Review for Snake in the Eagle's Shadow
88 Films have figured out how to open my wallet for a title that I wasn’t really intending to buy. I have only seen Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow once, a late night Channel 4 showing many years ago now, an early showing in a Jackie Chan season, and one which compelled me to set my video for the subsequent few weeks to tape the rest of the films. But I never saw it again, and it faded from my memory to the point where it no longer was a priority. Announcing the film wasn’t enough to convince me, and announcing a collector’s edition release didn’t budge me either. And with their recent release of The Young Master, they’ve got pedigree when it comes to collector’s editions. In the end, it was the announcement that their licence was strictly limited, that you can only buy Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow until December 2021 that got me spending. It’s a marketing formula that makes me hate companies like Disney, but 88 Films get a pass, especially for a Jackie Chan movie. It’s also the first movie directed by Yuen Woo-Ping of Crouching Tiger fame.
The practitioners of the Eagle’s Claw have been hunting down and eliminating martial artists specialising in the Snake Fist. It comes to the point where there is only one Snake Fist master left, Bak Cheung Tin. In town, a rather more petty rivalry is burning between two martial arts schools sited next door to each other. Thing aren’t going well for the Hung Tai Martial Club, left temporarily in the care of the avaricious Master Lee. Lee also tends to pick on the school’s caretaker, a rather simple orphan named Gan Fook, who doubles as the school’s punching bag.
When the good natured Gan Fook saves a beggar from the attentions of some bullies from the school next door, the grateful beggar, seeing how Gan Fook is bullied in turn, decides to teach him some kung fu. There are three conditions though; Fook is to never call the beggar master, he has to keep what he learns secret, and should he ever see the beggar in a fight, he is under no circumstances to help. You can see why the beggar is discreet. Teaching a disciple the Snake Fist isn’t wise when they are being hunted by the Eagle’s Claw. And against the Eagle’s Claw, it may be that the Snake Fist isn’t enough.
Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow gets a 2.35:1 widescreen 1080p transfer, and the choice of PCM 2.0 mono Cantonese, Mandarin, and the English dub, with optional translated subtitles and a signs only track. The image quality is exemplary. 88 Films have done an excellent job in sourcing a quality print. It’s clear and sharp, free of print damage, with excellent detail and rich, vibrant colour. The anamorphic lensing gives the film a great sense of scope, and makes the most of the stylish action. There is no sign of compression or the like, and it’s a joy to watch. The same can’t be said for the audio though, as age and the quality of the 1978 source does tell. The simple mono Cantonese that I listened to is free of glitches or dropouts, and there are no moments of flutter, but this is one of those old tape tracks where the higher frequencies are subject to distortion, and the audio has a consistent harsh and thin feel to it. There is also a degree of hiss. But you will still recognise a handful of what we now call copyright strikes. The Death Star is almost destroyed on 4 occasions, and James Bond makes an appearance too. The subtitles are accurately timed and are free of typos, and easy to read.
Note that the UK release may have been downgraded from a ridiculous 18 rating to 12, but is still cut for animal cruelty (although the scene in question still does enough to get the story point across).
You get one disc in a BD Amaray case with a reversible sleeve. It’s wrapped in an o-card slipcover. Inside the case you’ll find a foldout poster which offers the sleeve art in a larger format, and there are four postcards too.
The disc boots to an animated menu and you’ll find the following extras.
Audio Commentary with Mike Leeder and Arne Venema
Audio Commentary with John Kreng and Kung Fu Bob
Interview with Roy Horan (58:42)
Interview with George Clarke (26:27)
US Opening Credits (4:20)
Hong Kong Opening Credits (1:39)
Hong Kong Trailer (4:01)
English Trailer (4:20)
US Trailer (2:59)
For a Jackie Chan completist, Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow is an essential film. It’s a sister piece to Drunken Master, made in the same year, and also starring Siu-Tin Yuen in a similar beggar/teacher role (apparently wearing the same costume and make-up as well). These are the films that made Jackie Chan a star, and both do much to subvert the well-worn genre tropes of rival kung-fu schools, and a protagonist on the search for revenge. Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow strongly establishes Jackie Chan’s underdog character, and it still adds much in the way of humour, downplaying the drama. It does after all have the inimitable Dean Shek in the role of Master Lee, a venal kung-fu teacher who cheats and tricks his way into gaining profit and reputation, and taking pleasure in bullying Jackie Chan’s Gan Fook.
It does play very much like a traditional kung-fu film when it comes to its story, even more so than Drunken Master. The big difference is that the two rival styles of kung-fu fighting for supremacy almost happens in the background, and when the story starts, it looks like the battle between the Eagle Claw and the Snake Fist is almost over. In the foreground of the story, the rivalry between the two Martial Clubs in town mirrors this, albeit with a more comedic edge. But it still centres on a main character becoming proficient in a style of kung fu that is exemplified in the film’s opening sequence, with the star demonstrating the style against a red background, before the movie starts proper.
The teacher is then attacked, and it falls to the protagonist to avenge his teacher, when things get serious for the action packed finale. But you can see the form starting to change from the usual clichés, most obviously with the level of comedy in the film; so much so that it actually diminishes the drama. Certainly the story element that the Eagle’s Claw have been going around killing all of the Snake’s Fist practitioners should engender more tension and threat than it does in the film. This is a film that never misses a chance to grab a laugh. You can also see that the casting is beginning to get a little more cosmopolitan, with Roy Horan playing the part of a duplicitous missionary.
Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow is in many ways a typical classic kung-fu movie, the sort of early Jackie Chan film that he was initially renowned for, before he reshaped Hong Kong action cinema with Police Story. But it’s the film’s place in history that is important, as with Drunken Master the two films delivered the one-two punch that made Jackie Chan a star. The most important thing is that the film is entertaining, a nice way to spend 90-odd minutes marvelling at some brilliantly choreographed action, and laughing at some silly antics. 88 Films impress me once again with brilliant image quality for the film, a nice package and some very useful extras.