Plot: A bitter rivalry exists between martial arts schools, as the practitioners of the Eagle’s Claw style wish to not only dominate the Snake’s Fist experts, but wipe them out in total. Meanwhile, a young man named Chien Fu (Jackie Chan) toils at a martial arts compound and dreams of being a real fighter, but instead he is harassed and picked on by the others. He might not be a world class fighter, but Chien Fu has a good heart and it shows when he helps an old man in the streets. As it turns out, the old man is a grand master of the Snake’s Fist style, the last surviving representative, Pai Cheng-Tien (Siu Tin Yuen). The grand master decides to teach his dying art to Chien Fu, who is eager to learn, but knows he must keep his new skills a secret, as Snake’s Fist warriors are still hunted down by the Eagle’s Claw members. But can he find a way to enhance his newfound style and overthrow the tyranny of the Eagle’s Claw?
Entertainment Value: Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow is a landmark movie for several reasons, not the least of which is that it established Jackie Chan as a bankable star and launched him into stardom. The movie also showed the incredible potential of mixing martial arts and humor, especially with Chan in the central role. I also think it is one of the better martial arts movies around, as it is so much fun and features high energy, super fun combat and training sequences. The teacup scene is an all time classic, as Chan exhausts himself trying to get a hold of the cup, only to have the master keep it just out of his reach in creative, humorous ways. That blend of masterful choreography, humor, and Chan’s charisma is on showcase often here and you never have to wait long to see a fight or kinetic exchange break out. Although the film is loaded with fun battles, my personal favorite has to be between Chan and a sword wielding, kung fu preacher, as it is so wild and fun to watch. I also love the dynamic between master and student in this one, as it avoids some of the existing cliches and gives us a master who is skilled, but kind and that changes things up from the stereotypical cruel teacher. This movie pumps a lot of fresh blood into the martial arts formula, using new tricks and methods that in time, would become genre conventions.
The fight scenes are expertly crafted, but the movie also relies a lot on humor and charm, which Chan provides in the lead. Although he had obvious talent, he struggled to find a breakout picture prior to this one and endured a series of flops, though he would finally unleash his full potential here. This is the Chan that would dazzle the world with humor, heart, and of course, fast paced and insanely fun martial arts action. I especially love the scenes between Chan and Siu Tin Yuen as his master, the banter is fun and the training sequences are pure gold. The pace here is brisk, with few scenes that don’t offer either action or humor, plus some oddball moments are thrown in. The bible thumping kung fu master, the literal snake vs. cat battle, and of course, the humor goes over the top at times, so there’s some funky elements in place. In the end, this is a crown jewel of martial arts cinema and such a wild, fun movie, so anyone with even a casual interest in the genre will want this in their collection.
The Disc: Twilight Time’s Blu-ray treatment features a beautiful transfer, one that looks super clean, but not overly scrubbed. The visuals show off great levels of fine detail, especially compared to the old DVD version. There is some light, inherent softness at times, but that is no fault of this presentation. You can choose between Mandarin, Cantonese, and English soundtracks, enable English subtitles, and opt for a track with isolated music and effects, if so you choose. The disc also includes Chan’s classic Drunken Master and the release is a limited edition, so don’t dawdle if you want this one in your library.