It’s Pure Kung Fu Theatre and Somehow, ‘Star Wars’ in ‘Jackie Chan Beginnings’

There was a time not long after the death of Bruce Lee that everyone was looking for the next martial arts master to fill his yellow and black sneakers. Thus the screen was filled with pretenders to the pagoda in the likes of “Bruce Le”, “Bruce Li” and “Dragon Lee”. There was, however, one martial artist and actor was seriously considered to be a contender for the title of “The Next Bruce Lee”, that being one Jackie Chan.

Before Chan became a comedy/ action icon in the US, he was a Kung Fu movie staple who showed up in (often poorly) dubbed films for the international market that often showed up in grindhouses, drive-ins and the popular “Kung Fu Theater” type anthology shows in the United States. Due to the impact of Chan and Lee’s films a(and those like them), there is still a lot of interest in the classic age of Kung Fu flicks, but while Lee’s films receive the deluxe treatment in The Bruce Lee Legacy Collection and the Enter the Dragon: 40th Anniversary Edition Blu-Ray, Chan’s early films remain in the same humorously dubbed classic style that grindhouse fans are sure to love.

Take Fortune Star’s new double feature collection “Jackie Chan Beginnings: Snake & Crane Arts of Shaolin / Magnificent Bodyguards”, for example. This single disc is nearly bare-bones when it comes to bonus features (a trailer and photo gallery for each is all we get) and contains a mostly-clean, but hardly high-definition transfer of each film. Further, the films themselves are the international English versions with the dubbed English audio being the only option for viewing. This, of course, is also a lot of fun for grindhouse fans, even if this means the films are being watched while the viewer is actively pumping irony.

Snake & Crane Arts of Shaolin (1978), from director Chen Chi Hwa, features Chan as Hsu Ying Fung, who is legendary in ancient China for being the keeper of the martial arts book Eight Steps of the Snake and Crane, with the secrets of the ultimate Kung Fu style found within its pages. While that may be questionable to some characters, virtually every character in the entire film is racing and fighting to get their hands on this book and unlock the secrets of the “Snake and Crane” style of Shaolin fighting.

Whether the book is the real McCoy or not, the real Jackie Chan misses no opportunity to prove that he is in possession of the ultimate Kung Fu style. Chan ranges from the casual, one handed beat down (which he often performs without even standing up or breaking a sweat) to the all out, weapon-wielding, man-throwing, face-kicking melee that the best and the worst films of this kind have in spades.

Of course, no matter how skilled the punches, each time they connect there is a loud and cartoonish slapstick bang, also a hallmark of the genre. This is so much a staple of Kung Fu movies that every Bruce Lee film featured these also, however, in Snake & Crane, we’re also dealing with a series of cartoonish-sounding voiceovers (at the time of this film’s dubbing, many of the best voiceover artists were, in fact, cartoon voice actors). The overall result is very much that of Kung Fu Theater with a lot of very impressive fight scenes (the plot is secondary and exists to lace together these fights) and a lot of comedic moments… mostly unintentional.

Jackie Chan in a lighter moment in Magnificent Bodyguards (1978)

Film fans may recognize the opening credit’s music as the same piece that graced the credit sequence from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, however even casual fans will recognize the score to the second film in the double feature, Magnificent Bodyguards. The reason the music is so unmistakable is that Magnificent Bodyguards lifts, almost wholesale, the entirety of John Williams’ score from Star Wars.

Frequent Bruce Lee director Lo Wei also directed Magnificent Bodyguards (1978) but the film doesn’t quite hold up to The Big Boss or Fists of Fury. Here, Chan portrays Lord Ting Chung, a bodyguard hired to escort a sickly man through a dangerous and crime infested part of Ancient China. Need I tell you that mayhem ensues? Well, mayhem ensues.

Magnificent Bodyguards features Chan in an incredible head of hair that you’ll have to see to believe. Whether his wig-maker or hairstylist is to be credited, I have no idea, but it’s quite a site to see. The film also features an intriguing plot of identity theft, intrigue and subterfuge and leads to a thrilling end, but Magnificent Bodyguards has both the same benefits and the same liabilities that Snake & Crane has when it comes to comical dubbing and sound effects. This is in addition to the surreal strangeness of finding Star Wars music enhancing often poorly matching scenes. That said, the fight scenes borderline on the epic and at worst, Jackie Chan is always great fun to watch.

“Fun” is the key word here, and while neither film is purely a cartoonish comedy, it’s also true that if there are more deeper, symbolic or social levels to either Snake & Crane Arts of Shaolin or Magnificent Bodyguards, these appear to be largely lost in translation. For fans of Chan and the ever-exciting “Kung Fu Theater” style as well as fans of the Hong Kong style of filmmaking (and fighting), this bargain-priced double feature may belong on your shelf. For the target market of international films with multiple audio tracks, subtitles and more extras than you can shake a stick at, this is still a bare bones release and hardly satisfactory for the collector.

RATING 5 / 10