Sunday, August 21, 2011

MOVIE REVIEW: SNAKE IN THE EAGLE'S SHADOW (1978)

Snake in the Eagle's Shadow
Directed by Yuen Woo-ping

Starring
Jackie Chan
Yuen Siu-tien


Once upon a time in China, the deadly Eagle Fist Master stalked the land, killing off all the Kung Fu students who practiced other martial forms and thereby showed disrespect to the supremacy of the Eagle Fist School. The Eagle Fist Master slaughtered 3,000 students before any other school could mount an effective defense. This school was the Snake Fist school. On a barren plain, a champion of the Snake Fist School entered into deadly contest with the Eagle Fist Master . . . and lost.

But the Snake Fist acolyte made a worthy account of himself. And a wily old man(Yuen Siu-tien), who is also the last surviving master of the Snake Fist School, observed the battle, and knew he was no match for the Eagle Fist Master. So he decided to go on the run, hoping to stay alive long enough to pass on his technique to a younger, tougher student who might one day destroy the power-mad Eagle Fist Master.

The old man wanders into a podunk town. The martial arts schools here are all the Kung Fu movie equivalent of a Ponzi scheme: middle class and upper middle class merchants enroll their layabout sons in the Mantis School or the other school across the street, hoping to stiffen up junior's spine enough to take on the family business someday. The teachers here will take on any student, no matter how pampered and out of shape, as long as the money is good. The head of the Mantis School has a young man working for him, Chien Fu (Jackie Chan). Chien Fu gets all the shit work at the school. He has to scrub the floorboards with a rag. The Mantis School teacher uses him as a punching bag, and a fall guy in bogus demonstrations of Kung Fu prowess. Chien Fu suffers this ill treatment and sees no other choice. He wasn't born to wealth, has never been to school and can barely even read, and he's been kicked around all his life. He's a total loser.

But sometimes even losers get a chance. The old man runs afoul of the mediocre students of the Mantis, and makes short work of them. During his escapades he encounters Chien Fu and sees that he is bullied by the unscrupulous leader of the Mantis School. This young man seems to be a washout, but the old man sympathizes with his plight, and sees some potential in his footwork. And so the wily old master proceeds to take the young man under his wing, without the dude even realizing it . . .

Snake in the Eagle's Shadow is the directorial debut of master martial arts choreographer Yuen Woo-ping. Woo-ping would go on to direct a number of movies that would become box office hits in Hong Kong and around the world, and would end up as cult classics to American Kung Fu fans:
Drunken Master, Iron Monkey, The Tai-Chi Master, Magnificent Butcher, and many others. He would also work with the biggest stars of HK cinema: Jackie Chan, Jet Li, Michelle Yeoh, Donnie Yen, Sammo Hung, Yuen Biao, Stephen Chow, and more. After 1996, he seems to have spent his time exclusively as a fight choreographer, working in Hong Kong and Hollywood on such films as the Matrix Trilogy, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Kill Bill, and Kung Fu Hustle. In 2010, Woo-ping directed another movie, True Legend, and did fight choreography for the Bollywood robots-gone-wild magic realist spectacular Enthiran.

Snake in the Eagle's Shadow is a comedy, and so the martial arts battles, even the deadly ones, are played rather broadly. Some of the movie's best sequences involve the relationship between Chien Fu and the old man. The old man is played by Yuen Siu-tien, who was Yuen Woo-ping's father in real life. Siu-Tien gives a wily and goofy performance. He really shines during the sequences when he's training Jackie Chan's hapless Chien Fu. He smokes a big pipe and bashes Chien Fu with it whenever he screws up. But Siu-tien imbues the character with warmth and charm. He is not like the stern and sadistic Pei Mei played by Gordon Liu in Kill Bill vol. 2. He is both a true martial arts master in a world full of phonies and con men, and a true friend in a world of treachery and deceit.

Jackie Chan brings his inimitable gifts for physical comedy to the role of Chien Fu. Even when he eventually becomes a Snake Fist Master, he's still vulnerable and a little scared. Even after he stands up to the bullying teacher of the Mantis School, he is still a bit of a bumbler, but a bumbler with determination and heart. One of his best scenes is when he is being bullied by the Mantis School teacher. The teacher steps in white powder and makes footprints all over the floorboards. He forces Chien Fu to follow behind him, wiping up the footprints with a tiny washcloth. The teacher is a real bastard. But there's a comic payoff to this scene later after Chien Fu has been studying the Snake Fist techniques . . .

Another good scene is the one in which Chien Fu and the old man first fight together. Chien Fu is being bullied by a gang of thugs, and getting his ass kicked. The old man literally puppeteers Chien Fu into victory. It's hard to describe in words, but the scene is both a cracking good fight scene and comic gold.

Chan and Siu-tien would go on to star in Drunken Master, an epochal film in Chan's career as the master of Kung Fu comedies. But Snake in the Eagle's Shadow was also part of Chan's long road to stardom.

There are some other amusing things about this movie. The soundtrack is a glorious mess. Part of the soundtrack from the climatic Death Star battle in Star Wars is used at various moments of heightened dramatic intensity, no doubt without the full permission of John Williams and/or Lucasfilm, but I'm not complaining. If you're gonna steal, steal from the best. Moreover, the soundtrack, which has not been preserved well, has all those great, over-the-top sound effects that make Kung Fu movies so enjoyable. The opening title sequence has Jackie Chan going through the various strikes and movements of the Snake Fist School against a screaming red background. He's not even hitting anything, and yet just the motions of his arms and legs through the air sound like some strange kind of battle in a dimension of pure percussion noise.

The plot is ludicrous, but since it's played for comedy it works. It's almost like a kind of parody of solemn martial arts sagas of vengeance and betrayal. Jimmy Wang Yu or Bruce Lee would've been disassembling dudes left and right, betraying no emotion even as their fists become soaked with blood. But Jackie Chan's whole screen persona was built upon being the Kung Fu hero who was funny and vulnerable. Chan embodies that persona quite effectively with this early effort.

Watching this movie, I also contemplated, yet again, how much more entertaining and intense these old school martial arts movies are compared to the computer graphics spectaculars that Hollywood is trafficking in these days. Yeah, I know, it's easy to flog CG and Hollywood, but this movie was made for a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of the budget of Transformers or 2012 or X-Men and in 1978, and it still has more oomph and style than these $200 million monstrosities. I sat, stony-faced, during the second Transformers live action movie. I did not have a good time. Snake in the Eagle's Shadow made me laugh, it made me mimic the over-the-top kung fu moves, it made me care.

Not bad for a $3 DVD from Big Lots . . .



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