An early Jackie Chan film from the golden age of Hong Kong martial arts cinema, directed by Yuen Woo-Ping, who would go on to choreograph the action sequences in The Matrix, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and both Kill Bill films. Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow has only the bare bones of a plot: an old master and originator of the Snake Fist style is being hunted down by the master of the Eagle Claw style, who has already killed all practitioners of Snake Fist. The old master is given food by Jackie Chan, an orphan used as little more than a punching bag by the Kung Fu school that has taken him in. Jackie Chan eventually learns Snake Fist and becomes a badass. It’s never explained why the Eagle Claw people hate the Snake Fist people so much. One character at the start yells the “you’re so evil!” at the main villain and that’s about all the motivational explanation we get.
Jackie Chan’s formula for success was based on two main things: his considerable martial arts skills and his excellent comic timing, and Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow (his first hit as a leading man) shows glimpses of both. Chan’s comedic persona is not entirely fully-formed here, but it is present. His love of slapstick and of abusing himself is already apparent; the early scenes where he’s a perpetually bruised man-child get plenty of laughs, and the movie’s best sequence, a training montage midway through that combines eggs, incense candles, and a solid amount of pratfalls also showcases Chan’s excellent gurning abilities. The martial arts itself is also fantastic. Skilful, quick, and elegant, the fight scenes might not be as aggressive of violent as say, Bruce Lee’s, but they are entertaining.
The issues come later, as the film becomes baggy and repetitive. The comedy in the film begins to slip away as Jackie Chan becomes a martial arts master and therefore less given to comic mishaps. Additionally, there isn’t nearly enough variation in the martial arts scenes to sustain the film. Though Chan would later go on to do much more ambitious work, here most of the fight scenes are simply between two characters fighting in an arena. The scenes are flat and horizontal in terms of scope, like a console fighting game, and there isn’t much use of the environment or various weapons beyond a few select moments. It isn’t a huge problem as the fight scenes are already done at a very high standard (or at least a standard befitting Hong Kong in the ‘70s), but the repetition does drag the film down towards the end. Nevertheless, a fine martial arts film.