As the 70s came to a close, nobody could touch Jackie Chan. He was the biggest martial-arts star in the world. He had creative control of his work. He had conquered Asian cinema. But there was still one thing left to attack.. the United States. While it might seem that Jackie’s big break-through in the US was 1994’s RUMBLE IN THE BRONX, his actual first attempt to perform a Bruce Lee-like American breakthrough came in 1980 with the release of THE BIG BRAWL (aka BATTLE CREEK BRAWL) which was directed by ENTER THE DRAGON’S Robert Clouse. Despite that reasonable pedigree, Clouse was never a great martial arts director (he had yet to direct the legendarily silly GYMKATA) and the film ended up being a box office disappointment. Slightly more successful was Jackie’s appearance as the cleverly named Jackie Chan (playing Japanese!) in the all-star smash-em-up comedy CANNONBALL RUN, but his minor appearance didn’t exactly endear him to the American public.
In an interesting mirror of Bruce Lee’s initial failed attempts to crack the American market in THE GREEN HORNET, Jackie returned to Hong Kong and decided to take back control of his career AND get the gang back together. He wanted to make a martial arts film with Hollywood-style production values, and include his Peking Opera classmates Yuen Biao and (big brother) Sammo Hung, and he was going to direct it! You can’t accuse Jackie Chan of not being ambitious. In fact, PROJECT A is almost stupidly ambitious – a quantum leap forward in terms of kung-fu film production values, and (perhaps ironically) a film that – marketed correctly – could very well have made him a celebrity in the US. Alas, while the film found massive international success, Jackie was going to have to wait to be a Hollywood star.
Set somewhere around the turn of the century (though there are anachronistic elements all over) PROJECT A has Jackie starring as Dragon Ma, a member of the Marine Police tasked with taking out the marauding pirates who have been wrecking havoc in the Hong Kong seas. However, the Marines aren’t having much luck – and become a target of fun by the snippy assholes in the Royal Hong Kong Police Force. The tension between the two groups come to a head when they meet in a restaurant – with the members of the Police Force are joined by Hong Tin-tsu (Yuen Biao), the sun of the police Captain and just a tremendous prick. It’s all going ok until Hong dumps a beer on Dragon Ma’s head. Guess what happens next.
Correct! This fight scene – one of my very favorite – has everything. You enjoy seeing tons of furniture broken? We got you covered. You like comedy? Yep, that’s here. You want to see two of the greatest kung-fu fighters – who were raised to be as close as brothers – go toe to toe? You’re in for a treat. Jackie and Yuen Baio put on a clinic, but the supporting players get a chance to shine (and be beaten horribly!) as well. And though the humor is broad, there’s a level of sophistication – watch that spaghetti gag – that would never have been present in an old school kung-fu film. This brawl is where hollywood and hong kong cinema really began to merge, and the production values and stunts would just get bigger from here.
So, the Marine Police are arrested, but are let go so they can go on a suicide mission to take on the pirates the next day. Thankfully for them, two of their boats are mysteriously sunk in the harbour before they even get to go. Uh oh! Since they now don’t have enough ships to go through with the mission (the mysterious PROJECT A), the Marine Police are disbanded and the members are integrated into the Police Force. And guess who is in charge? Yep, it’s supreme cock Hong Tin-tsu, who proceeds to get all Lt. Harris from POLICE ACADEMY on their asses, while the new recruits play some pranks – like replacing his test grenade with a real one, almost killing all of them. Those goofballs! Dragon gets the worst treatment, but since he’s Jackie Chan he grudgingly starts to earn Hong’s respect.
Now, these awful pirates are in league with the equally awful gangsters, who are also responsible for the destruction of the marine boats. THE FIENDS! We discover that the pirate leader San-po (Dick Wei) wants 100 police rifles for some obviously nefarious reason, and the gangsters decide to get Fei (Sammo Hung), a local thief, to help procure them. However, the gangster’s club gets raided suddenly by Hong Tin-tsu, Dragon and some other recruits – and shit goes crazy! It’s another wild brawl, with some even more dangerous stunts as people go flying through windows and tables and off of balconies. Jackie’s kung-fu style has always integrated props, but here it’s on a completely higher level. But when the police Captain demands that they let the bad-guys go, Dragon – tired of the corruption – quits the force.
