Project A Review
For any Hong Kong movie regular who has not yet had the pleasure of Project A and is a little uncertain as to whether it will live up to your no doubt extremely high expectations then let me say right from the off that your worries are ill-founded! I too was one such person who although a huge fan of Hong Kong cinema (the martial arts genre in particular) I had yet to see Project A until this Hong Kong Legends DVD release and my expectations were as high as they could ever be. What with the huge following the film has, the fact it is considered to be a landmark title in Jackie Chan's career and of course my own appreciation for its actors and even the sequel that I had previously seen (repeatedly) which is a masterpiece in itself, those expectations were understandable.
I could continue this review by attempting to outline the many reasons why Project A is such a landmark film, but instead I shall briefly mention that this is the film that brought Jackie fame and fortune at a much needed point in his waning career after two failed US movie attempts that nullified the success of Snake in the Eagles Shadow and Drunken Master. Of course I should also mention that Project A was a massive box office success upon release but for this review my main focus point for why Project A is the landmark movie it so deservedly holds the title of is that it was the first movie in which the 'three brothers' co-starred. For those of you who are confused by the 'three brothers' then permit me to explain. Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao, all stars in there own right are often referred to as the 'three brothers' for they grew up together in the same Peking Opera School where they each learnt the trade they know so well. For martial arts fans the world over the teaming of these 'three brothers' is nothing short of a wet dream, and though many classics followed, Project A is where it all began.
At this point I should outline the films plot so here we go. Set around the turn of the century Project A sees Jackie Chan star as Sergeant Ma of the Hong Kong Marine Police, a much maligned force that attempts to protect the seas of Hong Kong from pirates but whose failures only cause them to be looked down upon by their fellow land based officers. After their plan (Project A) to wipe out the current Pirate King is brought to an explosive halt Sergeant Ma and the rest of the Marine Police are disbanded only to join the Police Force where they fall under the command of an old rival, Captain Tzu (Yuen Biao). When Ma and Tzu attempt to arrest a known criminal who is hiding out in a high profile gentlemen's club they are thwarted, not by the criminals but by their own superiors who are too caught up in the status of the gentlemen's club owners to even believe what their own men are telling them. This leads Ma to quit the force so he can seek justice in his own way that involves the help of an old friend, Fei (Sammo Hung), who also happens to be somewhat of a loveable rogue (and a thief depending on the circumstances) and Ma's saviour on several occasions. Already, fans of Jackie's films will see the emerging storyline that consists of Jackie playing the underdog policeman who is constantly at odds with his superiors, and by taking matters into his own hands he eventually saves the day and gains the recognition he deserves, and this is pretty much exactly how Project A pans out.
The story is solid if a little unoriginal (although to be fair this was the first time Jackie used the underdog character we all love so much from the likes of the Police Story series) and is delivered at a fine pace thanks to a great blend of action, comedy and plot sequences in just the right order to prevent you from ever looking towards your watch. Each of these elements are in no small way helped by the fact that Project A features a great cast of both main stars who we already know and a collection of great Hong Kong character actors and stuntmen including the likes of 'Mars' who, as a Jackie Chan stunt-team regular takes plenty of falls but also features as a marine police officer, and I must also mention that one of the greatest Hong Kong movie villains ever, Dick Wei, is also present as the Pirate King of the movie.
To elaborate on the key elements that make Project A so darned enjoyable we simply need to look at each of the three brothers and what they bring to the movie both separately and as a whole. First up is the films director and main star, Jackie Chan. As watchable as he has ever been Jackie has an enviable screen presence that simply draws you to him and as we all know he can certainly perform when it comes to the action sequences. Looking towards these sequences in Project A you will notice another first for Jackie where he (along with Sammo Hung who co-choreographed the action) moves away from the traditional long drawn out bouts seen in his previous hits to faster short bursts of martial arts action that have more of a brawl feel to them in this particular movie. The fight sequences are as you would expect superbly choreographed and equally well performed, though this method of action would not be perfected by Jackie until his 1986 classic (and a movie for which Project A is something of a prototype for) Police Story. Another first for Jackie in Project A is the use of major stunt sequences alongside the fights with the standout moment of this particular film being the now famous 'clock tower fall' that sees Jackie literally drop from a clock tower and land on the hard floor below him, three times!
