Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow (1978)

aka Se ying diu sau

2014 #98
Yuen Woo-ping | 92 mins | TV | 2.35:1 | Hong Kong / Cantonese | 18 / PG*

Snake in the Eagle's ShadowJackie Chan’s breakout hit sees him as Chien Fu, the floor-scrubber-cum-punch-bag at a martial arts school where he bumps into Pai Cheng Tien (Yuen Siu Tien), one of the last two proponents of the Snake Fist style after its other students were murdered by their old enemies, the Eagle Claw clan. The old man trains Chan so he can overcome his bullying schoolmasters, while the Eagle Claw grand master (Hwang Jang Lee) hunts for his last remaining rival…

The first film from director Yuen Woo-ping (he went on to helm Jackie Chan’s other defining film, Drunken Master, later the same year, and is best known to us Westerners for his action choreography work on The Matrix, Crouching Tiger, and Kill Bill) presents quite a slight story, but that’s OK: we’re here for the action, and it delivers that in droves. There are more fights than you can shake a stick at; and not just minor skirmishes littered between two or three headline bouts: regular highly-choreographed duels make up the bulk of the running time. The skill on display is as high as you’d expect, and while I know nothing of the technicalities of martial arts, the speed and dexterity of the performers has to be admired.

There’s some of the comedy Chan would become known for, but it’s not outright comedic most of the time; more straight kung fu with a regularly-displayed wry edge. Those who prefer their action po-faced may still find it palatable, though the campiness of the era that has been much parodied since is present and correct.

Snake Fist styleAlso striking is the music score, a strange mix of weird, cheap, dated, electronic stuff… and yet, it’s so odd I kind of warmed to it. It’s all poached from elsewhere, which was apparently the way things were done in Hong Kong at the time. Stand-out tracks are Magic Fly by Space and Oxygene Part II by Jean Michel Jarre, though bits of famous scores are in there too, most recognisably (for me) You Only Live Twice. I don’t really know what this bizarre juke-box-esque system adds for the viewer, other than some spot-the-tune fun and an appreciable level of bizarreness.

Not the most “Jackie Chan” of Jackie Chan films, and dated in a way that will put some off, Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow is nonetheless good fun for those who like their action movies to be properly action-centric.

4 out of 5

* Seems unlikely, doesn’t it? But that’s what IMDb and filmRatings.com say. I suppose the US do have silly-lax views on violence in film… ^