Directed by Woo-Ping Yeun and hitting theaters in 1978, Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow made a star of Jackie Chan and introduced the world to two things that would become staples of Kung Fu cinema; one, the notion of the kung fu movie as comedy and two, animal style kung fu being one of the greatest things in the history of makind. While Chan had been in a few films before this, the attempt to make him into the new Bruce Lee failed miserably. Jackie Chan was never going to be the next Bruce Lee; he was always going to be the first Jackie Chan. And while comedy martial arts had been attempted before, most notably in 1975’s Spiritual Boxer, it was a genre that needed Chan to really gain a foothold in the minds of moviegoers.
The plot of this film follows a traditional kung fu cinema trope; abused/ignored janitor at a school learns kung fu in secret and goes on to kick ass. Chien Fu (Chan) is an orphaned young man living and working at a kung fu school. The school is run by an average at best teacher who gets his jollies bullying Chien Fu. This is a guy who coats his feet in powder and walks over the tiles that Chien Fu has just scrubbed clean. (You know, a real asshole) Chien Fu is not taught kung fu but is used as the school punching bag to impress visitors, and is only friends with the school cook (spoilers: who isn’t who he seems to be) and a stray cat. Chien Fu befriends an old man disguised as a beggar and brings him to the school to take care of him. It turns out that the old man is Pai-Chen Tien, the last surviving master of the Snake Fist style. Tien is being hunted by the master of the Eagle Claw technique, Sheng Quan. It is Quan’s mission in life to prove the Eagle Claw technique superior by killing every last practitioner of the Snake Fist style. Chien Fu is eventually taught Snake Fist style, breaks the rules his master gave him, and sets into motion the final showdown between Eagle Claw and Snake Fist. Knowing the Snake Fist will not be enough on its own, Chien Fu combines it with Cat’s Claw thus creating the titular Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow style.
Now, if that synopsis sounds a bit ridiculous well.. that’s because it is. One of the most enjoyable things about Kung Fu cinema is the sheer absurdity of it all. (Citizen Kane these films are not) What this film lacks in the way of realism it makes up for in sheer cool. The kung fu on display in this film is breathtaking. Animal style kung fu is one of my very favorite styles to watch and the Snake style in particular here is very strong. The Eagle Claw, Mantis, Cat’s Claw, Tiger, and Dragon styles all make appearances as well leaving only but a few missing. (No room for Monkey style?) The choreography of the fight scenes is fantastic. The pace of the fights is right on the nose. The comedic timing shown by Chan and a few of the other actors is perfect and while not uproariously funny, scratches a certain kind of itch. To me, Jackie Chan has always been the kung fu version of Groucho Marx. His body control and ability to be both effortlessly charming completely in character are nothing short of spectacular. He really is a special actor and if your only experience with him has been his mainstream American films, you owe it to yourself to check out some of his more classic work. (This, Drunken Master, Police Story) But enough from me. The point of this series is to share. Check the trailer below and if you like what you see click here for the full film. Follow me on twitter, @geekadedan, and let me know what you thought or what some of your favorite Kung Fu films are.