Another area of Jackie's performance that I wish to briefly touch upon is one where he is often underrated and that is as an actor. The key sequence I feel for evaluating Jackie in this area is when he stands up to his British superior. The performance here really is very good (even if it is not Jackie's voice his facial expressions say all you need to know) and it is something you will see in many of his films from Project A onwards, but as these dramatic scenes only last for a few minutes Jackie's acting capabilities are merely judged on the overall performance that although very good (as I have already said he has a great screen presence) does not call upon Jackie to stretch to any great levels.
Up next is the bigger brother to Jackie and Biao, Sammo Hung. With him Sammo brings a fine performance as the loveable rogue Fei who treads a fine line between being a thief and a cop as he helps Sergeant Ma but at the same time, helps himself. Not only does Sammo excel in this role but he also helps create the many martial arts sequences that certainly have that 'Sammo touch' to them, by which I mean you can feel his influence as in general the action is more hard-hitting and for the finale far more violent than you would ever see in a solo Jackie Chan project. This however, is to many fans and myself a welcome touch, as Jackie rarely looks this good fighting other than when he is performing alongside Sammo. In this area you really are in for a treat as there is one particular fight sequence in a tea house where Jackie and Sammo are literally 'at one' with each other as they create a quite outstanding martial arts sequence that follows another equally enjoyable pairing where they showcase their great comedy timing in a chase sequence that in turn leads to another famed sequence of this film - the bicycle chase.
Finally we have the youngest brother, Yuen Biao, who as Captain Tzu is cast against type as he plays a rather stuck up police officer and is not particularly likeable for the films opening half hour. His character does however come around to the charming persona that we have all come to expect from Biao who like his co-stars puts in a fine performance, but is as you might expect, not one that calls upon a great deal of his acting talent. He does however shine in the action sequences with his always-breathtaking form (particularly those kicks!), superb acrobatics and equal comedic talent to that of his 'brothers'. Another great example of the magic that occurs when any of the 'three brothers' teams up can be seen in the films opening bar room brawl that sees Jackie and Biao face off against each other to music. This sequence again outlines the great timing this trio have with one another as Jackie and Biao hit all of their comedic and action marks with ease to create a thoroughly enjoyable sequence.
The finale of Project A brings together all three co-stars for yet more martial arts action and comedy moments that prove three is most definitely not a crowd when it is Jackie, Biao and Sammo working together. The chemistry between this trio is further heightened when they are up against a fine opponent, and in this case we have one of Hong Kong's greatest foes, the aforementioned Dick Wei who as the 'Lord of the Sea' San-po proves to be quite a formidable enemy that requires the combined efforts of all three characters to overcome for what truly is an explosive ending to a thoroughly entertaining and highly recommended movie.
This Hong Kong Legends 2-disc Platinum Edition of Project A is Region 2&4 encoded and like the previous Platinum Editions before it (Game of Death and Red Wolf) comes packaged in a slick looking cardboard sleeve that contains a number on the side (03 in this case as it is HKL third Platinum Edition title) to match that of the previous releases. Contained within the Cardboard Sleeve is the more traditional HKL style clear armaray case, though I was particularly disappointed (as I have been with previous releases to a certain extent) that they did not take the opportunity to use different (and preferably the original poster) artwork on the Armaray case design.
Presented in 2.35:1 Anamorphic Widescreen this is one of the best Hong Kong Legends transfers we have seen on a Jackie Chan title for some time now. With absolutely no sign of any form of cropping to be seen I am also pleased to report that the print sourced is in almost immaculate condition with barely a scratch or speck of dirt to be seen. The only hint of wear and tear on the print comes in the form of some slight horizontal fading on the top and bottom of the widescreen image that is only really noticeable on dark sequences and for the majority of viewers will not present you with any problems. In all other areas the transfer is extremely good. Detail is pleasingly high with scenes such as the Marine Police on parade looking quite exquisite while grain is kept to a bare minimum and is only really noticeable on occasion. Colour reproduction is also handled well with natural looking skin tones and vivid colour reproduction throughout that is only occasionally marred by a slightly soft look to the proceedings, though this rarely effects the equally well handled black levels. The only other thing to say is that there were no signs of compression problems on this quality presentation.
