Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow is one of the better films from Jackie Chan’s early career; though the story will be familiar to fans of this style of martial arts film, it has the energy and comedic timing that has really served to differentiate Jackie’s work in kung fu filmmaking from that of others. It’s directed by master of the genre Yuen Wo Ping, who should need no introduction, and co-stars the director’s father, Simon Yuen, in a similar role to the ones he played in Drunken Master and Dance of the Drunk Mantis. Our chief evildoer is Hwang Jang Lee, a kicker par excellence and a mainstay of Jackie’s films of the late seventies and early eighties.
The story follows Chien Fu, an orphan who was taken in by a local martial arts teacher, who gave him a place to sleep and a job: cleaning the school and doing the odd jobs. Chien’s a little slow, but kind-hearted. His master’s away for most of the film, and the school is left in the care of two rather inept teachers, played by Dean Shek Tin and Fung Ging-man. Teacher Li (Dean Shek Tin) delights in tormenting Chien, even using him as a punching-bag for demonstrations to the class.
At the same time, we see Shang Kuan Yin (Hwang Jang Lee), a master of eagle claw kung fu, tracking down and killing all the remaining masters of snake fist that he can find. Only a few still evade him, chief among them Pai Chang-tien (Simon Yuen). Pai’s managed to avoid detection for so long by living as a beggar and avoiding the use of his kung fu, although he’s not above a little comic acrobatics every now and then.
Pai ends up meeting and then later staying with Chien, who he sees being mistreated by Teacher Li in their master’s absence. Out of compassion, he offers Chien the chance to learn kung fu, teaching him Snake Fist to the rather unnerving accompaniment of Jean-Michel Jarre’s Oxygène on the soundtrack. Needless to say, Chien uses his new-found skills to defend his master upon his return, and is observed by the cunning Shang. Shang’s found a new student of Snake Fist, which means Pai can’t be far away.
All three lead performances in this film are great: Jackie plays the slow but well-meaning orphan kid well, although without much of the comic trickster overlay he developed in later films. Simon Yuen is excellent as Pai, a sort of prototype of the ‘drunken master’ role that he made his own in later films. Hwang Jang Lee is thoroughly nasty, devoted to his mission of wiping out a complete school of martial arts, and willing to use every trick in the book to manage it.
In Australia (and in several other regions, I think), this film sells on DVD as a double with Drunken Master. That’s an excellent deal; both films are directed by Yuen Woo Ping, and show Jackie as he was just about to emerge as a superstar of action film.