Who doesn’t love Jackie Chan?
He is, of course, a master at martial arts and incredibly complicated choreography, but he’s also got an unusual, little-boy charm and a disarming sense of humor that puts him in a league of his own. While the appetite for 1970s Bruce Lee and “kung fu” movies in general was on the wane, Jackie Chan was sort of sneaking up on us, making fun and funny films that were major hits in Asia, and popular on the midnight movie circuit in American cities.
I have a bizarre memory of seeing Chan live at the San Francisco Film Festival one year, I think in the late ‘80s, when a good friend of mine was involved in programming for the festival and brought Jackie Chan to San Francisco. Anyway, the funny thing about this memory is that I’m not sure it’s real or imagined. It’s very curious. I know that Chan was there in person, and spoke before or after a screening. The part I’m not sure I have right is that I think he either wowed everyone with a series of gymnastic-kung-fu moves involving flips and cartwheels down the center of the theater to get to the stage, OR he flipped off the balcony of the beautiful old Castro Theater and landed gracefully on both feet, then walked to center stage.
Neither of those “memories” may be real.
It may be that Jackie Chan simply walked, like a normal person, to the stage, either from behind it, or from somewhere in the audience. But my perception of him at the time was such that my furry little pea brain immediately projected all kinds of fantastic stuff into his appearance, and that’s how I remember him getting to the stage.
I drank a lot of beer back in my 20s.
This brings us to one of Chan’s very early movies that I’m pretty sure will thrill most kids: Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow (1978). First off, let me say this film has no MPAA rating, but I feel like it would fall somewhere in the PG range... I looked around online for some guidance (other reviews, etc.) and feel pretty comfortable with that conclusion. I am pressed to think of any scenes that are really violent or scary or inappropriate, and asked both D and K to think on it, too.
Chan made mostly PG-13 and R rated films in the ‘80s and ‘90s, and many of the '70s films are unrated; so finding one for the younger kids is difficult. Some of these films have incredibly muddled plots (but who really cares when you’re watching a bunch of martial arts dudes execute an extremely precise acrobatic ballet and you’re busy rooting for the bad guys to get their comeuppance?). Snake has a very simple plot, it’s hard to get lost in it, and the action is of course superb. There are those who may have issues with the dubbing or the lack of special effects or sharp editing or Dolby sound. That’s ok. Just ignore them.
So the plot is basically that Chan, a janitor at a martial arts school, befriends an old beggar who turns out to be the last master of the powerful Snake Fist style of kung fu (in the real world, one of several Chinese martial arts known as Snake Boxing or Snake Style, which imitates the movement of snakes). The old master is in hiding from the Eagle Claw* Clan, who want either to extinguish or to own the Snake Fist ways themselves. Chan becomes a student of the old master, and, well, you can pretty much guess the rest: some fantastic fight scenes lead to a hugely entertaining showdown.
Chan is lovable and funny in this film and pulls off so many amazing physical feats you start to take them for granted after a while. There are clear themes of honesty, responsibility, loyalty and the reward of hard work; I like to think that it outweighs any concerns you may have about the violence, which isn’t all that intense. There is a little bit of language, nothing too harsh (or that kids haven’t heard in school by the third grade). All in all, we were very comfortable watching this with K when he was in the third or fourth grade himself, and he really enjoyed it.
This was directed by Yuen Woo-ping, who later choreographed the action scenes in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; The Matrix; and Kill Bill. So there you go.
Other early, classic Jackie Chan films:
The film that followed Snake was Drunken Master (1978), a movie fans like a great deal but which did get a PG-13 rating at some point (also directed by Yuen Woo-ping; both movies catapulted Chan to stardom). Another good one (allegedly) is The Young Master (1980), which also earned a PG-13 rating. Rent at your own risk.
(I’ll only recommend PG-13 movies if I’ve seen them myself. It’s surprising what they can do with this rating, but then again, these movies are targeted for a 13 and older crowd. It’s sometimes hard to remember that during a long summer with only a handful of decent PG and G releases ... suddenly you find you and your 11-year-old son in the theater seeing Iron Man. Which we loved. Not like Transformers, which we rented and I kind of came to hate. I’ll post a rant soon about our experience with Transformers. For now, I say, just don’t rent it if you have kids under 13.)
(Yeah, gee, wouldn’t you think a 10 or 11-year-old is the perfect demographic for a movie about Transformers?! How many paying moviegoers did they cut out of the bottom line to give it a PG-13 rating?)
(Ok, re-reading this, I'm thinking that you might think, well, what a lame mom, of COURSE PG-13 movies are going to be a bit... much for an 11-year old. But as you probably know yourself, there is enormous pressure to see these movies from your kids' friends and the media, and sometimes it just seems like there is not enough in the PG range. The Italian Job, the Spiderman series, and Iron Man are great examples of good, action-packed and smart PG-13 films that have little or no real objectionable material for kids just under 13. There may be an intensity that earns these films a PG-13 rating, but that's ok compared to some of the garbage that slips into other films like Transformers. It's nothing most kids haven't seen in an X-box game.)
Back to Jackie Chan: I’ll wrap up here with a plug for 2004’s Around the World in 80 Days, which has a nice, friendly PG rating and was quite good. It may not be on your radar because I don’t think it did that well in the theaters; but it makes for a fine Saturday evening at home with margaritas – uh, I mean root beer – and popcorn.
* Along with the long strikes and kicks that typify Northern systems, the Eagle Claw system is distinguished by its gripping techniques and system of joint locks, takedowns, and pressure point strikes, which represent one of the oldest forms of the Chinese grappling known as Chin Na. – Wikipedia