The film that made Jackie Chan a superstar
My first exposure to Jackie Chan was the 1996 theatrical release of Rumble In The Bronx. I was immediately taken in by his sincerity, inventive fight sequences, and comedic timing—something one doesn't often find in the cheesy martial arts films we grew up with on weekend television. 1978's Snake in the Eagle's Shadow is the first leading role for Chan. After years of playing bit parts, the 24-year-old stuntman is finally granted a vehicle to showcase his unique blend of comedy and fighting skill. While offering little in terms of extras, this disc celebrates Jackie Chan's artistry and gives us an opportunity to appreciate just how far he has come.
Facts of the Case
Towards the end of the Ching Dynasty, two unique fighting styles wage a war of survival. The clan of the Eagle Claw is on a mission to wipe out the celebrated clan of the Snake Fist. In fact, they are so close to succeeding they have enlisted outside help to track down the exiled Snake Fist Grand Master, the last known teacher of their rival fighting style. Meanwhile, a local battle rages between the Hungwei and the Hungtai schools, for the opportunity to train the Magistrate's son in the ways of Kung Fu. Overworked and often abused Hungtai servant Chien Fu (Jackie Chan) is fed up with being used as a punching bag to impress prospective and current students. However, his luck changes after stepping in to stop rival Hungwei students from beating up an old beggar man (Siu Tien Yuen), aiding his escape and offering him refuge. In exchange for his kindness, the old man teaches Chien the fabled Snake Fist fighting style, with the understanding that he is only to use it if absolutely necessary. When the Eagle's Claw clan eventually closes in on the remaining members of the Snake Fist, it's a battle to the death that will require more to win than either side has to offer.
Snake in the Eagle's Shadow was the first collaboration between Jackie Chan and director Yuen Woo Ping. A year later, they would break the box office with the smash hit Drunken Master. While lacking the intensity of a Bruce Lee film, Chan and Ping offer audiences so much more. Criticized for having very little in the way of plot, elaborate and extensive fight sequences make up the bulk of the movie, occurring at each major plot point. Pay particular attention to the fight between the old man and his rent collectors and Chien's rescue of the old man. You'll want to watch them more than once. More importantly however, we get to see a star in the making. The mark of a good performance is one in which the viewer cannot discern that the actor is truly "acting." At no point do you ever doubt that Chan is the character we see on screen. In fact, his performance is so far superior to his co-stars it makes their work laughable—which only serves to enhance the picture's comedic elements.
The film operates on two levels—an action/adventure story and a screwball comedy. Think Karate Kid meets The Three Stooges. In fact, one might suspect the 1984 Ralph Macchio/Pat Morita film borrows heavily from Eagle's Shadow. There is an early scene in which old man Pai Chiang Tien is snagging mosquitoes from the air, much like Mr. Miyagi did with the flies in his home—and later, the training sequence between Chien and Pai is very reminiscent of the drills Daniel-san was put through by his teacher. Coincidence or conspiracy? You make the call.
Regardless of any similarities, Snake in the Eagle's Shadow should be appreciated as the father of a new art form. You can see, even 24 years ago, the star power Jackie Chan was exuding. His amazing agility and quick wit, in the midst of heavy fight sequences, is a treat to watch.
From a technical quality perspective, this print is dirtier than most recent 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfers, but the colors are crisp and there is no hint of digital enhancement. While lacking 5.1 Dolby Surround, 2.0 is sufficient for the exceptionally cheesy musical score and exaggerated sound effects. When you reach the "Cat Claw" sequence, you'll see what I mean. For a first viewing, I strongly recommend using the original Cantonese language track with English subtitles. If you would like an extra laugh after the film, switch to the English language track and watch your favorite scenes again. Consider it a homemade special feature.
Speaking of special features, this disc has none. The obligatory studio trailers (Jet Li's The One and anime releases Cowboy Bebop and Metropolis) tacked on by Columbia TriStar do nothing to enhance the value of this presentation. It's disappointing the studio could not include some of the vast wealth of Chan material collected over his more than 30-year career. Even a commentary track by Chan and now famous director Ping (fight choreographer for The Matrix and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) would have been a great selling point.
Snake in the Eagle's Shadow, a pioneer for so many great films to follow, is well worth the 90 minute investment of your time. Just save your money. It's not worth the $24.98 to buy it. Stop by your local Blockbuster and treat yourself to a double feature with a more recent Jackie Chan film.
Columbia TriStar is found GUILTY of selling us a great burger without fries and a drink. The studio is hereby sentenced to three years hard labor in creating a truly worthy Jackie Chan box set, celebrating the best of his impressive career. This court now stands in recess.
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