Ping collaborations? The answer is a resounding NO! There’s a reason why Lo Wei wasn’t known as a comedy director. The first half of the film goes hard into Lo’s idea of comedy, with things like Jackie stuffing random animals down his pants (including a snake that finds “a nice, dark place to call home,” if you know what I mean!), punishments that include writing calligraphy with a gigantic brush, a mischievous ghost that farts in a monk’s face, and Jackie pissing on the ghosts as they shrink and try to hide in a corner. You get the idea; the comedy is really low-brow. It’s kind of interesting to watch because you never know what’s coming next, but it’s a stretch to call it funny. That being said, I can imagine children getting more laughs out of it than I did, but there are better films to get your children laughing.

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Drunken Master (1978)

drunkenmaster_2Drunken Master [醉拳] (1978)
AKA Drunken Monkey in the Tiger’s Eyes, Drunk Monkey

Starring Jackie Chan, Simon Yuen Siu-Tin, Hwang Jang-Lee, Lam Kau, Linda Lin Ying, Dean Shek Tin, Chiang Kam, Max Lee Chiu-Jun, Yuen Shun-Yi, Fung Ging-Man, Tino Wong Cheung, San Kuai, Hsu Hsia

Directed by Yuen Woo-Ping

Expectations: High.

fourstar


To set the scene: Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow, Jackie Chan’s first big hit, was released in March of 1978 and sent a shock wave through the Hong Kong martial arts film world. It became one of the most successful Hong Kong films of all time, out-grossing even the mega-popular Bruce Lee films. A mere seven months later came Drunken Master, the second of Jackie’s collaborations with director/choreographer Yuen Woo-Ping, and it did 2½ times as much as Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow did at the Hong Kong box office. Boom! Not only was Drunken Master a mega-hit, it solidified Jackie Chan as a major player in Hong Kong film, it made drunken-style kung fu “a thing” in movies, and it further expanded the kung fu comedy genre that Yuen and Jackie had officially kicked off with Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow. Drunken Master is one of the hallmarks of ’70s kung fu cinema, and with good reason. It’s amazing.

The one aspect that’s lacking in Drunken Master is the story, but it is a testament to the strength of every other aspect that even though this flaw is very noticeable, it never detracts from the experience. In many ways, it’s kind of a re-hash of Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow, starting with a mountaintop fight scene where Hwang Jang-Lee takes on a fighter and mercilessly kills him with his amazing leg work. But instead of being a negative point, the re-hash is actually more of a distillation. Drunken Master takes everything that worked perfectly in Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow and perfects it even more, leaving out all the rest. Which, honestly, is that film’s relatively average kung fu revenge plot. “Who needs it?” they must have said, and I agree.

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Magnificent Bodyguards (1978)

MagnificentBodyguards+1978-25-bMagnificent Bodyguards [飛渡捲雲山] (1978)
AKA The Red Dragon, Master of Death

Starring Jackie Chan, James Tin Jun, Bruce Leung, Wang Ping, Lau Ming, Wong Gwan, Wong Kwan, Wong Chi-Ping, Lee Man-Tai, Chui Yuen, Luk Chuen, Fang Fang, Ko Keung, Wong Ching

Directed by Lo Wei

Expectations: Low.

twohalfstar


Magnificent Bodyguards was the first Hong Kong film to be shot in 3D, and it never lets you forget that. It only takes 30 seconds for the first thing to be thrust directly at the camera, and this moment is but a drop of water in the tsunami of “things thrust directly at the camera” shots to follow. This might sound like a bad thing, and if you’re one to scoff at gimmicky 3D filmmaking then it definitely is, but I really enjoyed this aspect of the film. Kudos must be given to Jackie Chan for seamlessly working so many of these moves into his fight choreography for the film. I’m sure that was no small feat, and it really helps to spice up these fights.

“But,” you say, “a Jackie fight shouldn’t need spicing up with visual trickery!” And I would agree, but in Magnificent Bodyguards the fights, while good, are incredibly forgettable and without much passion. The actions are all performed well, and a lot of the choreography is well-done, but none of it feels especially exciting or interesting. I imagine this is the feeling non-martial arts fans have about every kung fu film. So while lots of individual moments within the choreography are good, the overall fights are largely uninteresting and pretty mediocre, except for those things coming at the camera, of course.

