Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow / Drunken Master (Twilight Time)
Boyish, baby-faced Jackie Chan trained at the famed Peking Opera Academy, had an early career as a stunt man, supporting player and fight choreographer in scores of Hong Kong films, and was unexpectedly chosen as “the next Bruce Lee” in a series of stiff, serious revenge adventures. This misguided attempt almost ended his shot at stardom before it began; Jackie’s charms have everything to do with his outgoing personality and self-deprecating humor, and an acrobatic fighting style schooled in Chinese Opera. After a series of super-serious action film flops his career was practically written off. Then producer Ng See Yuen paired the young performer with director Yuen Woo-ping for a pair of films that played up his strengths. The rest, as they say, is history.
In Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow (Hong Kong, 1978), Jackie plays a menial servant in a school for martial arts who saves the life of an aged vagrant (director Yuen Woo-ping’s father Yuen Siu-tin, aka Simon Yuen), who just happens to be a martial arts master on the run. Cut to training sequence, toss in the sight gags, and unleash Jackie’s Chinese Opera style. It was the first time that Jackie got to display his gymnastic martial arts style and his facility for physical humor and it was a success, which of course demanded an immediate follow-up.
It took so long for Hollywood so long to finally find a way to harness the unique mix of martial arts mastery, dance-like grace, playful humor, and giddy charm that had made Jackie Chan a superstar throughout the rest of the world that he was almost too old to show off the extent of his physical prowess on display in his most jaw-dropping sequences. But if it curtailed his most daring physical stunts, age has not slowed his output and he’s returned to China as active as ever. Which is not to say his films are as good as ever—even with the variety of genres letting him jump from action comedy to thriller to drama, they are in inconsistent bunch—but even in the sloppiest films, Chan is a joy to watch in motion.
In Railroad Tigers (China, 2016), Chan is the leader of a scruffy band of rural railroad porters who stage raids on Japanese trains running through occupied China in World War II. They drop into moving trains, steal food for the villagers, and leave their mark by drawing flying tigers on the bodies of the unconscious Japanese soldiers and engineers, often badly drawn that the authorities can’t always make out the images. So yes, it’s an action comedy as well as a period caper and a mission movie, and Jackie shares stunt duties with a cast of younger actors. It’s not just Jackie who stars but the award-winning Jackie Chan stuntman association.
The opening heist is a terrific sequence, directed by Ding Sheng with a rollicking energy I haven’t seen in Jackie’s films for some time, and it raises hopes for a better film than the one that finally leaves the station and sends the squad of amateur guerrillas on a military mission to blow up a key bridge on the Japanese supply lines.
But for this entry, I’m going to give some love to the B-movie of the week. From Paris With Love (Lionsgate), starring John Travolta as a cowboy of an American agent and Jonathan Rhys Meyers as an ambitious but untrained low-level agent assigned to assist, is another of Luc Besson’s English language Euro-action films, the contemporary equivalent to the drive-in action movie of decades past. As a producer, Besson has perfected the formula in a string of unpretentious but adrenaline-boosted movies: American/British stars in an otherwise French production, a simple narrative without subplots or distractions, launched into with very little preamble and then carried on without taking a breath until you arrive at the end of the ride. This is simply another variation.
Tarsem Singh’s The Fall may not be the best film of 2008, but it is was one of my greatest joys of the year, a lovely reminder that stories don’t belong to the teller. They have a life of their own. They live in the hearts and minds of those who hear them, read them, see them, whose experiences ricochet and reverberate off the characters and narrative turns and story details, expanding and enriching them with their own personal meanings. Tarsem Singh’s second feature is a glorious embrace of narrative innocence directed as a deliciously, vividly visual phantasmagoria of an adventure fantasy. As an injured silent movie Hollywood stuntman (Lee Pace) with a broken heart spins his make-believe epic to little immigrant girl Alexandria, a child migrant worker in the orange orchards who broke her arm in a fall, their respective personal experiences and cultural references mix for a story that shifts with each new addition and adjustment. It’s like a Terry Gilliam film directed by Zhang Yimou, with a script concocted by a child. Shot all over the world, it’s stunning to look at and a charge to see the travelers make their through a world where you can leap a continent just by crossing over the next rise. The story imagery and character identities are equal parts imagination and appropriation from the real world, and those connections, far from being deeply symbolic, are almost naively direct reflections of their respective emotional lives. It’s a sophisticated film about the naive pleasures of stories and storytelling.
Director Tarsem solos on one of the two commentary tracks in a near monotone of a voice, but packs his talk with illuminating observations and interesting production details. Actor Lee Pace and co-writers Dan Gilroy and Nico Soultanakis are only slightly more animated and far less informative in their track. Also features two deleted scenes (running barely 90 seconds) and two behind-the-scenes featurettes (that together run almost an hour).
It’s also available in beautiful Blu-ray edition. I review the film in my MSN DVD column here.
Wong Kar-wai’s English language debut My Blueberry Nights has been getting pummeled by the critics. Maybe it’s just me, but I loved this film.
It’s classic Wong, circa Chungking Express, Fallen Angels and 2046: the short story format for tales about impossible relationships, unrequited loves, damaged loves, broken romances, and wounded hearts traveling to distract from the hurt. This is a kind of storytelling I love, about moments captured in time, about the sensuality of image, about the overwhelming emotional assault of loving and living. Norah Jones is no Faye Wong, but she has a face just as lush and open and Wong loves to look her and redirect our perspective through her wide eyes.
What is it about the American road movie that so attracts foreign directors? Blueberry isn’t anything like Paris Texas, except perhaps for the broken relationships and a score by Ry Cooder, but both are visions of America from the eyes of a foreign filmmaker making a first-time English film, complete with the romanticized baggage they bring. For Wenders, it’s the frontier, the myth of the cowboy loner in a civilized world, and the responsibility of the man to repair his family and own up to the damage he’s done. For Wong, it’s the confounding world of broken relationships and messy emotions that drive us to either smother or flee the ones we love. It’s no coincidence that Jones’ character, Lizzie, changes the name on her name tags with every new job.
Darius Khondji’s cinematography pushes the signature style that Christopher Doyle created for Wong, super-saturated colors and skip-frame effects that momentarily freeze images to isolate fleeting moments, with even more discreet camerawork, shooting through windows, from behind display cases, around furniture, as if eavesdropping.