Now, Dragon and Fei are actually old friends, so Fei spills about the rifle deal. The two (in disguise) interrupt the illegal exchange and make off with the rifles, hiding them in a hollowed out log. However, Dragon witnesses Fei attempting to (possibly) double-cross him by selling them back to the gangsters, so he double-crosses the double-crosser and gets the rifles back to the cops. But when the gangsters come after Fei, he tells them Dragon is to blame which leads to one of the most amazing chase scenes you will ever see. Much has been made of the influence of silent films on Jackie Chan’s style of action-comedy, but never has it been more blatant in this scene, which uses a ton of clever Buster Keaton style gags and ends with a tribute to Harold Lloyd’s legendary SAFETY LAST, with Jackie hanging from the face of the clock-tower.
This stunt is mostly known for it very nearly killing Jackie, and it really is a doozy – particularly as he had to do it multiple times. I think one of the takes in the film actually looks more dangerous than the one that ended up knocking him for a loop (he goes down right on his skull), but it’s an awfully risky stunt, but makes for one of the most breathtaking moments in cinema history. Though it’s a shame that the rest of the sequence – which involves plenty of unique bicycle stunts and physicality – doesn’t get quite as much attention.
After the pirates kidnap a Rear Admiral (*snicker*), the stuffy British Colonel meets with Mr. Chow (one of the gangsters) to work out an exchange of weapons for the hostages. Dragon overhears this and convinces the Colonel to change his mind in the only way he knows how – by reasonably stating that working with gangsters is a bad idea, and that it’s a bit hypocritical to make such trades when kidnapped Hong Kong citizens have been left to fend for themselves. He eventually wins over the muttonchopped Colonel, who gives Dragon carte blanche to get the Marine Police together and attempt a newly revised PROJECT A in order to beat the pirates, get back the hostages and show up that crusty old Dean.
This final assault is surprisingly effective, involving Dragon dressing as Mr. Chow and infiltrating the Pirate compound (and getting the hostages), while Hong takes the rest of the men into the base to provide support. Fei comes along – dressed as a pirate – to both support his friend (they can’t stay angry for long) and, hopefully, steal all of that wonderful pirate gold. Really, it’s just a particularly good excuse to get Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung and Yuen Baio all fighting together in an extremely physical climactic fight, and it’s awesome. Baio’s acrobatic skills (which he often used for doubling others in Golden Harvest films) are on full display, and Dick Wei (who appeared briefly as the Master in FIVE DEADLY VENOMS) does a great job as the blustery, unpredictable pirate. Eventually the Marine Police save the day – after plenty of explosions and hand-to-hand combat – and a good time was had by all.
Or, at least until PROJECT A 2 arrived in 1987.
It’s hard to gauge just how much of an accomplishment PROJECT A is after nearly thirty years of similarly high octane kung-fu movies. It really makes for a rather clean delineation between Golden Harvest’s old-school kung fu films of the late 70s – which had high quality action, but usually low production values and plots that seemed to be pieced together as they were filmed – with the larger budgets and bigger set pieces (as well as more modern settings) that would typify much of the 80s action. Even the Shaw Brothers – which were such a well oiled machine that they were regularly producing films with gorgeous cinematography and sets – couldn’t compete with the sheer scope of what was to come.
It’s also this direct competition with Hollywood which would be a factor in the eventual collapse of the Hong Kong film industry in the 1990s, though some of the very best martial arts films came out of the decade following PROJECT A. The expectations on performers would increase exponentially, and Jackie Chan – already a force to be reckoned with – would continue to focus on Hong Kong films, making some of the most impressive and creatively interesting in his career. More success would also come for Sammo and Yuen Baio, as well as many of the supporting players in their films, who would reap great benefit from this new level of respectability. However, these films would remain purely for cult and fringe fans in North America. At least for now.
NEXT WEEK: THE VICTIM (SHEN BU YOU JI) (1980)