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Snake and Crane Arts of Shaolin (1978)

Snake and Crane Arts of Shaolin-2Snake and Crane Arts of Shaolin [蛇鶴八步] (1978)
AKA Arts of the Snake & Crane, Shaolin Kung Fu

Starring Jackie Chan, Nora Miao, Kam Kong, Kim Jeong-Nan, Lee Wing-Kwok, Lau Nga-Ying, Miao Tian, Lee Man-Tai, Miu Tak-San, Tung Lam, Wong Gwan, Liu Ping

Directed by Chen Chi-Hwa

Expectations: Moderately high.

On the general scale:
threestar

Just in terms of action:
threehalfstar


Snake and Crane Arts of Shaolin opens with an incredible martial arts display by Jackie Chan, first showing off his solo staff work and then battling two staff wielders while armed with a sword and baton. This five-minute intro alone is better than To Kill With Intrigue, but let’s do our best to forget that film and focus on the greatness before us. Jackie’s staff work is incredible, and the mock fight offers up a great way to whet your appetite for the film at hand. These kinds of pure martial arts displays didn’t survive into the modern era of kung fu film (unfortunately), so it’s a real treat to see Jackie strut his stuff so cleanly and without distraction. Even if the film offered up nothing more than this intro, it would still be a notable early Jackie release. I’m not saying anything bad about the overall quality of the Lo Wei period in Jackie’s career (OK, maybe I am), I’m just trying to illustrate just how much I loved the intro.

The film kicks off proper as we fade into the story of eight masters coming together to pool their talents and create the hybrid kung fu style, The Eight Steps of the Snake and the Crane. They entrusted the book of this style and the Badge of the Nine Dragons (an emblem denoting the leader of the entire martial arts community) to their appointed leader, who, after a quick martial arts display and fight, vanishes along with the rest of the eight masters. Dun dun duhhhhh! The martial world is in frenzy mode, and we are introduced to Jackie’s character on the bank of a snowy river, attacked by some ruffians who believe he holds the precious book. Turns out he does have the book, but he quickly dispatches with these petty villains. 10 minutes in, and already two martial arts displays and two fights (and they’re all good). If you’re sensing a pattern emerging, you’re correct… and the hits just keep on comin’.

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Chinese Zodiac (2012)

ChineseZodiac+2012-8-bChinese Zodiac [十二生肖] (2012)
AKA CZ12, Armour of God III (unofficial)

Starring Jackie Chan, Kwon Sang-Woo, Liao Fan, Yao Xingtong, Zhang Lan-Xin, Laura Weissbecker, Alaa Safi, Rosario Amadeo, Caitlin Dechelle, Marc Canonizado, Oliver Platt, Vincent Sze

Directed by Jackie Chan

Expectations: All the excitement.

Overall:
twohalfstar

The couch & warehouse fights:
fourstar


The real question on everyone’s minds about Chinese Zodiac is whether it recaptures the Jackie magic of old, so I’ll just get right down to it. It does, without a doubt, but the problem is that while Jackie can still clearly perform and choreograph incredible action sequences, he’s only got enough juice left for two fights in the entire runtime of the film. And those two fights come within minutes of each other, so they’re almost like one big sequence. There’s also another fight between Zhang Lan-Xin and Caitlin Dechelle happening during the second Jackie fight, and that one is also all kinds of awesome. So yeah, Chinese Zodiac has some great action, but it’s pretty much all packed into one small section of the film. There are a couple of other martial arts moments, but the key word there is “moments.” It’s frustrating too, as there are situations throughout the film that would easily lead to memorable fights in any other martial arts film. Chinese Zodiac is not so much a classic Jackie film, as it is one that contains elements of Jackie’s greatness sprinkled throughout. You could argue that the idea behind this is the old “quality over quantity” argument, but I dunno… I wanted more fights. 🙂

Then there are the stunts… lots of stunts. Any Jackie fans knows what the man was once capable of, and to a large degree this legacy works against Chinese Zodiac. This incredibly high bar makes it so that even when Jackie Chan does something absolutely incredible, the Jackie fans won’t be all that impressed because they’ve all seen him do better. I don’t want to make it sound like the stunts here aren’t impressive, because they really are, I just think that it’s easy to cross your arms and watch Chinese Zodiac with a scowl because Jackie isn’t exactly doing what he promised he would with Chinese Zodiac. Well, at least it’s not what everyone interpreted his words to mean when he announced the premise of the film.

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