by guest contributor Simon Rogg
“Project A” is an action-comedy masterpiece stuffed to the gills with stunts and set-pieces galore! Directed by and starring Jackie Chan alongside his childhood, Peking Opera ‘brothers’, Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao, it’s a period adventure set in early twentieth century Hong Kong and one of the most creative films Jackie’s ever made during his long career behind and in front of the camera…
Jackie was a pioneer of the modern Hong Kong action genre with such films as “Police Story” and “Dragons Forever”; not only through his fearless and dynamic stunt work but in his drive to be both original and learn from the best of the West. “Project A” is one of the most striking results of that style, a film which gently tackles themes such as modernisation and Western influence whilst simultaneously celebrating the traditional notions of martial brotherhood and Western comic idols.
Jackie Chan plays long-suffering Sergeant Ma of the coast guard , a man struggling to balance his honour as a naval soldier with the demands of keeping his men in check and staying ahead of the international politics of Hong Kong’s security forces. Everyone knows what Jackie puts his body through in terms of stunts, and in this film not only does he delivers in spades, but also turns in a fine performance in every sense. Yuen Biao plays Tzu, a police detective and rival to Ma, who’s forced to cooperate with him for the film’s namesake project. If there is anyone who can challenge Jackie for mastery of physical stunts it’s Yuen, and he’s well-cast as the younger, more pretentious detective who both learns and earns respect as the story progresses. Sammo Hung plays Fei, Ma’s former friend-turned-thief and the final piece of this unusual trio. Sammo’s playing the ‘cheeky rogue’ role it seems he was destined to play during this time and the physical and emotional foil to Jackie’s honour-bound soldier.
Hong Kong is under the growing influence of the British, but with increased international traffic comes the increased threat of piracy. The pirates are holed-up in a secret cave and are coordinating with local gangsters on the mainland to receive arms and information in return for safe-passage, keeping them one step ahead of the coast guard.
As the coast guard get set for a massive offensive against the pirates, Sergeant Ma (Jackie Chan) and his men begin drinking the night away in a local pub, alongside the police with whom they share a fierce professional rivalry. As the beer flows, men become rowdy and tempers flare, finally a hilarious fight breaks out between the sometime-foes, with Ma and Tzu (Yuen Biao) at the centre of the fray.
Just as they’re set to begin the operation, disaster strikes: the coast guards’ ships are blown up. Disgraced, due to their brawling and loss of ships, the men of the coast guard are taken under the authority of Tzu to re-train as police officers. After a back-and-forth series of pranks and cruel training exercises Tzu and Ma are given their first mission: to track down a gangster in a well-connected members club. Tzu and Ma’s unorthodox, brash styles complement each other but Ma simply can’t work within the police’s politics.
Meanwhile, expert-thief Fei (Sammo Hung) is hired to steal army rifles and when he spots his old friend Ma, he sees an opportunity. Fei tricks Ma into helping him steal the rifles by promising to uncover corruption within the police. When Ma learns he’s been duped he hides the rifles, putting Fei at odds with the gangsters and reluctantly on the same side as Ma and the police themselves.
Frustrated at losing their rifles, the pirates kidnap a British Rear Admiral. When Ma overhears his own Admiral engaging in secret negotiations with the pirates’ gangster contact he is enraged and shames the Admiral into reforming the coast guard and launching a daring raid with the police to free the prisoners and destroy the pirates once and for all. Ma goes undercover as a gangster and Fei tags along to steal what he can, forcing Ma, Fei and Tzu to team up in an action-packed battle against the pirate lord San Po and his horde.
The fights in “Project A” are a terrific showcase of the way that Jackie incorporates scene and props into the action. It all kicks off in a massive bar brawl between the coast guard and the police; bottles and chairs fly as the two gangs go to war. If you’re expecting crisp, traditional kung fu then look elsewhere, but this scene brilliantly blends headlocks and haymakers along with the acrobatic antics that Jackie and Yuen are renown for. The pair flip and fly kick over obstacles amidst the drunken chaos in a way that sets the tone for the rest of the film.
