Running Out of Karma is my on-going series on Johnnie To, Hong Kong and Chinese-language cinema. Here is an index.
Project A (Jackie Chan, 1983)
Comparing Project A to Sammo Hung's Wheels on Meals, released the next year in 1984, shows some stark differences between Sammo and Jackie Chan as directors. Both films are swashbuckling adventures with ridiculously athletic fights and stunts, slapstick comedy and a real obsession with beating the hell out of Jackie Chan. Both star Chan, Sammo and Yuen Biao. Sammo's film though tells a real story, about immigrants in Barcelona (granted, a Barcelona where everyone speaks Cantonese) that find themselves caught up in what we slowly realize is a fairy tale: three musketeers rescuing a princess from a castle. It isn't as socially conscious as Hung's Pedicab Driver (a great film which is now available to stream on Warner Archive Instant), but that little bit of grounding makes the escalating fantasy even more effective. It's packed with purely visual humor (the split screen gag in the opening moments, Sammo's variety of hats and Yuen's entire wardrobe) and moments of sublime absurdity (Wu Ma's "guy who thinks he's a clock"). Wheels on Meals is a true ensemble film, with Yuen and Chan sharing the lead and Sammo in support, like he is in almost all of his films from this period.
Project A, however, is a Jackie Chan-starring vehicle all the way. There are long stretches of the film where the other two Little Fortunes are entirely absent (Yuen has a large role as a rival cop in the first half of the film, then mostly disappears, Sammo pops in and out for some scoundrelly awesomeness). Chan is the prime mover of the plot and the true hero of a very thin story about Hong Kong's Coast Guard fighting a gang of pirates at some very unspecific time in the past. The humor is even more broad and less inventive, wild overacting (even by Hong Kong standards) and literal pie-in-the-face jokes (well, spaghetti-in-the-face). The plot barely makes sense, little more than an excuse for fights, sketchy gags and chase sequences (and of course a contextually nonsensical but nonetheless kind of stirring patriotic dressing-down Chan gives his British superior). The actions scenes are, of course, amazing: the coordination of the fights with Chan and Sammo (side by side, for the moment) is unbelievably fast and intricate, and these are some of Chan's most famous and inventive chases, especially the central bicycle chase, with Chan's exasperation toward the useless female lead (another unfortunate Chan trope) and culminating in a Harold Lloyd homage. But even the finale becomes overcrowded with extras and effects. The climax of Wheels on Meals gives each hero a highlighted fight, we see the differences in their personalities reflected in their fighting styles: Sammo's silliness, Yuen's gracefulness and speed, Chan's masochism. In Project A, the climax is a series of mistaken identity gags (which are, to be fair, pretty funny) followed by an all-too-brief mass fight punctuated by the repeated use of hand grenades (some brilliant falling stunts by Sammo here). The three unite to gang up on the villain Dick Wei (terrific here, wish he had a bigger part), but even in this fight, it's technology that wins as much as anything else.
Project A 2 (Jackie Chan, 1987)
The sequel is even more Chan-focused, as the other Little Fortunes are absent (they were off in the jungle making Eastern Condors) and Jackie is joined by a trio of women played by Maggie Cheung, Carina Lau and Rosamund Kwan, in an apparent nod to Tsui Hark's Peking Opera Blues and its trio of Brigitte Lin, Sally Yeh and Cherie Chung. The film picks up right at the end of the first one, with surviving members of the pirate gang vowing revenge on Chan. They end up poor and desperate in Hong Kong where they join the various factions trying to kill our hero. These include a corrupt cop with a penchant for inflating his reputation with fake arrests and a gambling den magnate/gang leader. The women are part of Sun Yat-sen's revolutionary group, and they try to get Chan to join up as well. As always, Chan refuses to take a political stand, rather than supporting one government or another he sticks to a personal ideology of honesty and righteousness. He's against corruption, aids the sick and helpless and protects the innocent. There's nothing wrong with any of those things, of course, but one can't help notice that this political vagueness also makes his films palatable for the widest possible audience, whereas more committed films like Tsui's, in which the female revolutionaries are the heroes and prime movers of the plot, make an unmistakeable political argument threatening to the powers that be.
Chan's political vagueness aside, I think this is actually even better than the first film. It expands and perfects his desire to pay homage to old Hollywood classics, with an extended sequence in Cheung's apartment that recalls A Night at the Opera (as well as a similar, but smaller-scale, sequence in Tsui's Shanghai Blues) and the finale ups the Harold Lloyd sequence from the first film by recreating Buster Keaton's most famous stunt (from Steamboat Bill, Jr.) The best sequence though is an extended chase with Chan and his rival cop handcuffed together and attacked by the ax-throwing pirate gang that starts in a restaurant and extends across the streets of the city. This is the pinnacle of Chan's slapstick kung fu style, avoiding the brutal masochism of Police Story (made between these two films in 1985), in which the light-hearted comic hero Jackie gradually comes undone at the abuse of his body perpetrated by the villains and his own choreographic imagination. The conclusion of that film is violent and cruel, as the hero resorts to a pure expression of murderous rage against his (captured and defenseless) enemy, part of a series of Hong Kong films in the 80s that seem to justify police vigilantism and brutality, also a popular trope in American cop films of the same era. As Chan's career went on, the cartoon of the Project A films became his default persona while the Police Story darkness, a natural outgrowth of the masochism of his early films, dissipated. But aside from a spark here and there, the films were rarely so good, becoming increasingly content to rest on audacity rather than ingenuity for his stunt sequences and awkward mugging for his comedy. And as his physical skills have declined with age, the hollowness of his work has become ever more apparent. Unlike Tsui Hark, or Lau Kar-leung, he's been unable to extend his directorial career into old age with any kind of success. He never really had anything to say anyway.