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Snake in the Eagle's Shadow

Martial arts star Jackie Chan started his life with the name Chan Kong-sang, and began his career at the age of seven at the China Drama Academy. He studied Kung Fu, stunts, and acrobatics under the famous Chinese Opera Master, Yu Jim-Yuen — and at night, after the day's grueling lessons, he helped with the cleaning and washing up. At the Academy he was re-named Yuen Lou and joined a group of students (which also included Sammo Hung) called "The Seven Little Fortunes," putting on shows at amusement parks and fairs. With the decline in popularity of Chinese opera, the teenage Chan began working as a stuntman and Hung got him a gig with the legendary Golden Harvest film company, where he did stunt work for the Bruce Lee films Fist of Fury and Enter the Dragon. When popular director Lo Wei decided to start his own film company, he invited Chan to join him with the intent of making him into another Bruce Lee — in fact, Chan's first film for the fledgling company was called New Fist of Fury, and Chan was christened with yet another new name, Shing Lung — which means "become a dragon." Unfortunately, the public had no interest in a "new" Bruce Lee — Wo Lei cast Chan in film after film like Shaolin Wooden Men, Killer Meteor and Magnificent Bodyguard, all of which bombed. Considered box-office poison, Chan was readily leant out by Lo Wei when producer Ng See-Yuen of Seasonal Films asked if he could borrow him for a movie or two. Pairing Chan with director Yuen Woo-Ping (now famous for his martial arts choreography on The Matrix and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) for two back-to-back films — Snake in the Eagle's Shadow and Drunken Master. The collaboration kick-started both their careers as they created a refreshing, more entertaining brand of kung fu movie, blending kick-ass martial arts with slapstick comedy and consistent plotting — a potent combo that would eventually help Chan cross over to the American film industry. In Snake in the Eagle's Shadow, the 19-year-old Chan stars as Chien Fu, an orphan taken in by a kung fu school where he earns his keep doing odd jobs — and by standing in as a "human punching bag" for the arrogant teachers and students. When he helps out an old beggar whom he mistakenly believes is getting a beating at the hands of some students from a rival school, he gains a valuable ally; the beggar (Yuen Hsiao Tieng) is actually the last living master of the deadly Snake Fist discipline. The master is on the lam from the rival Eagle Claw clan, who want to see him dead so that their style of kung fu will reign unchallenged. Chien Fu learns the Snake Fist techniques, but to battle the superior Eagle Claw he needs something more — and so he incorporates his own Cat's Claw method and becomes the Jackie Chan fighting machine we all know and love.

*          *          *

Made bumper-to-bumper as it was with Drunken Master, 1978's Snake in the Eagle's Shadow follows essentially the same formula as that film — in many ways Snake is a blueprint for Master, featuring a similar plot, the same actors, the same locations and, it would seem, even the same costumes. Yuen Hsiao Tieng's Snake Fist master is a dead ringer for the character he plays in Drunken Master, only with less booze involved. Following the same plot structure — that would be copied oh-so-many times by a variety of Karate Kid-type American films — we're treated to similar montage sequences in both films as upstart Chan takes a few on the chin as the wily old man teaches him exemplary kung fu. However, one set-piece that stands out in Snake in the Eagle's Shadow is the bizarre scene where Chan gets the idea for his new technique while watching his beloved pet cat fight with a cobra. Yes, they're both live animals — it's a freaky-weird moment, and one that would never be committed to film today under any circumstances. Also of interest are two scenes where Jackie was injured during filming — keep an eye out for the real gash that he gets on his arm from swordsman/preacher Roy Horan, as well Chan's missing tooth in the final scenes, the result of a kick by actor Huang Cheng-Lee. Legend has it that the anger you see on Chan's face during that final fight scene is real, as Chan thought Cheng-Lee kicked him in the face on purpose. Columbia TriStar's DVD release of Snake in the Eagle's Shadow offers a solid anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) and digitally mastered Dolby Digital 5.1 audio in either Cantonese or dubbed English. An array of subtitles are included, and the English text is an entertaining translation. But having seen Snake several years ago with a truly awful translation (with subtitles along the lines of "I am the greatest swordsman of Russia! You have felled into my trap!"), sad to say, the new version loses a lot of the inadvertent camp value. Also on board are bonus trailers for Osamu Tezuka's Metropolis, Jet Li's thriller The One, and the anime series Cowboy Bebop. Keep-case.
—Dawn Taylor

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