Project A should be shown to every movie star whose career has
gone off the rails. In the early 1980s Jackie Chan had unwisely attempted
to 'crack' the American market, and he quite simply failed miserably.
He must share part of the blame for his failure, but so must ignorant
directors, rubbish scripts and lack of decent screen opponents. Asian
audiences had been disillusioned after going to the new Jackie Chan hit
'Cannonball Run' to see him have a five minute cameo. So what was Jackie's
reaction? Project A! He hooked up with his old opera school brothers,
invented the 'action/comedy period drama', won Best Action Choreography
at the 3rd HK Film Awards and broke several box office records and several
bones in the process! Project A took HK $19,323,000 during its run in
1983 and was the second largest hit ever in Hong Kong cinema after Aces
Go Places (1982)
The plot is simple and an effective vehicle for this film. It helps balance the action and comedy whilst keeping the film moving along at a leisurely pace. Jackie Chan plays coastguard Dragon Ma, who is fighting a losing battle against the evil pirate San Po (Dick Wei). Apparently Project A is a real project that was undertaken by the coastguards in their fight against piracy. Along with Yuen Biao (Police Officer) and Sammo Hung (gambler / petty criminal / hobo) they attempt to free the British hostages from San Po's pirate island.
This film is jammed full with slapstick, stunts and brawling. The opening fight is between fifty policemen and coastguards. It provides plenty of 'gasp' moments and at least as many laughs. Yuen Biao normally plays the boyish kung fu student / youthful protagonist, but in Project A he plays a superior to Jackie and accordingly holds his own whilst grappling with Jackie. The action really moves into sixth gear when Jackie and Yuen enter the Gentlemen's club that is also a refuge for criminals. People start flying off chandeliers, sliding down banisters and falling down stairs. Although it is mayhem, the viewer will soon realise it is only the hors d'oeuvre! The next sequences are certainly some of the most memorable that Jackie has put to print. Firstly there is the bicycle chase sequence that shows what Jackie and Sammo's blend of action comedy is all about. Using any prop available and a team of stuntmen they create a hilarious but bruising pursuit (look out for Yuen Biao as a double).
The 'piece de resistance' will undoubtedly be the flagpole / clock tower sequence. After climbing a 30ft flagpole (handcuffed) Jackie jumps from the pole onto the clock tower. This stunt is continuously overlooked by many in favour of the following stunt, but it is no safer or simpler. The next stunt is the 60ft fall from the clock tower after a top fight with Lee Hoi Sang (playing Chou Kou). It is only a shame the Jackie and Lee Hoi Sang haven't fought more often, as Lee Hoi Sang always brings quality to his encounters even when he is not that spectacular a performer. I'm sure Gordon Liu, Sammo and Liu Chia Yung could testify to this.
There is a great deal of conjecture as to who performed the clock tower stunts and how they were executed. There are three takes of the stunt in Project A (one in the credits), and it is clear that Jackie does not do all three. Rather than littering this review with more speculation and gossip on how the stunt was performed, I would instead recommend the interview with Mars (Jackie's buddy and fellow stuntman on Project A). This is on the bonus disc on the HKL edition and helps clarify the matter. There are also some suggestions that Jackie was 'ripping off' Harold Lloyd from his movie Safety Last. Most people who make this suggestion have not even seen Safety Last, but just a few pics, and are probably unaware that Jackie was PAYING TRIBUTE to his hero, Harld Lloyd. Both Harold and Jackie are legendary stuntmen, possibly both were the greatest of their generation.
The final encounter has the three brothers (Jackie,
Sammo, Yuen Biao) taking on Dick Wei in his pirate cave. As Dick Wei mentions
in his interview this was a first for the movie industry. The fight does
not disappoint and it gives the audience the first glimpse of the 'three
brothers'. Although Jackie, Sammo and Yuen Biao had appeared in movies
together before (Enter the Dragon, Hand of Death etc) this was the first
time they had all fought in the same scene. The fighting is full contact
and it certainly feels that way to the viewer. When Sammo flying kicks
Dick Wei in the back winces are guaranteed. Dick Wei goes onto reveal
that he was actually seriously injured by that kick and it's no surprise!
It was this sort of brutally choreographed action that was to dominate
Hong Kong cinema for the remainder of the decade, spearheaded by the three
brothers and Jackie's stunt crew.
This was one of Hong Kong Legend's most high profile releases as it was made a Platinum edition (double disc). The picture, sound and display are all up to the exceptionally high standards that Hong Kong Legends have set. It also has dual language and an audio commentary by Bey Logan. The bonus disc is jam packed with interviews, demonstrations and documentaries. Interviews feature Yuen Biao, Michael Lai (composer), Dick Wei, Mars and Lee Hoi Sang. There is also a 70+ minute documentary introduced by Bey Logan on Project A. I have never been a massive 'extras' junkie and the bonus disc is a pleasant addition rather than a 'must-have' requirement. I am more than content with the superb single disc editions produced by Hong Kong Legends, but would always prefer more rather than less when it comes to additional features and extras.
By 1983 it had been five years since Jackie's major breakthrough
in Drunken Master (1978) and in the five years since its release hundreds
of rip-offs had been produced. Yet five years after Project A, the only
film that had come anywhere it near was Project A II. Successful formulas
are typically bled to death in Hong Kong Cinema, but it seems few have
had the skill or guts to make a film like Project A. It requires an all
star cast, a bunch of expert stuntmen and the ability to make the viewer
laugh and gasp at the same time. This film is important for so many stars
in so many ways. It reinstated Jackie as HK box office king, it gave the
world the first glimpse of the 'three brothers', and it set new levels
for Hong Kong action choreography. A lot of people forget to mention that
not only did Jackie star, do stunts and choreograph the action with Sammo,
but he also did the small task of directing the movie. Some have raised
question marks over Jackie's ability to direct himself, but I would always
refer those doubters to Project A and Miracles.