Today’s Trillion Dollar Movie, Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow, helped transform an upstart 24-year-old actor into the world’s most recognized martial arts star. The performer: Jackie Chan. While the film Drunken Master was Chan’s first huge breakout hit, Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow — shot immediately before Drunken Master in 1978 — gave Chan his first genuine opportunity to define his acting style and create the screen persona that his legions of fans would come to cherish.
Here, he begins to experiment with all of the signature elements of his style — the slapstick gags, the self-effacing humor, the exuberant fight scenes choreographed with pinpoint precision. The stuntwork is perhaps more rudimentary than in Chan’s most eye-dropping features, but this role still puts him through his paces, involving plenty of agility and physical stretching as a performer.
He plays a naive, bullied janitor, Chien Fu, who serves as a sort of a human punching bag at a local martial arts academy. His life is miserable until he’s accepted as a protege by Pai, a crafty old master trained in the Snake Fist fighting style. Pai’s motives aren’t entirely altruistic. He’s one of the last of his breed, as a rival school, the Eagle Claw, has waged a protracted war against the Snake Fist fighters and nearly wiped out the entire society. Pai sees Chien Fu as perhaps the last hope to defend the Snake Fist clan and prevent its extinction.
Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow not only established Chan as a rising star, but also burnished the reputation of first-time director Yuen Woo-Ping. On the basis of his work here and in Drunken Master, Woo-Ping enjoyed a long career as one of Hong Kong’s most successful action filmmakers, sought out by Hollywood to stage the fight scenes in The Matrix as well as Kill Bill. Enjoy, and do return again next Friday for another Trillion $ Movie.