The original Cantonese Language track is presented in an all-new Dolby Digital 5.1 remix alongside an optional English dub track. If you opt for my preferred choice of the original language then you will find yourself enjoying a well balanced remix that utilises the surround speakers to project Michael Lai's lively score, while the centre speaker offers you clean dialogue that is also directed to other speakers for effect should the scene require it. This is basically what a remix should be, it presents the original soundtrack in a restored format that takes advantage of the extra speakers but never to the point that it is in danger or ruining the original experience. The English DD5.1 Dub track offers the same basic mix but of course has English dialogue for those of you that prefer to not be reading the well presented optional English subtitles that contain no sign of spelling or grammatical errors, though the translation has thrown up a few concerns amongst the hardcore fan base. It should be noted however that while these issues are well founded (and need to be looked into by the team at Hong Kong Legends) they would hardly reduce your enjoyment of this great film.
Disc one only contains a few extra features so as to conserve space for the films encoding. The main additional feature present on the feature disc is another great Audio Commentary from Hong Kong Cinema Expert Bey Logan that betters anything else you will find present on this set. Bey delivers yet again as he covers every major and even the majority of minor actors seen in the film with biographical information for each. But as we have come to expect there is much more to enjoy as Bey also divulges several behind the scenes stories that he has picked up over the years, points out various actors and stuntmen including one of Jackie's main stunt team members (Paul Wong) over a dozen times (separate roles every time!) and most interesting of all, discusses his own thoughts on the films setting, how it came about and the many firsts that Project A contains for a Hong Kong Martial Arts movie. To top it all off Bey's enthusiasm for Hong Kong movies shines through at a greater level than usual that only goes to make this an even more entertaining listen.
Also present on the feature disc are UK Promotional and Original Hong Kong Theatrical Trailers for Project A (both presented in 2.35:1 Anamorphic Widescreen) and a 15-minute interview with Hong Kong Stunt God Mars who discusses his training in the Peking Opera school, his breakthrough into acting and his time working as a stuntman with Jackie Chan and his stunt-team. This is an interesting interview that like the rest of the extra features I will outline is presented in Anamorphic Widescreen (16:9 Aspect Ratio) with player-generated subtitles when required.
Upon inserting the Special Features disc into your DVD Player you will be presented with an animated map with the option to explore four sections that each open up to reveal the various features contained within. I shall tackle these four sections one by one below...
In The Tea House you will find a Campaign Art Gallery that comprises 10 stills of selected lobby and one-sheet artworks (very nice they are too) while a 26-screen text based extra feature chronicling the careers and friendship of the Triple Dragons Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao is both an informative and well presented read.
The Schooner is a section dedicated entirely to Yuen Biao. Here you will find an 18-minute interview with the Elusive Dragon where he discusses several subjects including his upbringing at the Peking Opera School where Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung also trained, his work with Sammo Hung and his thoughts on the action film industry. Biao comes across as being a very honest person and this makes the interview all the more interesting as I found myself really thinking about what he had to say on the many subjects that are sadly only touched upon rather than being discussed to any great degree. Also present in this section is a UK Promotional Trailer for The Prodigal Son, arguably Yuen Biao's finest hour (and a half) onscreen.
