With A History Of Violence, Tom Breihan picks the most important action movie of every year, starting with the genre’s birth and moving right up to whatever Vin Diesel’s doing this very minute.
Project A (1983)
There’s a scene early in the 1983 pirate caper Project A that pretty perfectly sums up Jackie Chan’s entire filmmaking style. The first of the movie’s many big, insane set pieces is a wild bar fight between Hong Kong’s police and Coast Guard. (For reasons the movie never really adequately explains, they completely fucking hate each other.) It’s a hectic, busy scene, with bodies and bottles and pieces of furniture flying in all directions—the sort of scene where the music starts when a combatant gets his head slammed into a record player. Chan, a sailor, and Yuen Biao, a police officer, smash wooden chairs over each other’s backs. They then stare each other down while retreating behind a column, where they can’t see each other. Once hidden, they both silently grab their backs and spend a few instants writhing in agony. Then they get their game faces back on and stare each other down again.
It’s one comedic beat in a scene full of them, and it totally works. Chan and Yuen had trained and performed together with the Seven Little Fortunes, a traveling Peking Opera performance troupe, since the two were kids. They’d broken into movies together in Hong Kong, and along with Sammo Hung, another ex-Little Fortune and Project A co-star, they would become a force in Hong Kong cinema for years to come. (Project A was the first time all three would appear in a movie together, but plenty more would follow.) Point is, they knew how to work together. They had onscreen chemistry, and they had the natural ability to pull goofy faces while executing death-defying, acrobatic stunts, transforming their fight scenes into top-shelf slapstick comedy. And when they’re done with their little Three Stooges routine in the corner, Yuen picks Chan up and slams him through a table before the camera even cuts away. Even as they’re goofing around, they’re hurting each other. We get to see the visual gags and the visceral impact.
In movies like Drunken Master and The Young Master, Jackie Chan had become a star by perfecting—and, in some sense, inventing—that combination of broad, goofy physical comedy and precise, acrobatic martial-arts choreography. He made a few relatively serious movies when he was coming up, but he found his voice when he became a complete clown. By 1983, he’d already tried and failed at American stardom, playing a small role in The Cannonball Run and making the fun but frustratingly inconsistent fight movie The Big Brawl with Enter The Dragon director Robert Clouse. And thanks to what Chan was doing—as well as the similar work Hung had done in movies like The Magnificent Butcher and The Prodigal Son—that antic, slapstick kung-fu style had gradually supplanted the mythic Shaw Brothers costume drama as the dominant style in Hong Kong action movies.
Still, Project A feels like the beginning of something, the moment where Jackie Chan really discovered what he could do with that style. In Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao, he had co-stars who could keep up with him, and it was immediately apparent how much fun these guys were having even when they were fighting each other. The movie is also the moment where Chan pushed his stunt work to a whole new level. In the most famous scene from Project A, he hangs from the minute hand of a clock tower. It’s a visual quote from Harold Lloyd’s 1923 silent comedy Safety Last!. But when he made that movie, Lloyd didn’t slip from the clock and fall at least 30 feet before landing on his head. Jackie Chan did.
This wasn’t a case where someone had to talk Chan into taking that clock-tower fall. Chan directed and co-wrote the movie himself. He had nobody else to blame. He really was that much of a fucking psycho. And some of the movie’s best moments come where we get to watch Chan as a pure physical wonder—using his handcuffs to climb up a flagpole, say, or careening away from a horde of gangsters through narrow streets on a bicycle. As silly as the fights are, they still work as great movie fights. Chan and Sammo Hung get to come across as clowns and absolute badasses at the same time.
Like a lot of Jackie Chan movies, Project A treats its plot as an unfortunate necessity. The storyline is something about the police and the Coast Guard learning to get along so that they can meet some pirates. We don’t get to meet the main pirate until the movie is almost over. That’s too bad, since he’s a great villain—flamboyantly mustached, covered in painted-on tattoos, able to take on all three of the movie’s stars single-handedly until a carpet and a hand grenade come into play. Like a lot of Hong Kong movies, it’s all over the place tonally. After spending most of the movie as a mugging buffoon, Chan gets to make a big, inspirational speech, and then it’s right back to mugging again.
