The action in Jackie Chan's 1978 martial arts movie Snake in Eagle's Shadow is endearingly low-budget — basically a ballet of violence in which someone occasionally gets killed, but no one gets hurt. The cartoonish characters — neatly divided into good and evil — dance and kick and elbow and somersault: It's a bit like watching those professional “wrestling” matches on TV in the 1970s, when Verne Gagne and The Crusher threw each other around with stagy glee.
As with any ballet, the music matters, and here it matters a great deal. The soundtrack has distinct echoes of Giorgio Moroder, the Batman TV series of the 1960s, and Scott Joplin, with the occasional violin thrown in to signal tenderness, and a clash of cymbals to herald the arrival of one of the innumerable villains. The music isn't exactly subtle, but it isn't bad, and, more important, it's useful in figuring out what's going on.
Chan (who, photographed from certain angles, resembles a young Bill Clinton, with all that alarming 1970s hair) plays Chien-fu, a half-witted floor scrubber at a martial arts school. Chien's duties include being beaten up by students whose parents require proof that they're getting their money's worth.
But when Chien meets the elderly, mischievously energetic kung fu master, Pai Chang-tien (a Yoda in a blue cape), his fortunes begin to change. From the old man he learns a variety of wicked new techniques, which the director, Yuen Woo Ping, puts on display in fairly endless fight scenes that often culminate in patently fake blood dripping from someone's mouth or nose.
When a promoter describes a movie star — Jackie Chan, for instance — as a “cult icon,” it's a euphemism for “limited appeal” or even “boring.” Snake in Eagle's Shadow isn't bad; it's just inoffensive and slight. The filmmakers turn frequently to crude slapstick to keep things moving — a set of chopsticks up the nose, an elbow to the balls, or a pair of fingers in the eyes, as in The Three Stooges. Ping's borrowing from everyone and everything is beguilingly direct, but after a while it begins to feel like a desperate Saturday Night Live skit that flaunts its ruthless unoriginality in a pitch for attention, even if it's scorn.
Snake in Eagle's Shadow looks patched together and improvised, and it's so eager to be liked that disliking it would be cruel. Jackie Chan, in particular, is ingratiating from beginning to end, even when he sends some evil wretch spinning and flying fecklessly into the dust. He doesn't mean to hurt people; he's just defending himself. But as hero material he comes up a bit short: He's neither handsome nor striking; he's a little too stocky to be sexily buffed; and he has nothing to say.
No one else really does, either, which makes the reading of the subtitles (including such howlers as, “I don't afraid!”) largely irrelevant. The movie would be a great silent feature, with just the pictures and music to say what's going on. But the characters do talk, and their lips and mouths are so far out of sync with the soundtrack that the picture looks as if it's been both dubbed and subtitled. (To make things even more involved, there are two sets of subtitles, in English and Mandarin.)
The movie does contain one astounding scene, of a house cat fighting off a huge hooded snake. (If the Hong Kong SPCA was on hand to supervise the filming of these sequences, the credits do not mention it.) The cornered cat hisses and squeals, knowing it's on the defensive, but it strikes repeatedly at the snake with claws that move fast-er than the eye, or the camera. In the end, a matchup that seemed hopeless for the cat ends in its victory, and the mauled snake lies motionless on the floor.
The cat-and-snake fight gives Chien the last bit of wisdom he needs to perfect his powers, and from that point the film's conclusion is no longer in doubt. In the world of Jackie Chan, how could it be?
Snake in Eagle's Shadow opens Fri, April 26, at the Roxie in