Project A is a highlight of Jackie Chan’s filmography, and the movie I use to introduce those unfamiliar with Hong Kong cinema to the many and varied delights it delivers. However, Project A: Part II is my favourite Jackie Chan movie. It is perhaps one of the purest displays of Jackie’s talent for creating intricate action and comedy scenes, displayed so clearly that the skill behind their construction is almost invisible.
As if as a reminder of the high bar this film is attempting to clear, it opens with a recap of the original Project A. If you want to see that film’s highlights in context, watch it first, but it’s not required to watch this one; the basic set up of Project A: Part II is outlined early on. The first scene proper is rather a dark one, literally and thematically, with some washed-up leftover pirates from the first movie swearing a blood oath to kill Jackie’s character Dragon Ma.
The pirates are not the focus of the movie though, only popping up here and there to provide some spice to the rest of the proceedings. Now firmly land-based, former marine cop Dragon Ma is tasked with cleaning up crime in the streets, and the corruption in the offices of the police force. At the centre of all the shady business is Police Superintendant Chun (David Lam). Fleshing out the rest of the story are a wide array of characters: police officers both lousy and loyal, gangsters, Dr Sun Yat-Sen’s democratic revolutionaries, Qing loyalist agents and British officials. And don’t forget those wildcard pirates. The major characters played by Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao in Project A go completely unmentioned, but there’s still plenty going on and it mostly flies past at a breakneck pace. At less than two minutes long, a pause for Dragon Ma to make a speech outlining his everyman hero stance to the slow, syrupy-sweet, electric piano tinkling of the theme music feels like a lazy day watching a test match compared to a frenetic Twenty20 bash.
Although you may lose track of the whos and whys, most scenes are enjoyable in and of themselves. Trying to keep people hidden from each other in the same room or house is a comedy staple going back at least to the Marx Brothers and used often in Hong Kong films — and here you will see one of the most complicated examples of the form. Maggie Cheung’s character ends up with five sets of people hidden in her apartment, her increasingly desperate stalling tactic “Please excuse me, I’m changing”, as she answers each ring of the doorbell eliciting a bigger laugh or groan each time. Another hiding scene has some great visual comedy as Dragon Ma artfully attempts to blend into the background.
A noticeable trait of Jackie’s action style is variety and experimentation in the choreography, with less focus on martial arts and large doses of stunts, falls and props. Further marking the absence of Sammo and Yuen Biao, there’s very little straight fighting here, with Dragon Ma using the environment and whatever comes to hand to survive. Only once does he actually come out on top in a straight fight against his opponents, the rest of the time he just hangs in there until others can help him out.
He also spends a lot of time running away. A whole action scene features him doing just that while handcuffed to another person. Visual gags fly as fast as the thrown axes and you’ll likely only catch half of them the first time round. The finale ranges all over a market with Dragon using gear such as a centrifuge in ways health and safety officials would frown upon, all to keep a notebook of revolutionary names out of the hands of his enemies. (Didn’t they learn a notebook filled with members’ names was a bad idea back on the mainland in Once Upon a Time in China 2?)
As a final punctuation mark on his staying power due to sheer determination and lucky breaks, Dragon escapes the final, self-inflicted, danger of the film unscathed simply because he happens to be standing in the right place. As Jackie paid tribute to Harold Lloyd in Project A‘s biggest stunt, the tradition of honouring his silent film heroes is continued in Part II as this stunt references Buster Keaton in Steamboat Bill, Jr.
Project A: Part II also bears marks of Jackie’s increasing desire to prove himself as a director, with fancier use of the camera moving around large detailed sets. This would see its fullest flowering in Miracles a few years later, but there’s some nice stuff here even so. The camera doesn’t seem quite steady enough to be on a crane — there may be some Hong Kong improvised ingenuity at work — but some panning shots over and through street scenes impart a fine sense of time and place. The standout shot is a ballroom dance sequence that must have taken a great deal of planning with the cast and crew. Different couples glide in and out of a moving camera frame while delivering dialogue that furthers several plot points.
With so much stuffed into the movie, repeat viewings are needed to fully comprehend all the talent on show. I can’t quite bring myself to declare this equal to the more broadly accessible original, but yet another repeat viewing has convinced me Project A: Part II is still my favourite from Jackie’s catalogue.