Jackie and Yuen then team up to tackle the imposing gangster Chow and his gang at the members club. Another set gets completely trashed and the stunt team take a pounding as Jackie steps up the action a notch, making this a more brutal and realistic fight than before. Countless chairs and tables are smashed over people in-between frantic kickboxing-style brawls, with the odd pro-wrestling style manoeuvre thrown in for good measure!
Jackie really shows off his creativity in the bicycle chase through the alleys of old Hong Kong. The tight spaces and labyrinthine streets provide opportunities that are as brutal as they are hilarious for Jackie to take down the pursuing gangsters, from jousting with bamboo poles to Van Damme-style splits between buildings. When he’s finally cornered Jackie teams up with Sammo to take out whoever’s left in a series of perfectly synchronised paired set-pieces that show off their impeccable timing.
Determined to still push the envelope, Jackie then takes the action to a clock tower, where handcuffed, he attempts to shake-off one final opponent. This fight plays out like a frenetic chess match in-between the cogs and machinery of the giant clock, and as always, physical comedy is as important as the fighting itself. In a nod to comic legends of the Hollywood silent era, Jackie takes the action outside for one of the most epic stunts of his entire career: a free fall from the tower to the ground through cloth canopies; no wires at all. Jackie actually did this stunt three times before he was satisfied he’d caught it the way he wanted it and it’s worth watching the film for this scene alone!!
The final showdown takes place on San Po’s island as the coast guard battle the pirate horde. As they cut off the entrances to the lair they manage to isolate San Po but he proves a definite match for just Ma or Tzu. Swords, daggers, grenades and guns all make an appearance but it’s the kung-fu battle between San Po against the combined powers of Ma, Tzu and Fei that takes centre stage. Dick Wei does a great job as the physically imposing San Po, an opponent who, despite a stereotypical pirate limp, is also a fierce fighter and ruthless swordsman. However, despite the excellent performances and impressive choreography there’s something not quite up to par about this scene. The climax wraps up the plot admirably but it’s simply the case that Jackie packs so much creativity into the earlier scenes, often allowing one element to go to the extreme – whether stunts or comedy – that this scene just doesn’t stand out in comparison. It has a bit of everything, and Jackie, Yuen and Sammo certainly have the kind of chemistry that only comes from years of collaboration and dedication, when the credits roll, don’t be surprised to find yourself revisiting those master-class, jaw-dropping scenes offered earlier in the movie!
The plot about disgraced coast guard operatives being drafted into the police isn’t always the easiest to follow but Jackie still injects a decent amount of story and heart into the film which is so thoroughly memorable for its set-pieces. Jackie, Yuen and Sammo make the action look so fluid and impressive it’s easy to forget just how much work went into each pulse-pounding scene. Although they’ve work together several times over their careers, “Project A” is a serious contender for their finest effort…
In fact, “Project A” is without a doubt one of the best films Jackie Chan made during what is often regarded as the golden-age of his long career. Despite being about 30 years old, the stunts and the action are so impressive that they stand-up against anything else you will see. If you think action films need CGI to impress; think again. Jackie and his stunt team put life and limb at serious risk throughout every action scene, but it’s Jackie’s personal blend of comedy and stunts that really sets it apart. There’s a reason why Jackie’s films have been as popular as they have in the West, he understands that comedy and action are international languages, and “Project A” must feature highly on any action fan’s list of ‘must see’ films, regardless of what language you speak!
Jackie Chan was a huge fan of Western films and often compared his own work to that of current and past hits. In this film he wanted to pay homage to comedy legends of the silent era, namely Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd, particularly in the famous clock tower scene. Even though it breaks the ‘fourth wall’, Jackie actually shows two separate versions of the fall from the clock tower in the film to emphasise the sheer spectacle of the stunt itself.
Film Rating: 9/10