Thoughts On: Project A - The Quintessential Action Hero

11/04/2018

Project A - The Quintessential Action Hero

Thoughts On: Project A (A計劃, 1983)


Made by Chan Kong-sang, a.k.a Jackie Chan, this is the Hong Kong film of the series.


Almost as soon as people started to film things, celluloid figures started punching, slapping and kicking one another - and they haven't stopped since. There is, however, a very definitive line in the sands of cinematic history. For the action genre, there are works pre-70s and post-70s. It was the 70s that saw technology expand and cultural influences mingle in a global post-New Wave and New Cinema era. The western and war film, for Hollywood, then became the action and fight films we know today via adventure, crime, thriller and buddy cop movies. In addition to this, however, there comes a huge influence from the Hong Kong wuxia. Apart of Hong Kong and Chinese film history since the silent era, the 'martial heroes' film was a version of fantasy with its foundation in not just fighting or 'wu' (martial; combat), but, as the idea of 'xia' (hero) implies, an individual's fight. An expression of combat as a form of philosophy and art, almost a combination of dance and ethics, the wuxia came over to America primarily on the shoulders of a man we all know: Bruce Lee. Notably, however, Lee was a pioneer in his own regard, being on one of the early proponents of a modern version of mixed martial arts that wouldn't have found its way to many screens at all before him.

It was the meeting of the wuxia, Bruce Lee's MMA, the new state of film and the American action genre sensibility as it was in the 60s that planted the seeds of the modern action blockbuster and saw it flourish throughout the 70s. And whilst many look to Bruce Lee's American films as birthing points of the modern action film, which is completely undeniable, it seems fair to say that the modern action film really came to maturity in the 80s. And it is in my belief that Jackie Chan made some of the greatest steps for action in cinema during this time, constructing one of the greatest action films of all time with Project A.

Who are the greatest stuntmen who double as actors in all of cinema? The answer is pretty simple: Buster Keaton and Jackie Chan. Who are some of the greatest fighters to appear on screen? Bruce Lee, Scott Adkins, Donnie Yen, Jean-Claude Van Damme and Jackie Chan--to name a few. Who are the greatest physical comedians on film? Charlie Chaplin, The Marx Brothers, Jim Carey, Rowan Atkinson... Jackie Chan.

Pound for pound, Jackie Chan is probably the greatest all-round figure of action - action as conflict, expression and emotion in motion - in cinema. It is then the likes of Project A and Police Story that are representative of his best work with Chan serving as director, stuntman and comedic actor. His work has been analysed in depth before, his cinematic language in fight scenes, his chaotic use of the environment, his balance of comedy with action and his persistence with real stunts (it is in Project A that you see one of his most ridiculous stunts; falling from a clock tower in homage to Harold Lloyd and falling on his head--twice). Because I won't be adding anything too substantial with my comments on Chan's style, I'd like to not focus on this, but instead emphasise how important his place in film history is.

Bruce Lee's action scenes were based around persona, camera trickery and mass choreography; the exchanges were so often very short, representing one-on-one samurai fights or karate tournament exchanges as opposed to the all-out brawls fought at lightning speed and with impossible imagination that Chan engaged in. What shines from Bruce Lee's action scenes (beyond his persona) is his skill and ability as a fighter. However, this is limited by the melodrama and a lack of humour about what was sometimes completely ridiculous; Lee was so often an invincible force, and this didn't help build conflict. Whilst Bruce Lee's importance as a precursor to any of the martial heroes that came after him cannot be diminished at all, what Chan developed was action's ability to engage cinema's constructive abilities in a much more raw manner. He moved away from the special effects and the stylistic trickery - the zooms, mirrors and multiple exposure brilliance. Chan's genius lies in his ability to construct incredible fight scenes (with his fellow stuntmen, choreographers, etc.) for the camera, but have them play out as if he is not fighting to be seen, instead, just for his life. And this is the key difference been Lee and Chan that allowed Chan to go so much further with his action scenes, making them far more elaborate, athletic and engaging; Lee so often performs for the camera - at least, this is what we sense - the camera tries to keep up with Jackie Chan. You need only consider the function of eyes in each of their action scenes. Close-ups on Lee's face are a staple of his cinema; his eyes said and did so much for the tension and mood of a scene. You almost never pay any attention to Chan's eyes. Rather, it's his arms, his hands, his legs and face more generally that work together. Consider then the brilliant moments in which Chan shows pain, shaking his hands, dancing on his toes, rubbing his sores and opening his mouth wide; his whole body acts, not just his eyes. This makes his cinema far more dynamic, fluid, faster and wider. In such, the frame of Chan's film's can remain more distant and still be expressive; all whilst allowing more bodies to operate inside of it. When we see close-ups of Lee's face, enemies that step towards him are a blur and inconsequential. When we see Chan step back in pain, we recognise this, but also see and recognise enemies coming in. Because of the wide form, action continues fluidly, allowing for bigger and more expansive set-pieces that engage more movement and action within them.

This is what Chan developed like no other, and, just like Lee did, brought this into, not just the mainstream, but fundamental cinematic fight sense. Watch any action movies today - John Wick, Mission Impossible, Mad Max, The Raid, the Borne and Marvel films, etc - and you will then see the techniques that Chan's cinema utilised prioritised over those that Lee's employed. No one fights like Chan, especially when he was young - no one has, and maybe they never will. It is then unlikely that we'll see Chan's skill set equalled - and even far more rare for this to be integrated into comedy to a level that even comes close to his. Nonetheless, Chan's imagination, his fluid and long fight scenes that focused on a hero's weakness as opposed to his invincibility have become a world standard that all great action filmmakers seemingly aspire to.

Ultimately, Jackie Chan's place and importance in film history is simple; he is the creator and proponent of the greatest action scenes and the best action style ever put to screen--ever. Whilst there are incredible films such as The Raid, Flashpoint and more that have come out in recent years that certainly rival Chan's best scenes in terms of fight skill, there is a quality, imagination, brilliance and all-roundness about Chan's cinema that, for me, certainly has never been outdone. Donnie Yen then certainly marks a new step in action cinema, representing the integration of real and truly effective MMA into cinema. And whilst this is a great step, and an improvement on Chan's cinema that, for all its humour, would sometimes over-indulge old wuxia legends with their mantis, snake, tiger, etc. styles, Jackie Chan still did more in my view; he pulled in so much to the action scene, taking what figures like Bruce Lee set the foundations for and blowing them up entirely - so much so that his fight scenes are not dated yet--they may be when fight realism becomes more of a norm, but for now, his work in the 80s remains some of the best in all of action cinema.

To conclude, in my view, Chan is the best action hero of all time, as important to cinema as Buster Keaton is. If you have not seen any of his earlier works and only know him for the likes of Rush Hour, please check out Project A or Police Story as a start. That said, what are the greatest action films of all time in your view? Who is the bets action hero?

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