The Story: The Eagle Claw Society, lead by the deadly master Shang Kuan Yi-Yuan (Hwang Jang Lee- Eagle Vs Silver Fox, Secret Rivals), has all but wiped out its rival Snake Fist style of martial arts schools. Young, dumb Chien-Fu (Jackie Chan- Project A, Police Story, Dragons Forever) lives his life a subordinate in the local martial school, constantly taking beatings from its cruel teachers and never getting a chance to learn how to fight. The most he gets are bruises from being a punching bag for the teacher and his students. One day, Chien Fu helps out an old transient, who it turns out is Grand Master Pai Cheng-Cheh (Simon Yuen- Sleeping Fist, Dance of the Drunken Mantis), the only surviving member Snake Fist style school, now forced to masquerade as a scruffy beggar. The two strike up and friendship and Grand Master Pai begins to teach Chien Fu the Snake Style, just so long as Chien Fu promises to keep it a secret. But, the Eagle Claw school is still hunting for Grand Master Pai and anyone who knows the Snake Style. With the two most likely unable to defeat Shang Kuan Yi-Yuan's style, this isn't good news for Chien Fu and Master Pai... That is, until Chien Fu observes his cat fighting a snake one day.
The Film: In addition to being a solid kung fu movie, Snake in the Eagles Shadow (1978) is an important first step in the carrers of Jackie Chan and Yuen Woo Ping. After Bruce Lee died and left a gap open in the martial film world, Jackie was one of many, many guys the HK studios wanted to fashion into the next big star. Super producer/director/Golden Harvest big-wig Lo Wei tried with Jackie and failed. Of course, at the time, none of the new potential stars really became the international sensation Bruce was, but many found their niche and carved out nice careers. Jackie, on the other hand, was sort of left floating from minor-hit to no-hit never really finding the right vehicle for his talents. He wasn't a handsome leading man, a deadly serious main star, or a capable character actor. So, Lo Wei loaned him out to independent studio Seasonal Films head Ng See Yuen. Under three men, Ng See Yuen, Jackie, and a first time director named Yuen Woo Ping, Snake in the Eagles Shadow was born, and it was a hit... The problem was, Lo Wei put Jackie into roles he just didn't work well in, be it the seriousness of To Kill With Intrigue or as a villain in Killer Meteors. In Snake in the Eagles Shadow we get to see the first glimpse of the Jackie Chan character we would come to love, the capable comedian and the capable fighter. Combined with Yuen Woo Pings penchant for comedy and his excellent eye and knowledge of how to stage a fight, how to usalize a guy like Chan, it was a match made in heaven, and a match that would spawn this film and Drunken Master, forever changing Jackie Chan's career.
Admittedly, I am not a huge fan of the Yuen Clan's often overly goofy (even by HK standards!) comedy. Sure, their action choreography is the reason you watch their films, but there are times when they, especially Woo Ping, go so overboard with buffoonery that its a big minus, no matter how good the fights. However, despite all the retarded shenanigans and simple minded plotting, Snake in the Eagles Shadow still works. Actually, it is sort of like the blueprint, the prototype for the much more fluid Drunken Master. Made the same year, Drunken Master and Snake in the Eagles Shadow are sort of like brothers- Snake the rougher misfit, and Drunken the polished older sibling, both taking the same basic master-student training, comedy plotting, and even virtually much the same cast. These films would spawn a huge wave in popularity with master-student kung fu comedies, and Simon Yuen would find himself typecast as the pugnacious kung fu master for the rest of his career. You've got your Sleeping Fist, Snake in the Monkeys Shadow, Jade Claw, Blind fists of Bruce Li, and many more.
A way Snake in the Eagles Shadow sets itself apart from the imitators, is in the master-student kung fu films, the master was often cruel and very strict with his student, but here, the two are much friendlier. Its actually really touching when Grandmaster Pai decides to train Chien Fu and one of his rules is, "Don't call me teacher... Because we are good friends." Also in this film, Jackie's character stands out from many of the 'luckless guy who doesn't know kung fu and is trained to be a master' characterizations that preceded and would follow. In most films, the guy is a doltish wimp, who once he masters a technique, becomes confident and of stronger character. Chien Fu, on the other hand, is an idiot before he learns Snake Fist, and is still and idiot after he learns it. As a matter of fact, he is sort of like an idiot savant, since he develops his own technique, 'Cats Paw', but remains the same fool we see at the beginning, only now he is a fool that can fight.
Yes, the story is cloying and convenient (you can say the same of 90% of the Westerns and War movies made in the 50's and 60's), but the fights, training, and little touches make it rise above the rest, make it a classic. Take, Simon Yuen's mastery of the teacup. Jackie doing finger push ups on poles with burning incense below him. The martial school teacher trying to force a compliment on the wealthy magistrates fat son, "Your boy is shaped like a pig... I mean, a bull." Hwang Jang Lee was always a great villain (though his Drunken Master performance which used his big kicking talents outshines this film). The new wave synth score that pops up and Jackie is training, following the dance steplike instructions Master Pai left behind. The goofy cat scream sound effects when he fights in the finale. And the fights...oh, the fights. Even though it his first film as the main director, Yuen Woo Ping knows how to film a fight, nice wide shots, few close-ups, great angles, and wonderfully timed. The final 40 mins is basically a barrage of fighting scenes, with intermittent plot thrown in between them. What more can you ask for? It's pure take-out-your-brain entertainment.
The DVD: Columbia / TriStar. Shame that Columbia went with a basic barebones edition. Snake in the Eagles Shadow is very deserving of SE treatment. But, at least they chose a print that does include the oft censored animal fight which is a must for many fans of this film (sorry PETA).
Picture- Widescreen 2:35:1, Anamorphic. As with any older kung fu film, it does suffer from some damage, some spots lines, grain, and general wear. But the contrast, color and sharpness are in pretty good shape, making it a decent transfer. As far as the aspect ratio goes, it is a little off. Comparing the Columbia to the Reg 2 Hong Kong Legends and French releases (thanks to Bullets N' Babes comparison screen captures), the Columbia appears somewhere in the middle- not as cropped as the HKL but not as full as The French. If the HKL is missing, say, 10% of the image, the Columbia is missing maybe 4-6%. No big loss at all (its all negative space), just worth mentioning for the videophiles.
Sound- Dolby Digital Mono – Cantonese or English with optional English, French, Korean, Portuguese, and Spanish subtitles. Once again, the elements for the soundtrack suffer from age and the expected distortions. Both tracks are weak, with the Cantonese being the pretty tinny and hollow, and the English dub being a little stronger, fuller, better bass, but still having the same distortions. Barring any full scale, complex remastering someday, the tracks are about as good as they can be.
Extras- Scene Selections--- Trailers for Metropolis, Cowboy Bepop and The One.
Conclusion: Well, come on... Its an absolute must if you are an old school kung fu fan. Those who have stuck to Jackie's more modern fare and haven't given his older stuff a chance should really check it out. This is where it all began for Jackie. Considering the previous budget, crud releases on DVD, the only other decent releases are the Region 2 UK Hong Kong Legends which is censored and cropped and a French version that has no subs. Sure some extras would be nice (at least a trailer), but, as far as Region One goes, this is the one to buy, so by default it gets a 'highly recommended' for old school fans.