If you’re North American and don’t have a region free Blu-ray player: first, get one and second, you might not be aware of how Jackie Chan’s filmography has been painstakingly restored by British labels Eureka and 88 Films for the European region.
Thus far, we Americans have been left out in the cold other than Warner Archive’s fine releases of the HK cuts of Drunken Master 2 and Mr. Nice Guy, and the Criterion Collection’s awesome Police Story double feature.
Now, here comes Shout! Factory to redress the balance with Volume 1 of the Jackie Chan Collection– 7 remastered films covering about half of Jackie’s total output from 1976 to 1982. The films are an eclectic mix of minor masterpieces, roads not taken, and transitional films as Jackie made films at a breakneck pace and stumbled his way into superstar status, and his first American sojourn.
Be warned though, this set does NOT contain Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow, Drunken Master, Fearless Hyena, or The Young Master. So, none of the masterpieces that made Jackie Chan an even bigger box office phenom than Bruce Lee.
What you do get are a collection of Jackie’s pre-Golden Harvest work with Lo Wei Studios, and two offbeat selections from his early days at GH. Every film has a brand new commentary from a Hong Kong film expert, and at least one video essay along with a trailer gallery and most of them have archival interviews as well.
This is not a technical review, but as someone deeply familiar with the 88 Films transfers for two of these films, Shout! Factory’s work here doesn’t seem all that different. In fact, I wouldn’t be shocked if they had simply licensed those transfers. I did notice some factual errors in the video essays, but I’m not of the opinion that something like that is make or break for a set like this.
Without further ado, the films collected, and my opinion thereof:
The Killer Meteors
Jackie began his career as a leading man working for producer/director Lo Wei (The Big Boss, The Man Called Tiger), a former matinee idol who had been a successful director at Shaw Brothers, moved to Golden Harvest, and was tapped to direct the first two Bruce Lee films.
Those films are classics but Bruce and his director were at one another’s throats constantly over the direction of the pictures and Bruce was obviously going to win that battle, so Lo quit Golden Harvest after making some films with Jimmy Wang Yu and began his own production company with the idea of using Jackie, the best stuntman in Hong Kong, as his “new Bruce Lee.”
After their first collaboration, New Fist of Fury flopped at the box office Lo Wei decided to make a safer film in collaboration with Jimmy Wang Yu (they share a director’s credit here), where Jackie is cast as the villain. The film contains flashes of the maniacal stylized violence and menace that pervades the best of Wang Yu’s directorial work, but this is a wuxia picture where the plot overwhelms the character’s and Jackie is just horribly miscast. Interesting, but not recommended.
** out of *****
Shaolin Wooden Men
Aw Yeah! Jackie’s second outing as star still predates his direct involvement in the choreography and he’s still somewhat miscast as the vengeful traditional hero but this one’s got some curveballs up its sleeve.
Jackie plays a mute Shaolin novice who is learning kung fu to avenge the murder of his father by bandits. When he befriends a fugitive who is developing a secret style of kung fu, he proves himself worthy of facing down the titular Wooden Men– 36 lethal dummies who guard the corridor out from Shaolin who the student must defeat in order to demonstrate their readiness to rejoin the world. Chen Chi-Hwa directed this one (and he’ll show up again before the set is over), with a ton of surreal style and a real eye for gorgeous kung fu choreography.
It’s a poor man’s 36th Chamber, but it’s still a great old school kung fu movie.
*** ½ out of *****
To Kill With Intrigue
Lo Wei is back in the director’s chair, and this film actually feels like it was influenced by the work of the greatest wuxia director ever, King Hu. The film was shot in South Korea, just like Hu’s Mountain duology and features A Touch of Zen’s Hsu Feng as the lead actress. Of all the Lo Wei/Jackie Chan collaborations this is the one whose stock has risen the most between the kung fu boom and now, as the remastering reveals some beautiful photography and well blocked fights even if the plot is bizarre and bordering on nonsensical at times.
Look, your mileage is going to vary but any time you get a film that opens with the hero returning the villain’s severed hand back to him, you’ve got a film with at least some redeeming qualities.
** ½ out of *****
Snake and Crane Arts of Shaolin
This movie is amazing.
Chan plays a superfighter who possesses the ultimate martial arts manual, written by the heads of eight clans of the Shaolin, and he’s got to defend it from the government, bandits, and evil clans who all want to use the book to dominate the world of wuxia pian. This one continues the King Hu influence, with strong female characters and Jackie playing a more detached, ironic, and wry sort of character.
The scene Wu Tang sampled for “Mystery of Chessboxin” remains immortal, and this is the first film where Jackie’s fights feel like Jackie put them together, which means that this is Jackie at his absolute physical peak doing more actual kung fu than in any other film you’ll ever see. Chen Chi Hwa returns as director and infuses this film with a crazed energy that reminds me of Joseph Kuo’s 7 Grandmasters.
A legitimate kung fu classic that should be seen by all.
**** ½ out of *****
Shot just before Jackie was sent on loan to Seasonal and became the biggest star in Asia, but released after his return to the studio when it was assured to be a hit, Dragon Fist feels like it was supposed to be a “back to basics” revenge story for Chan that was punched up with all sorts of intriguing narrative left turns.
Jackie is at his most serious hero, once more out to avenge his father who died at the hands of an evil master but the second act of this film features a number of surprises about how the villain has chosen to reform and the hero begins to fall in with a bad crowd.
Fight scenes are excellent and I think this is probably Lo Wei’s finest hour as a director, which is ironic considering all the pressure he must have been under as the producer while his company is going under.
**** out of *****
Battle Creek Brawl
Jackie Chan’s introduction to America is a valiant effort, if not entirely successful.
Golden Harvest got the crew that made Enter the Dragon back together, including director Robert Clouse. The 30’s setting recalls what was a contemporary hit, The Sting and the filmmakers were acutely aware that the film needed as much humor as action. Unfortunately the fight scenes are all featuring Jackie against huge wrestler types and we get very little of the incredible speed and precision blended with humor that makes Jackie films Jackie films.
Oddly enough, I don’t think any of Jackie’s later western films really improved on the approach shown here, they just got him funnier people to work off of and counted on their star’s natural likeability to see them through.
This one is breezy fun but still feels like a missed opportunity.
*** out of *****
Jackie’s first film for Golden Harvest, The Young Master, was a massive hit and so he was commissioned to direct a sequel after his American debut.
However, whereas most stars would continue going to the well until the audience abandoned them, this is the film that reveals Jackie to be a filmmaker of some ingenuity and vision. Realizing early on that the choreography of The Young Master could not be topped, Jackie decided to build the film around a series of massive and elaborate stunt sequences.
The opening sequence involving a bun pyramid held the Guinness Record for most takes in a single sequence. This is the film where Jackie first got essentially unlimited resources and time from the studio and to be honest…it’s not a complete success, but its essential viewing for Jackie fans.
*** ½ out of *****
In the final analysis, this is not the home run that the Arrow Shaw sets are in terms of getting so many essential films in one package, but if you’re a fan of Jackie Chan, these early films remain underseen and ripe for revaluation and appreciation.
I’ve seen almost every Jackie film and I was shocked by how good Snake and Crane… and Dragon Fist were, especially.