One of the pleasures of watching Eureka’s ongoing series of Jackie Chan Blu-Rays is the case history they offer in the construction of a superstar persona. Early on in his career Jackie Chan was billed as the heir apparent to Bruce Lee, and inasmuch as he completed the process Lee started – making Hong Kong action cinema into a globally famous industry – he delivered on that promise. But Bruce Lee was sexy and dangerous, a more conventional action hero. Chan is a Buster Keaton obsessive whose screen presence radiates a child-like innocence. Hollywood, prosaic as ever, decided this meant he should appear in family films. Back in his home country, that screen persona was used in a variety of more imaginative ways, two of which are recorded in Project A and Project A Part II.
The title is the only bland thing about 1983’s Project A, although even this was a sign of Chan’s growing popularity. Irritated at the way the more descriptive titles of his previous Hong Kong films had inspired quickie imitations that came out before his work hit cinemas, Chan’s fourth film as a director was designed to give nothing away. Not that any title could encapsulate the bizarre mix of flavours in Project A. Aside from the now-signature Chan mix of slapstick comedy and epic-scale action, it’s also a policier, a period film, a pirate film – just about everything bar a musical, although the sequel does feature a scene where characters have to hurriedly improvise a song.
As a spectacle, Project A is undiminished. In this age of Hollywood blockbusters digitally razing cities, the scale of the very non-CGI gunpowder explosion in one early scene still astonishes. There are bar-room fights and bicycle chases whose sheer logistics, their split-second timing, makes the case for Chan as one of cinema’s great big-picture directorial thinkers. In terms of his performance, he’s already confidently himself. From the moment Chan’s Dragon Ma comes on screen, we implicitly trust him. His disdain for his commanding officer, which in the hands of another actor might come off as bullying, instead feels driven by a principled dislike for his half-hearted policing. When he goes through some tough retraining, it’s less Full Metal Jacket and more Keystone Kops, largely because we can’t imagine the lightning-quick, whip-smart Dragon Ma coming to any serious harm.
Well, Dragon Ma might not. Chan himself, on the other hand… The famous scene in the clock tower notoriously ends with Chan taking a staggering fall and landing on his head, giving him a genuine neck injury. It’s such an astonishing moment that the movie replays it twice in slow-motion, as if the camera itself can’t believe what it’s just witnessed. Chan, the purest of cinephiles, apparently decided the scene’s wow factor rested on the nods to Modern Times and Safety Last!, incorporating references to A Night at the Opera and Steamboat Bill Jr. into the film’s 1987 sequel.
For some people, Project A Part II is a bit of a falling off, but they looked just about equal in my eyes. The loss of Sammo Hung is a shame, but Maggie Cheung makes a fine replacement foil, and the difference in pacing is interesting. Project A is an extravaganza where every act is designed to contain at least three things that will blow you out of your seat; Project A Part II, with its revenge plot, is a more suspense-driven affair that slowly turns up the heat on the way to a sensational final third.
Moreover, Project A Part II is a reminder of how, in the four short years between the two films, Chan’s already-prominent star had gone supernova. There are plenty of movie franchises where the hero saves the day at the end of one film then goes back to being an underdog at the start of the next one, but by 1987 no audience could be expected to buy Chan as a nobody. Dragon Ma is fully in control of the situation from the start, and you feel privileged to watch a true cinema legend take shape.