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Film review: Snake in the Eagle's Shadow

Published: Tuesday, June 11 1996 12:00 a.m. MDT

Back in 1977, Jackie Chan was just starting to get his footing as a unique martial arts comic-actor, and "Snake in the Eagle's Shadow" (a.k.a. "The Eagle's Shadow") is, in retrospect, a delightful transition piece for what was fast becoming a tired genre.

In "Snake," martial arts fans — and Jackie Chan fans, which are not necessarily the same thing — can see the young Chan literally kick-starting a whole new era in kung fu movies.

In keeping with the tradition of such pictures in the late '70s . . . what might be called the leftover Bruce Lee era . . . "Snake" is set in ancient China, as disparate factions who adhere to various old-world fighting styles have declared war on each other.

Chan has the central role, as a dimwitted young servant at one of several martial arts schools in town, and since he is constantly picked on by teachers and students who know he won't fight back, he's become a human punching-bag. (When he's scrubbing floors, Chan takes on the air of a kung fu "Cinderella.")

Of course, he's also quite agile and athletic, and eventually Chan finds himself taken under the wing of an old kung fu master whom he befriends. (The old man is masquerading as a homeless peasant and Chan takes pity on him.)

The main story has the film's bad guys, those who practice the "eagle claw" style of fighting, trying to exterminate the old master, who is the last of the "snake fist" fighters.

This provides plenty of opportunities for "tournament-style" one-on-one combat, and since this film eschews the supernatural elements that began to dominate such films in the next decade, it's all carefully choreographed.

Because Chan's character doesn't really learn to defend himself until about halfway through the film, there are quite a few fights with other martial artists. Some are OK, but the film really catches fire when Chan goes into his routines, intricately designed fight scenes that employ plenty of slapstick comedy.

As fans know, plot doesn't really matter much in a Jackie Chan movie — even one of his older pictures. The storyline is there simply as a device to hold up the fight sequences. And though there are some lulls and the film feels a bit long, it's in high gear whenever Chan's clever choreography takes center stage and he embellishes old-fashioned fighting styles with hilarious sight gags, his own amazing dexterity and a few hair-raising stunts.

Chan fans will be in kung fu heaven.

"Snake in the Eagle's Shadow" is not rated but would probably get a PG-13 for plenty of violence and mayhem (though largely bloodless). There are also a few cuss words.