Thursday, 19 January 2012

Three Brothers, A Retrospective - Part 1: Project A (1983)

Welcome everyone to my three part retrospective in which I will be discussing three different films all starring the triumvirate of Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao.  Firstly I will be taking a lengthy look at Project A. Way back before the film was made Jackie's last film Dragon Lord had been a box office failure. Stuck in a rut he wanted to try some fresh ideas rather then keep rehashing the same period Kung Fu films that had helped make his career but was now on the verge of breaking it.

So with his production team they con-cocked a film which would pay tribute the swashbuckling, high adventure films that were made in Hollywood while combining Hong Kong stunts and fight choreography. At first the film was titled Pirate Patrol but worried that other producers would rush out and make other pirate movies they opted for the rather vague title of Project A. To help make the film Jackie brought on board Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao. It was well known that all three had grown up together and attended Opera School under Master Yu Jim Yuen, going on to work in the film industry on a long list of films.

The result is an absolutely amazing mix of action, comedy and stunt work that still holds up after all these years.

The story centers around Dragon Ma (Chan) a sergeant in the Hong Kong coast guard at the turn of the 20th century. After he and the other guards get into a pub brawl with local police they're disbanded and absorbed into the force. Not long after that pirate San-Pao (Dick Wei) starts attacking ships in the nearby South China Sea and Dragon must face up to the task of taking him down.

So, right away we have a story and setting that is very different to anything done before. More contemporary action films had been made around this time but none had ever explored a period in Hong Kong's history quite like Project A did. While it isn't historically accurate that doesn't stop it from being a unique looking film for it's time. It makes great use of Macau's Portuguese 19th century architecture creating the illusion this is all taking place in Hong Kong at that time.

Moving from the locations onto the actors. Jackie Chan heads an all-star cast flanked by the afore mentioned Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao. Each actor plays to their archetypal screen personas. Jackie is the under-dog hero fighting for justice, Sammo is the crafty schemer and Yuen is the stoic one. These were character traits they had all established in their previous work and very much continue that trend with Project A.

There's also a good supporting cast of Hong Kong movie mainstays such as Lee Hoi-San, John Cheung, Kwan Hoi-San, Lau Hak-Suen and many more familiar faces make the odd appearance throughout. They all fulfill the roles they've been given and help move the story along at a decent pace.

The film starts out with Dragon Ma getting a chewing out from the local police chief for failing to capture a group of pirates that have been terrorizing ships travelling to and from Hong Kong. He retreats to the local pub with his coastguard buddies where they endure verbal abuse from a group of Police officers. Hong Tin-Tsu(Biao) enters and gradually joins in with the teasing that culminates in Dragon being tripped up, inadvertently spilling beer all over Hong. Ma tries to apologize but Hong doesn't listen and the two end up fighting and soon a full-on brawl breaks out.

This all serves as a great way to establish the kind of action the film had. Gone are the traditional Kung Fu forms and simple editing. Here we see high impact kicks to the chest and chairs being smashed across people's heads. This was the new type of action for what was a new era of Hong Kong filmmaking. This type of hyper-kinetic fighting had begun with films like The Prodigal Son but it didn't take full form until Sammo Hung directed Winners and Sinners, it was then the new style had firmly established itself and would continue to be the trend for the remainder of the 1980's.

As punishment for the fight the coastguard is disbanded and they are absorbed into the police force to undergo training by Hong. This is where Chan's flair for physical comedy starts to show. Chan was always eager to have his films not only be popular with local audiences but also overseas. He had made previous attempts at trying to break the US market with films like Battle Creek Brawl and The Protector but the directors he worked with would not allow him to show his full potential and thus those films were complete failures. So when Jackie returned to Hong Kong he set about showing how his movies should be made.

The problem was, working in the Hong Kong film industry meant that a lot of the scripted gags may be lost in the translation for those who may not speak the language so he decided to tap into his love of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd and thrown in some good ol' slap stick.

This seemed to pay off as his films during the 80's always seemed to be hugely successful on the local market and make a decent amount overseas. During Ma's investigation in locating a wanted murderer, he meets Fei (Sammo) a reformed thief who's looking for a quick way to make some money and decides to help him out. After Ma finds the killer he soon realizes that  the police force may be corrupt, he quits and decides to do things his own way.

This leads to a plot involving stolen military weapons which serves as a way of progressing the story to it's logical conclusion. Although along the way we're treated to one of the best chase scenes in film history. Making full use of Macau and the famous Golden Harvest studio back lot, Chan runs around streets and back alleys, avoiding the bad guys and throws in some nice stunt work involving bicycles. It's a fantastic sequence to watch and is one of my all time favourites.

if it's one thing Project A is most known for, it is a rather hard-hitting stunt which starts out as a simple but effective fight inside a clock tower. Jackie is pushed out of the tower and grabs onto the clock face, dangling 60 feet above the ground. As you'd expect he loses his grip and plummets straight down, tearing through three canopies as a way to break the fall. What makes it all the more impressive is that Chan did it three times. The first proves unsuccessful with him clipping the side of the last canopy and not breaking through. The second saw him land directly on his head but the third proved successful enough.

It seems everyone involved was so impressed the latter two takes were edited into the final film just to show the audience that what they were watching was really happening. It's absolutely astounding to watch and stands as Jackie's most impressive single stunt sequence.

Eventually the story leads us to a point where Ma manages to infiltrate San-Pao's hideout posing as a gangster. At first everything goes as planned but it's not long before he's rumbled and we get an absolutely knock down, drag out, slap bang, hell of a finale which we see Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao take on Dick Wei. An actor who had already established himself in the 70's had gone on to become a staple of the 1980's Hong Kong action scene with appearances in Winners and Sinners and Carry On, Pickpocket. This was just one of many films he would go on to appear in.

Timing is everything and not a truer word can be said about Project A. All involved push themselves beyond the limit and deliver an intricately choreographed fight sequence, some excellent stunt falls and a nice sword fight between Sammo and Wei. Definitely one of the best three on one fights put to film.

So, given that this film was dealing with what was a new style of filmmaking and a historical setting not shown before you would be wondering if Project A was a success? You bet it was. After it was released it went on to gross HKD$19,323,824. It's success also spread to Japan, where reportedly the Emperor was so impressed that he demanded a sequel. Which did happen but I may talk about that one another time.

For now I will end part one of my retrospective by saying that watching Project A again after all this time as been a real treat. I got that same feeling I did when I was 17 and convinced my older brother to lend me the extra cash so I could buy the DVD and then sitting at home and being absolutely blown away by it. A great film, with a great cast that should not be missed. Be sure to join me in part two of my retrospective in which I'll be discussing Wheels On Meals.

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