Snake and Crane Arts of Shaolin (1978)
Director: Chi-Hwa Chen
Writers: Hsin Yi Chang
Starring: Jackie Chan, Nora Miao and Hsin Yi Chen

The Plot: Every year the eight heads of various Shaolin schools were known to gather together in order to examine their own techniques, to find each weakness so that they could craft the most perfect form of Kung Fu known to man. This lead to the creation of The Eight Steps of the Snake and Crane. This secret Kung Fu style was written down and the book was thought to be lost whenever the eight masters all turned up missing. After several years, a young man named Siu Yin Fung (Jackie Chan) has turned up using the style and claiming to be in possession of the book itself. The young man has mentioned it enought that he has caught the attention of every Kung Fu school for miles around. They all want a piece of that book as well, but most especially The Black Dragon clan seem to want it far greater than the others. This insidious group wants to find Siu Yin Fung and dispatch of him so that they can rule the martial world, but as long as Siu Yin Fung remains in control of the Eight Steps style he is almost invincible. Will the Black Dragon gather the book or will this brave young man defeat them and uncover the secrets of the eight masters along the way?
The Review
Sure, we have all seen Legend of the Drunken Master as well as the Police Story films, that is a given. Even Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow and the original Drunken Master are quite popular amongst Jackie Chan’s work, but there are actually several titles from the earliest part of his career that any hardened fan should do their best to search out. Not because the films are all that spectacular or well made, but because its impossible not to love Jackie Chan and want to see as much of his work as possible! Snake and Crane Arts of Shaolin is one of the more obscure films (well, as obscure as any of his films could possibly be considering his popularity) from Jackie’s early days and really showcases how different his career started off in comparison to the direction that it would eventually take. Jackie was originally groomed to be a successor to the popularity of Bruce Lee, as so many actors were during this time, but it doesn’t seem that Jackie ever wanted to even attempt such as that. Snake and Crane Arts… ultimately shows Jackie in the closest I have ever seen to a Bruce Lee-esque role and although he does a good job here, it doesn’t really feel like Jackie.

Jackie chan has never been known to play the aggressor in the majority of his roles. Far more often he is that one character who is either looking for ways to avoid fighting, or is so outnumbered that the option of not fighting would be equated to suicide. Rarely however do we see him instigate any form of trouble. This is where Snake and Crane Arts… differs from the pack and shows another side of Chan than what viewers may be familiar with. Jackie seems to fit into the arrogant role that Bruce Lee sometimes slipped into during his movies, and although his fighting style here takes on the more traditional prolonged series of offense/defense maneuvers rather than the one punch/kick knockouts that Bruce Lee often offered up, you can certainly feel a certain level of the hero-worship that was prevalent in Bruce Lee’s work. Jackie is ultimately invincible in his role as the one character who has mastered the Eight Steps of Snake and Crane. This leads to many fun moments throughout the film, where Jackie gets to let loose and have fun, but he is at no point the vulnerable every-man that you might expect him to be.

Although there is a bit of comedy to be found here, for the most part Jackie is the straight man in the face of all of the silly people who surround him. The comedy tends to be a bit on the cliche side of things, as the gags rarely seem fresh or inventive. The film features two of my least favorite staples of the genre, the bucktoothed comic relief and the female who dresses in male clothing and yet no one can recognize her for her feminine side. This can give you an idea for the film’s level of comedic value. You can only see these repetitious concepts so often before the novelty is truly worn away. The big toothed character wears out his welcome within the very first few minutes that he graces the screen, and while I liked the adorable girl who plays the street urchin, she can grow tiresome at times too, due to her over-the-top clamoring for comedy. The film can be a real mixed mag when it comes to humor, especially when we see Jackie playing it safe on the sidelines as our requisite “straight man”. A role that he plays without any kind of excitement or sarcastic wit. It’s hard to imagine that in the same year this film was made, that Jackie would help re-invent Kung Fu comedy with his classic Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow. I guess the main difference there would be in the fact that Yuen Woo-Ping was sitting in the director’s chair, and in this film he is not.

The main problem with Snake & Crane Arts… comes from it’s sore lack of direction. The Kung Fu genre has been heavily criticized in the past for its lack of narrative, with its loosely stringed together plot devices that are only there to enable prolonged fight scenes, and unfortunately that assessment has never been more true than with this movie. The initial set up for Snake & Crane Arts… is about as deep as you are going to get with the movie, and as things blandly trudge along, we the audience must discover this lack of narrative the hard way. I do like the initial concept, with the mystery of the eight masters and their apparent disappearance, but it isn’t sustained throughout the movie. Instead the film seems to fall into a boring and endless series of fight scenes that never resonate with the audience since we could ultimately care less about these characters. We love Jackie, because he is Jackie Chan, not because this character ever does anything to bring us around.

There are few standout moments throughout Snake and Crane Arts, unfortunately. The only things we have to hold onto are the superficial moments of fun. There are relatively cool things throughout, such as the evil clan who all dress in black, with rice hats and black cowls that cover their faces. The gimmickry of their dressup reminds me of something out of a Chang Cheh film, which is always a good thing in my opinion. There are a few other interesting characters throughout, including a duo known as the Tin brothers who attack Jackie early on. Although they are not twins, one gets the idea that they are “supposed” to be. Jackie Chan’s relationship with the young street urchin girl, who dresses like a boy and seems to fool everyone, provides another cliche in the fact that Jackie’s character offers to buy her dinner, but as you may can guess, she then proceeds to order everything on the menu. This sort of stuff is done so often that you can’t help but have a love/hate relationship with it within the Kung Fu genre. I suppose that speaks volumes for Snake and Crane Arts… on the whole.

The Conclusion
Snake & Crane Arts of Shaolin isn’t the lost classic from Jackie Chan’s early career that I had secretly hoped it would be. In comparison to several other high quality products from this same time period (Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow, Drunken Master and even Fearless Hyena), it is actually quite poor. While I didn’t hate watching the movie, it is so incredibly average in all respects that it makes it a chore to sit through. I give the movie a two out of five, which might be a little low for what the movie deserves but its an honest opinion.