by Matt Levine
My love for kung-fu movies stems from their curious position sandwiched between narrative genre cinema and the avant-garde. The most exhilarating films by Ronnie Yu and Chang Cheh, for example, are story-driven and breathlessly entertaining, but they also reveal cinema as a kinetic assemblage of light and motion—shapes hurtling throughout the frame in delirious patterns. Is the blur of limbs in a Jet Li fight scene much different than the ricocheting sights and sounds of a Stan Brakhage experiment?
Directors: Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung
Producers: Leonard Ho, Tang King-Chan
Writers: Jackie Chan, Edward Tang
Cinematographer: Yiu Jo Cheung
Editor: Peter Cheung
Music: Michael Lai, Nicolás Rivera
Cast: Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung, Yuen Biao, Dick Wei, Mars, Winnie Wong, Pa Tai, Hoi-San Kwan, Wai Wong, Hak Suen Lau
Country: Hong Kong
Premiere: December 22, 1983 – Hong Kong
US Distributor: Park Circus
With the films of Jackie Chan—particularly the action-comedies of the late 1970s and 1980s, which typified his style and established the slapstick martial arts subgenre—you have to add screwball comedy and the zany chaos of Looney Tunes to the list of influences. Originally Chan was slotted to become Bruce Lee’s successor (he originally began as one of his stuntmen), but Chan only came into his own—and found international fame—when he fused his lightning-fast kung-fu with the silent comedy of Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd. As early as 1978’s Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow, Chan begin experimenting with a style both slapstick and bone-crunching.
Project A is arguably Chan’s best film, made at the peak of his early fame in 1983 (by which point he had already become Hong Kong cinema’s top star). A rollicking comedy set at the turn of the century, when British-ruled Hong Kong was overrun with murderous pirates (it may not be the most historically accurate incarnation), Project A hurtles from one plot development to the next with an erratic energy reminiscent of The Big Sleep (1946). Chan stars as Dragon Ma, a charming naval officer whose troop is brought aboard the Hong Kong police when the Navy is disbanded for failing to eradicate the pirate threat. The heated rivalry between the Navy and the police provides the movie’s first jaw-dropping action sequence—a bottle-smashing bar fight which demonstrates how deftly Chan interweaves slapstick comedy with the action—but it turns out to be a secondary plot element.
The Navy and the police actually mesh fairly easily, uniting to track down the gangsters Chiang and Mr. Chow, who are orchestrating an arms deal with the notorious pirate San-po (Dick Wei). Dragon’s old friend Fei (Sammo Hung), otherwise known as Fatso, turns up, hoping to intercept the 100 rifles meant for San-po and sell them himself. The plot is overstuffed and hurtles from one conflict to the next, but that shouldn’t be read as a criticism: the reckless, unpredictable story ensures a smorgasbord of amazing action, and leads to an astounding climax in which Dragon, Fei, and the police inspector Hong Tin-Tsu (Yuen Biao) gang up on the seemingly indestructible San-po. As in the “cinema of attractions” which typified early silent cinema, the narrative is mostly a vehicle for leaping from one astounding setpiece to the next, following its own flimsy dream logic along the way.
The “attractions” in Project A are eye-popping and exhilarating—explosions of cinematic energy that might make you forget to breathe. Dragon’s first mission as a policeman is to infiltrate one of Hong Kong’s VIP clubs and arrest a slimy gangster—a scene which lays waste to practically the entire set, and often features at least one poor stuntman flying through the air in the background. By the time we’ve caught our breath, we watch Dragon run away from an army of criminal henchmen of bicycles, eventually performing feats of strength with a bike that would seem physically impossible. At one point, he shimmies up an entire flagpole before our very eyes (this is one of the moments when we’re reminded that Chan did all of his own stunts, with no wire effects) then leaps onto a nearby roof—in handcuffs. The fact that this acrobatic sequence leads to a perilous homage to Harold Lloyd’s Safety Last (1923)—in which Dragon hangs from the hands on a clock tower, then plummets to the ground below through two awnings (a stunt which seriously injured him)—clearly demonstrates Chan’s eclectic influences and the ease with which he could leap from action to comedy.
Some of the most impressive moments in Project A, though, hardly sound like anything on paper. The way that Chan descends stairs by leaping over railings, or lithely steps over a chair to sit on the kitchen table, or sprints down a vast hillside so quickly the camera can barely keep up—these are the moments that truly prove how graceful and meticulous Chan’s movements are. If the action sequences in Project A implicitly allude to avant-garde movies which emphasize form and movement, they also closely resemble dance—feats of human athleticism that celebrate the body in motion. In many of Chan’s seemingly effortless performances, minute gestures and movements are meant to convey a character’s personality, bringing to mind another famously graceful actor whose body movements were inseparable from his persona: Charlie Chaplin.
Unlike some other Hong Kong action films set in the late-19th or early-20th century—notably Chan’s own The Legend of Drunken Master (aka Drunken Master II, 1994) or Jet Li’s Once Upon a Time in China trilogy—the British presence here is so minor it’s almost invisible. While England represents oppression and cultural erasure in those films, the stodgy British officers we see in Project A are, at worst, benevolent overseers. Clearly the movie isn’t meant to provide a comment on turn-of-the-century Hong Kong—the underlying motivation was to make a rollicking historical adventure with pirates, and the movie ably delivers on this aspiration.
It’s unfortunate, no doubt, that the film’s sole female character—the Navy Admiral’s beautiful daughter Winnie (Winnie Wong), who provides a meek love interest for Dragon—is a pathetic damsel in distress who can barely walk down a flight of stairs without complaining. The ongoing joke is that the acrobatic Dragon is repeatedly slowed down by this absurdly helpless woman, who descends about two steps in the times it takes Dragon to descend about 200. In other words, the movie’s political timidity is reflected by its gender politics, which makes for some unfortunately tiresome jokes even if it doesn’t deter from Project A’s dizzying visceral rush.
In retrospect, it seems like the genres of screwball comedy and kung-fu action were destined for each other: screwball often had more than a hint of aggression in it, and the martial arts genre has always been ripe for parody considering its embrace of stoic, virile stereotypes. There had been earlier combinations of the two genres, as demonstrated by some of the Shaw Brothers’ films of the 1970s. But it took an actor, director, writer, stuntman, and comedian of Chan’s stature to perfect the slapstick kung-fu genre—indeed, the agility that Chan demonstrates as a director and stunt choreographer may be as impressive as that which he displays onscreen. Project A may not be as astounding as Chan’s finest film, The Legend of Drunken Master—which (as hyperbolic as it sounds) features one of the most incredible comedic and athletic performances in all of cinema—but it’s a dexterous and invigorating example of Chan’s unique style. Like Bruce Lee mixed with Buster Keaton, Project A is a testament to the deliriously entertaining hybrids that cinema can create.