But Chan knew why people came to his movies, and it wasn’t the storyline. He knows what he’s good at, and the structure of Project A holds together increasingly nuts set pieces with vague exposition and unapologetically dumb comedy bits. Chan spends some of the movie smirking and pranking through training exercises, doing his version of Bill Murray in Stripes, but none of it is essential to the plot. He just knew people would like watching him goof around for a few minutes before the fireworks started.
The way Chan and his opera-school brothers worked together, it’s not that dissimilar from, say, what the Marx Brothers had been doing 50 years earlier. They had their own rhythms, which predated movies and which were practically vaudevillian in nature. And they knew that the actual story of the movie was secondary to the appeal of these guys, of watching them work together.
It’s amazing how well that whole style worked. By the time Project A came out, Chan was one of the biggest movie stars in Hong Kong, and he’d only get bigger from there. He’d also go off on an unbelievable hot streak, bringing that style to movie after movie and putting together maybe the most purely entertaining filmography of any action star in history. It would take more than a decade, but he’d finally break through in the States, too, becoming one of America’s biggest stars in the wake of 1998’s Rush Hour. And at least 20 years after Project A, he’d still be doing insane things on camera. We might never see another run like that again.
Other notable 1983 action movies: With Uncommon Valor, Gene Hackman pretty much made Rambo: First Blood Part II two years before Sylvester Stallone did. It’s one of the all-time great men-on-a-mission movies, and it’s all built around the idea of rewriting recent history to win America back some of the dignity that it lost in Vietnam. After his son goes missing in Vietnam, Hackman’s ex-soldier character puts together a team that includes a post-Outsiders/pre-Red Dawn Patrick Swayze to rescue him—and any other forgotten Americans—from one of those mythic prisoner-of-war camps that remained a presence in American action movies for many, many years after Vietnam.
Meanwhile, Chuck Norris, one guy who wouldn’t stop going back to Vietnam in his movies, made maybe his best movie in 1983. Lone Wolf McQuade, with its spaghetti-western swagger and its slimy, villainous David Carradine performance, essentially invented Norris’ Walker, Texas Ranger character 10 years before the show would debut. Norris’ future bosses at Cannon Films came out with Revenge Of The Ninja, quite possibly the best movie in their whole ninja trilogy. And Clint Eastwood turned his Dirty Harry franchise into a Death Wish homage with Sudden Impact, coining his “go ahead, make my day” catchphrase in the process.
Those three movies all have their charms, even if Sudden Impact completely goes off the rails when it becomes Sondra Locke’s revenge melodrama. But none of them can hold a candle to Blue Thunder, in which Roy Scheider plays an LAPD helicopter pilot who takes on his superiors when he realizes that they’re planning to use their new high-tech helicopter to attack their own city’s poor neighborhoods. Blue Thunder has a hall-of-fame haughty-asshole Malcolm McDowell bad guy, better dogfighting scenes than Top Gun, and the memorable vision of hard-bitten ’70s tough guys like Scheider and Warren Oates committing to a deeply ’80s action-movie vision.
1983 also saw two competing visions of the James Bond character, with Roger Moore going full cheese with the deeply watchable Octopussy and Sean Connery briefly returning to the role in the slightly less silly Never Say Never Again. Meanwhile, in Hong Kong, things were getting weird. Zu Warriors From The Magic Mountain, an early movie from crazy visionary Tsui Hark, pioneered a fantastical and near-incomprehensible style that would prove popular in HK cinema in the years to come. And Duel To The Death—with its giant ninja, its black magic, and its villain who keeps babbling even after his head has been severed—is almost a kung-fu equivalent to Evil Dead 2. I cannot possibly recommend it enough. Also, Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung, and Yuen Biao cemented their dominance with Winners And Sinners, the first movie in what would become their crazy-successful Lucky Stars trilogy.
Brian De Palma’s Scarface isn’t really an action movie—if a movie’s hero and its villain are the same person, it’s a character study, not an action movie—but its final scene is probably the most iconic action scene that the year gave us. And while it’s probably too weird to count as an action movie, it’s worth noting that Jim McBride remade Godard’s Breathless as a proto-Tarantino crime caper starring a young Richard Gere as a rockabilly outlaw who rhapsodizes over Silver Surfer. This was obviously a terrible idea. It never should’ve worked. The movie was pretty good. Goes to show you never can tell.
Next time: The Terminator changes the whole game.
Purchasing via Amazon helps support The A.V. Club.