Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases, premieres, current events, or occasionally just our own inscrutable whims. This week: Jackie Chan has two new movies, Vanguard and Iron Mask, headed for release. To honor the occasion, we’re recommending a few of his best vehicles.
By 1978, the man born Chan Kong-sang to a pair of refugees from the Chinese Civil War was doing quite well for himself. A hyperactive disposition led him to performing arts school as a child, which led to membership in the elite troupe Seven Little Fortunes, which led to bit parts on film productions in Hong Kong. Having done some stunt work during his teenage years for Bruce Lee, the model for kung-fu fame at the time, he was eyed as Lee’s natural successor by film producer Willie Chan, who sent him to South Korea in 1976 to star in a sequel to the A-lister’s breakout hit, Fist Of Fury. This unproven talent had skills to spare that unfortunately didn’t gibe so well with Lee’s signature style of martial arts, and the film flopped. But director Lo Wei stuck with Chan, adapting to his unique movements in a pair of features during the early months of ’78. The superior of the two, the revenge odyssey Dragon Fist, reintroduced its lead under the nickname an Australian construction worker had bestowed on him when he was still a college student. “Jacky” Chan had arrived.
The trouble was that Lo Wei’s production company had just about run out of money, and refrained from releasing Dragon Fist or its companion picture, Spiritual Kung Fu. To raise some fast capital, he loaned Chan out for a two-picture deal to his rivals at the Season Film Corporation, where Snake In The Eagle’s Shadow and Drunken Master made the moniker-tweaked “Jackie” a global sensation before the year’s end. Come 1979, Lo Wei figured his poster boy had enough heat to merit a release for the shelved earlier projects, though Chan had already decided to move on to greener pastures at megastudio Golden Harvest. (For this slight, Lo Wei paid the local triad gangs to rough him up, a matter eventually smoothed over with the help of One-Armed Swordsman lead turned conflict mediator Jimmy Wang Yu.)
Dragon Fist finds an unmatched expert in a formative stage, though a casual viewer wouldn’t know it by Chan’s absolute mastery of his movements. Technically, he’s as precise as he would ever be, his jagged motions and rapid-fire flurries a visceral shift from Lee’s legato flow. But the playful clownery that made him one of the planet’s most bankable names during the ’80s and ’90s is nowhere to be seen, with the default solemnity of the wuxia genre—honor, duty, coolly furious reprisals, the usual—played straight. Chan shows his stuff without fully flourishing as a performer, offering a laser-focused concentration soon to give way to the sort of jovial, nimble weightlessness that makes all this look easy. Even when more visibly breaking a sweat, Chan’s raw power still fuels some awe-inspiring set pieces, such as the climactic showdown in which his character, Tang How-yuen, pummels his opponent’s chest until the life has simply been punched out of him.
The plot, a circuitous journey that starts with Tang swearing to avenge his slain master and ends with him resolving a turf war for some villagers, provides little more than pretense for the various beatings. Cinematographer Chen Yung-hsu’s camerawork maximizes the body-blow impact of the best scenes, his extreme fish-eye lens at one point giving us the POV of a lesser fighter’s defensive roll on the ground, as well as that of the foot kicking him. But of course Jacky himself stands out as the real draw, even with his innate charisma dialed down to a sterner register. A hard worker so eager to prove himself that he didn’t let multiple nose breakages slow him down during production, Chan began his career as merely the most technically proficient and athletically peerless competitor in his field. True-blue movie stardom still awaited him, though by the time anyone actually saw this early demonstration of how ready he was for the big time, he had already gotten there.
Availability: Dragon Fist is currently streaming on Amazon through the Hi-YAH add-on channel.