In turn of the century Hong Kong, gallant sailor Dragon Ma (Jackie Chan) and his fellow coast guards share a rowdy rivalry with the local police force led by arrogant Inspector Tzu (Yuen Biao). While both groups settle their differences with a bar-room brawl, pirates led by notorious chief Lo San Po (Dick Wei) blow up navy ships due to attack their secret headquarters. As punishment, Dragon’s unit is turned into a police squad supervised by Tzu, who promptly subjects them to a back-breaking training regime. Both rivals eventually patch things up and set about catching the group of gun-runners selling stolen rifles to those pesky pirates. Dragon winds up trashing the private club that masks their illegal activities but can’t get his superiors to believe the gentlemanly Mr. Chou (Lee Hoi-San) is actually a crook. So he teams up with his old gun-running buddy Fei (Sammo Hung) to retrieve the rifles. When the pirates kidnap the British Admiral and his family, our heroes swing into action.
Perhaps more than any other film in Jackie Chan’s illustrious screen career, Project A marked a major breakthrough for the clown prince of kung fu. His early period kung fu comedies - Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow (1978) and Drunken Master (1978) - may have made him a star, but this movie set a benchmark his many imitators simply could not match. Henceforth every new Jackie Chan movie became an event as he spent the next fifteen years of this golden period trying constantly to outdo himself. Project A boasts outstanding production values, including period costumes and lavish sets the likes of which had never been seen in Hong Kong movies before. This made it something of a gamble for Golden Harvest coming in the wake of Chan’s costly Dragon Lord (1982) and his first failed bid to crack the American market with The Big Brawl (1980).
Fortunately the film became a huge blockbuster across Asia and little wonder since it features some of his best work as director. His love of silent screen comedians Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd is evident from the amazing bicycle chase and legendary clock tower stunt that saw Chan break more than a few bones but was so spectacular it’s repeated twice. Regular co-screenwriter Edward Tang crafts a simple story laced with themes of camaraderie in the face of hardship, born no doubt from Jackie’s own youthful experience with fellow Peking Opera performers Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao, and a touch of colonial era satire. Note the scene where Jackie attacks the British admiralty for doing deals with westernized crooks like Mr. Chou to the detriment of honest, hardworking Cantonese.
But it’s the daredevil stunts and slapstick comedy we’ve come for and on that count the movie more than delivers. Unlike his later movies with Stanley Tong that mostly find him running away, here Chan holds nothing back. He comes across like a human whirlwind, flinging bad guys every which way in a fast-paced fusion of filmmaking ingenuity and martial arts skill. Co-stars Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao, each no slouch when it comes to kung fu either, throw themselves into the daredevil fight scenes with wild abandon. This was not the first time they teamed together, that would be Winners and Sinners (1982), but thereafter the Jackie/Sammo/Yuen combo became Golden Harvest’s sure-fire recipe for box-office gold until a briefly acrimonious split following another career peak, Dragons Forever (1988). Thankfully they have since patched up their differences with Sammo directing Jackie in the (sadly, surprisingly awful) Mr. Nice Guy (1997) and Yuen co-starring in Rob-B-Hood (2008).
Amongst the snappy supporting players lookout for veteran actor/director Wu Ma in a small cameo as a mah-jongg player. Several sourcebooks list Lola Forner, onetime Miss Spain and favourite Jackie co-star in Wheels on Meals (1984) and Armour of God (1986), in a small role as the British ambassador’s daughter, but you’ll need a pair of eagle-eyes to spot her. Jackie followed this with the sequel Project A, Part II (1987) that is just as delightful but for different reasons.