For the first few minutes, Heart of Dragon — often found with “a” bonus article between “the” second and third word — could have you guessing. The opening shot would be at home in a classic kung fu film. Moments later a yellow-bandanna-sporting Jackie Chan is pulling a funny face in close up. And then… is Jackie really machine-gunning a bunch of uniformed men without blinking? After the opening scene though, Heart of Dragon gets on with being what is mostly is, an earnest stab at serious drama. The original trailer marketed it as such, beginning with brief thoughts on the film from the singer of the theme song, which then plays along with a montage of character scenes. Perhaps front loading with some action was a reassurance to audiences the film isn’t all talking, since Heart of Dragon was the first time Jackie took on a dramatic role since he became a star in the late 70s. He has occasionally attempted serious films during his career (e.g. Crime Story) and with greater frequency as he has aged, finally pulling off in The Shinjuku Incident a straight drama without any comedy or action to fall back on.
There are a few lighter moments here and there in Heart of Dragon. The face-pulling most obviously, but the first scene also has a humourous cameo by indie director Fruit Chan and a barely noticeable moment where Tat (Jackie Chan) pokes fun at a SWAT commander (Lam Ching Ying) behind his back. Speaking of Lam Ching Ying, he adds to his impressive on-screen eyebrow collection here, which could possibly be classed as funny given how out of place it looks in the film’s setting. An avaricious grandma strikes an amusing cultural chord later on and a mostly gritty finale is briefly punctured by an inopportunely wielded shovel.
The action is also on the lean side. After the opening scene, it’s upwards of forty minutes before anything physically balletic breaks out again. Someone on the production even made the bold decision to cut two completed fights from this portion of the film, bringing the focus squarely back to the character drama. A later well put together vehicle chase actually feels superfluous, but the final showdown is earned and great to boot. The fighting is direct and efficient. Only Dick Wei’s lead henchman sticks around for any length of time. With Sammo directing and Yuen Biao providing choreography, Jackie’s character deals with opponents more harshly than usual, although this is supported by the story.
The location and lighting of this scene deserves particular props. Construction sites are strewn through action films like adjectives in restaurant menus, but this time it’s a fair dinkum building under construction and Arthur Wong’s cinematography takes full advantage. There are several shots giving a clear view of where various combatants are situated relative to each other, even across spaces broken up by obstacles across multiple floors. The location carries an ambient sense of threat to it as well, the shadows lit by sparking machinery, fires and flickering lights, revealing exposed rebar and hazardous drops, all punctuated by the clank of construction noise.
With the reduced action and absence of comedy, the drama comes under more scrutiny. Tat is the protagonist, a police officer who dreams of being a sailor — the porthole in his bedroom door being my favourite detail — but is anchored to solid ground as carer for his older brother Danny (Sammo Hung). I’m not sure what the original language calls his condition, but the subtitles I’ve seen refer to Danny as being mentally ill, whereas he clearly has a mental/intellectual disability. In any case, Sammo imbues his role with a child-like innocence that doesn’t feel patronising, even though the film can feel overblown in its portrayal now and then. The treatment Danny receives at times feels outrageous, being beaten by restaurant staff when he can’t pay for a meal, or openly mocked when looking for work. Maybe this was believable in a mid 80s Hong Kong cultural context?
There is nuance in the film’s story and acting. Most characters have an unlikeable side and even the kids Danny hangs out with take advantage of him, but the subtlety is sometimes undone by the film labouring to make a point. Tat’s motivation to propose to girlfriend Jenny (Emily Chu) is almost entirely selfish, vastly overstated by having his colleagues suddenly turn up and berate him for it. Danny rarely seems to respond to physical touch, so when he comforts a distraught Tat and the brothers embrace, it’s a weighty moment — that is almost washed away by Mang Hoi’s character watching and overacting.
I may be more prone to empathy with the characters because of my own life circumstances, but I still think the film overcomes these bumps to provide some decent drama. Despite the character’s foibles, the film makes Tat’s frustration relatable. Jackie does OK with a more rounded character, stretching some dramatic as well physical muscle. It probably helped playing brothers with opera school brother Sammo, as the pair had a lot of personal history to call on. (With Yuen Biao around as well and Yuen Wah and Corey Yuen Kwai in small acting roles, it’s a bit of a family affair!) Character growth basically stops for the film’s second half, when Danny’s misadventures get him caught up with some criminals, but it’s a chance for Tat to put his earlier decisions into action, ramping up the personal stakes for the climax.
Heart of Dragon wasn’t very successful at release. Jackie would follow this film with Police Story, which bears some thematic similarity in a desperate cop going outside the law to save the day, but with the comedy and action back in full force. It will be interesting to see what a new western take on the serious-Jackie-Chan-with-action formula brings to the table with The Foreigner showing in cinemas here this month.