There's a moment in the 1983 Jackie Chan movie Project A where he's dangling from a clock tower's minute hand, clinging for dear life as people watch him from stories below. Chan has always been a big silent-comedy head, and the scene was directly inspired by a famous stunt that Harold Lloyd pulled off in the 1923 movie Safety Last. But when Lloyd got done hanging from that clock hand, he didn't fall 60 feet and land on his fucking head. Guess who did. I've seen a lot of his movies, and most of them have ridiculous and dangerous stunts. But this is the only scene that's made me wonder how, exactly, it is that the dude is still alive.
Chan made Project A when he was still figuring out exactly what the formula for a Jackie Chan movie should be. He made it after returning to Hong Kong, his first attempt at American stardom having peaked with a small role in Cannonball Run. He directed this one, co-starring with Sammo Hung and Yuen Baio, two guys who had trained at the Peking Opera School back when all three were kids. And while the result here has that distinct-to-Chan balance of mind-boggling action scenes and goofy physical comedy, our star hadn't yet figured out how to blend those things into a smooth whole. The seams show, and the action scenes are a bit more vicious than what would make him truly famous a few years later. The kicks look like they hurt.
As with so many Jackie Chan movies, the plot is just a flimsy thing that strings all the action sequences together. The dramatic scenes are packed with moments that are supposed to be funny, but if you're me, you mostly just play with your phone until they're over. Moreover, the version of Project A streaming on Netflix is the hacked-to-pieces one that the Weinstein brothers commissioned when they were at Miramax; those two are notorious for buying foreign films and gutting them for American audiences. And while it's annoying that only the dubbed version of the movie is up on Netflix, I don't really mind that the movie is missing a few crucial dramatic scenes. In Jackie Chan movies, the crucial dramatic scenes are only really crucial if someone is kicking someone else.
In any case, Project A is a period piece about how the police and the Coast Guard in early-20th-century Hong Kong hate each other, but how they had to team up to fight pirates anyway. Chan is a Coast Guard private who brawls with the police and then, thanks to some goofy plot machinations, has to become a police officer himself. All the Coast Guard people end up drafted into the police, and for a while, the movie turns into Chan's version of Stripes, with a whole lot of wacky hijinks and good-natured anarchism during training. But that doesn't last long. Soon enough, Chan is a badass cop, and then a disgraced vigilante, and then an undercover detective posing as a monocle-wearing gangster in a pirates' den. Sammo Hung shows up as his old criminal best friend with a truly ghastly haircut. (It's not easy to have worse hair than Jackie Chan, but Hung's Beatle bob fits the bill.) It's all pure ridiculousness, with no real plot architecture or unified aesthetic. The final big-bad villain, a tatted-up pirate with a truly impressive mustache, doesn't even show up until the movie is almost over. None of that tonal inconsistency or loose plotting matters, though: This movie is fun as fuck.
It's fun because of those fights, and because those fights seem to suddenly rear up out of nowhere. The first one is a gigantic restaurant brawl between the police and the Coast Guard, and you don't get a whole lot of time to wonder why these guys don't like each other—the actual action is so fast and elaborate that it commands all of your attention. That's the way it goes throughout. Logic isn't so much a concern, and I stopped worrying about why Chan and Hung were stealing gun barrels or whether Chan and Yuen were friends or enemies in whatever scene.
The final fight isn't even especially fair. It ends with Chan, Hung, and Yuen fighting the aforementioned tatted-up pirate, three on one, like some cowards. And—I'm spoiling this, but come on, who cares—they don't even beat him hand-to-hand; they roll him up in a rug and then throw a grenade into the rug. But the fight itself is so giddy and euphoric and intricate that I didn't even pause to wonder why they blew him up until he was already in pieces. The movie, in both its plotting and its fights, is just pure unalloyed chaos. It doesn't make sense, and it doesn't have to. You don't watch a Jackie Chan movie hoping for it to make sense. You watch to get swept up in the ridiculousness, and Project A brings a higher level of ridiculousness than most.
Tom Breihan is the senior editor at Stereogum; he's written for Pitchfork, the Village Voice, GQ, Grantland, and the Classical. He lives in Charlottesville, Va. He is tall, and on Twitter.
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