Moving on to The Clock Tower you will find the extra feature that makes up the bulk of this disc in the form of a 76-minute documentary entitled Project A - A Classic Revisited. Hosted by Bey Logan (who is in front of the camera for a nice change of pace) on location at the now defunct Marine Police HQ in Hong Kong this documentary takes a look at the production of Project A and just how important this film was to its director and star Jackie Chan. Split into several sections we are taken through the films Scripting, the Scoring of the film, a look at the Triple Dragons, the Bad Guys, and finally a look at the stunt and action sequences seen in the film. The large majority of this documentary consists of interview clips with various Hong Kong stuntmen, actors and crew members including all of those found elsewhere on this disc (which leads to some large crossover in terms of content especially in the 'Scoring the film' segment) as well as Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung, though sadly this is yet again merely archival interview footage rather than anything new. You will also find clips from interviews found on previous HKL discs with the likes of Pat Johnson (action choreographer on Battle Creek Brawl), Ng See Yuen (producer of Drunken Master), Richard Norton and more putting in appearances. The only new interview footage present comes from Project A co-writer Edward Tang who as you might expect mainly discusses the script. The many sections of interview footage and film clips from various Jackie Chan films are held together by Bey Logan as he travels around the Marine Police HQ and even visits the Clock tower from that famous point in the movie. However, after the interview footage the next most significant part of this documentary comes in the form of Daily Mirror film critic Jessica Mellor who takes us through Jackie's history in an overtly scripted fashion. Much like the interview footage that fans will have already seen the story Jessica tells will be well known which really proves to be the failing of this documentary as it does not offer a great deal of new information for seasoned fans. On the whole this documentary is somewhat of a let down but if you are a newcomer to Hong Kong Legends then it will surely entertain while there is enough new footage to justify watching the documentary for veteran fans, but it will most likely be a watch once affair. One final point on the documentary is that the lack of chapter stops is disappointing due to the length while it should also be noted that some of the Project A clips used have a strange echoe on the soundtrack.
Rounding off this section is Can't Stop the Music - An Interview with famed Hong Kong composer Michael Lai which is exactly as the title suggests. Running for just over 17-minutes this interview sees Lai talk (in English) about his career both in front of the camera and behind the scenes working on scores while he also discusses his work with Jackie Chan including specific scenes in Project A. Lai's enthusiasm and bubbly personality is shown to its fullest when he takes us through the creation of the main themes for both Project A and for Jackie's 1986 classic Police Story that proves to be a highly enjoyable experience for the fans.
The final section entitled The Pirate's Cave features interviews with the two lead enemies of Jackie in Project A. First up is Master Killer - an interview with Wing Chun Grandmaster Lee Hoi-san that running for just over 22-minutes proves to be another worthy addition to this disc. Lee Hoi-san is, for those not in the know, one of Hong Kong's most prolific 'bad guy' actors having been the final adversary in many a film such as The Magnificent Butcher and Kung Fu Master (in both he faces up to the mighty Sammo Hung). In this interview he discusses his lengthy career and how he really just strolled into it by accident, he also discusses the key differences between movie fighting and real fighting (as the title of the interview suggests Lee Hoi-san is a grandmaster in the Wing Chun style) before going on to show his admiration for the likes of Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung. The final two-minutes of this interview see Lee Hoi-san demonstrate a basic Wing Chun kata (Sui Lim Toh) for everyone to practice and this really rounds up a fine interview that will be a must for any fans of martial arts.
Last but not least is The Pirate's Den - At home with leading villain Dick Wei, a 14-minute interview with the pirate king himself that takes place in his home that houses a huge number of animals that Wei is very proud to show off, including some quite vicious looking pond life! In the interview he discusses his impressive Hong Kong movie career that unfortunately saw him typecast as a villain to the point that he eventually retired. As he discusses his work on a variety of films (including Project A) we are treated to several photos from Wei's personal collection that see him behind the scenes on a movie with Sammo Hung and also includes some publicity photos alongside Jackie Chan, Chow Yun Fat and several others that you may or may not recognise. This is another interesting interview that with the previous Lee Hoi-san interview only goes to prove what Bey Logan always points out in his commentaries - the actors that play the villains so well in Hong Kong movies are often the most interesting and friendly people off screen.
Project A thoroughly deserves its place in the history of Hong Kong Martial Arts movies and this Hong Kong Legends Platinum Edition is by far the best way to make it part of your collection. Without being too negative I have to say that the second disc of this set is slightly lacking in comparison to previous Platinum Editions as the bulk of it, the documentary, will almost certainly disappoint HKL regulars. Fortunately the first disc of this set more than makes up for any downfalls found on the second thanks to a striking presentation of the film and yet another engrossing audio commentary from Bey Logan, though the set is clearly not all it could have been.