Criterion just put eight Jackie Chan films on the Criterion Channel (possibly the best looking of all the streaming channels out there). With the world being horrible, I thought a look at one of action cinema’s sweeter onscreen personas had a pleasing ring to it. I wish I could include all eight films, but there are only five days of the week. Right now, anyway.
Today’s Film: HALF A LOAF OF KUNG FU
The plot, huh? This is going to be tough.
Things begin simple enough. Chan plays a mischievous loser who wants to learn kung fu, or just find a bed to sleep in, or just get a meal. He’s untrained, cocky, and isn’t above lying to get what he wants.
After running afoul of a witch, Chan comes across a whip-wielding master who loses his life while collecting a bounty. Chan pretends to be the legendary fighter to collect the bounty, but of course, this opens him up to all kinds of shenanigans. A couple of homeless masters try to teach him kung fu and he ends up on a journey to reclaim the Evergreen Jade and the Reviving Elixir with a bunch of badasses in a race agains the witch and her crew.
It sounds kind of cool, but it doesn’t work that way. HALF A LOAF OF KUNG FU has the low stakes and perfunctory kung fu of a spoof, but is only medium-silly. Chan’s character gets outclassed by everyone around him, but there are too many characters, most of whom don’t stand out. So it feels like a bland stew of occasional martial arts that just keeps rolling along until the big end fight. In terms of both real action and comedy, you can do so much better.
Chan’s Mental Age:
A teenager, around 16. He’s young and innocent, but also a rascal. On the other hand, he’s not mugging all over the place like a total goofball. He really likes to spit on people.
The film climaxes with a cool free-for-all, which would have been way cooler if I had a better handle on who the characters are. Nevertheless, I appreciate all the action hitting at once like that, and there are good moments here and there.
Things come to a head with Chan fighting the main villain, in a fight that is conceptually very fun. Chan never becomes a master, but a secret manual is strewn all over the battlefield. So he kind of learns moves as the fight progresses. One page he reads upside down, so he does the move upside down. It’s a cool idea. And the film doesn’t go overboard with sudden super powers or anything; he more or less wins on accident.
At one point, a villain’s long-ponytail wig comes off and Chan uses it like nunchucks. But only for a sight gag, which is disappointing.
But the best unlikely weapon comes when he and a female costar whip their bodies around each other to kick their opponent. It doesn’t last long, but it’s exactly the kind of thing I watch Jackie Chan movies for.
Second Biggest Badass:
One villain has silver hair and a cool mustache. He breaks the hell out of a guy’s arm in the film’s most gnarly moment. HALF A LOAF OF KUNG FU doesn’t offer much in the badass department, so this guy gets it by default.
Not only does this film lack impressive stunts, but it mostly lacks Chan’s physical charm overall. This is early in his career still, but even SPIRITUAL KUNG FU showcased more.
While I love that Criterion put a bunch of Jackie Chan titles on their streaming channel, I am a little surprised by what movies they chose. Perhaps their options were limited, but MY LUCKY STARS is barely a Jackie Chan movie, and FEARLESS HYENA 2 is mostly just a cash grab recut of the first film. HALF A LOAF OF KUNG FU is simply not very good.
The collection’s obvious crown jewels are its two POLICE STORY films, both of which I intended to cover before this week’s events made any celebration of police - even a jovial Jackie Chan cop - an ugly proposition. Rewatching POLICE STORY put a horrible taste in my mouth, and I just did not feel like writing up a film where a cop puts himself above the law for the greater good (which is basically every cop film). It’s one of the best action films ever made, but now’s not the time.
Without POLICE STORY and POLICE STORY 2, the collection doesn’t offer much of the Jackie Chan we all know and love, and I can’t help but wonder if there were more exemplary choices to be found among the 100+ films he’s been in. I will say, however, that they all looked great, and I’m very glad I got to see them presented with such care.
5. HALF A LOAF OF KUNG FU
4. MY LUCKY STARS
3. SPIRITUAL KUNG FU
2. THE YOUNG MASTER
1. FEARLESS HYENA