Jackie Chan, in one of his most seminal roles, plays Chien Fu, a down on his luck student in a turn of the century martial arts school whose only friend is his pet cat. Ritually exploited and ridiculed by his fellow classmates, Chien is forced to perform the school’s many domestic chores. But his destiny takes a drastic turn when he comes to the aid of a drunk beggar being attacked by members of a rival school that specialise in the infamous Eagle Claw technique.
Unbeknown to Chien this apparent vagrant is actually Pai Cheng Cheh (Simon Yuan), the last surviving master of the Snake Fist Style. In gratitude for his charitable kindness and bravery, Pai Cheng agrees to teach Chien the secrets of his fighting technique through a rigorous and gruelling programme of psychical stamina and self-discipline. But it’s an education that will cause both of them to cross paths with the merciless Sheng Kuan (Hwang Jang Lee), an Eagle Claw master on a ruthless mission intent on eradicating all those who practice the Snake Fist Style.
Originally released in 1978, Snake In The Eagles Shadow is an unbeatable classic of martial arts cinema and I have no reservations in referring to it as one of the best Kung-Fu movies ever made. After a lengthy career as a stunt co-ordinator and a succession of restricting, failed projects, Jackie Chan was finally given the freedom to realise his vision of reinventing martial movies for a new generation of cinemagoers.
Having teamed up with first time director Yuan Woo Ping, both were in agreement in wanting to take a fresh new approach in representing Kung-Fu on screen and make an attempt at going against the well worn clichés of the genre. They did so by introducing a sense of humour and characters that the audience could empathise with. Having taken a number of narrative risks they managed to succeed in making one of the most groundbreaking films of the decade that lead the way for a new era of Asian film making.
One of the first things they did was to consciously change the dynamics between the teacher and his pupil. No longer did the story consist of a noble conduit to a higher force sharing his knowledge with an invincible student who’s eager to learn and bent on revenge. In Snake In The Eagle’s Shadow the teacher is a scruffy old drunk and the pupil is a clumsy everyman adolescent who’s reluctant to listen. What also made the film so innovative is its playful tone and accomplished balance that incorporated slapstick-comedy, jaw dropping acrobatics, and fighting prowess. They’d found a winning formula that was perfected when the same cast and crew were reunited again for the equally iconic follow up Drunken Master (1978).
As soon as the simple but effective opening credit sequence begins you know you’re in for some incredible action thrills as Jackie Chan, dressed entirely in black, showcases his amazing agility and skills in front of a red backdrop. Director Yuan Woo Ping’s next stroke of genius was casting his father Simon Yuan (a respected performer within the Peking Opera and a Shaw Brothers veteran) as the unforgettable Pai Cheng Cheh, a role he went on to revive in Drunken Master and several other Hong Kong movies. And who better to play the menacing villain Sheng Kuan than Taekwondo legend Hwang Jang Lee, renowned for his incredible foot work and forever known as King Of The Leg Fighters.
Snake In The Eagles Shadow set a benchmark on Asian cinema on so many levels. Its fight sequences are superb, its comedy stance still holds up, and its influence can still be felt. It made a star out of out Jackie Chan and paved the way for Yuan Woo Ping to direct other respected and celebrated films such as The Magnificent Butcher (1979) and Iron Monkey (1993), along with gaining legendary status as a fight choreographer. So not only is this film highly enjoyable it’s essential.