Three unlikely allies come together to face off against pirates in Jackie Chan’s action comedy.
Let’s talk about the Three Dragons for a minute (or the Three Brothers, if you will). The Three Dragons is the name given to the martial arts/acting troupe of Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao. The trio met in the Peking Opera School in the 60s, and were part of the performance group The Seven Little Fortunes, they remained good friends as they entered the film industry and together made a number of films. However, there were only three movies that starred all of them in equally important roles: Dragons Forever, Wheels on Meals and the one that started it all: Project A.
Released only a few months after Winners and Sinners (which starred Hung but featured Chan and Biao in minor roles), Project A brought the three together as main stars and changed the landscape of Hong Kong action comedies with its stunt-driven choreography perfectly blended with moments of pure hilarity. Set in 19th Century Hong Kong, Jackie Chan plays Sergeant Ma, part of the Hong Kong Marine Police’s efforts to stop the rise of pirates. However, after an incident where most of the marines’ ships are blown up, Ma and his crew are forced to join the regular old land police – their long-time rivals – and are put to hard training by the no-nonsense Tin-Tsu (Yuen Biao).
Ma, meanwhile, has suspicions about the pirates, but is not given the go-ahead by his superiors to do anything about it. Going against orders, he raids a local VIP lounge for gangsters Chiang and Chou. There, he meets an old friend and hustler Fei (Sammo Hung), who informs him that somebody in the police force is selling rifles to the pirates, who all respond to one master. Working with Fei and the Admiral’s daughter Winnie, Ma begins to investigate the matter further. The conflicts keep escalating until Ma, Fei and Tin-Tsu join forces to take out pirate lord San-po (Dick Wei) on his island.
Project A is often considered the definitive Hong Kong action-comedy movie, and I’d have a hard time arguing the point. It keeps its plot largely simple, acting rather like a bridge connecting huge set piece fight sequences. But it’s not so simplistic that it’s too predictable or boring. Instead, it strikes the right balance between the two, giving us a fun little adventure that doesn’t take itself too seriously. Chan and Edward Tang’s script does a good job of putting our three leads at odds with one another and in different jobs at the beginning, allowing for more chemistry and a satisfying payoff at the end when they come together.
The trio are very likeable to watch, and their performances are made all the better by the fact that they get to bounce off of one another and react. It’s obvious they’ve been friends for years and it makes for a cast that effortlessly draws us in with their natural charisma. Their training at the Opera School doesn’t go to waste here, either and the leads draw on their multi-faceted education to bring about some of the funniest and most entertaining sequences in the genre’s history. Chan utilises the film’s beautiful Old Hong Kong setting to emulate some of the classics of silent film – most notably Harold Lloyd in the world-famous clock tower scene.
Project A presents us a cast and crew on top form. Chan and Hung were highly bankable and box office gold, which allowed them a lot of leeway with the studios. This, in result, gave us a film with stunts and moments that had to have taken dozens upon dozens of takes to get right. It’s the sort of thing you’d never see in Hollywood, if only for time and budgetary reasons. The jokes are genuinely funny, the physical comedy is pitch-perfect, and the fights are some of the most fun we’ll ever see. Some are played seriously, while others – like the brilliant one at the start of the film – are played more for laughs. It’s a perfect blend of keeping things light while never undermining the sincerity of the story.
To keep things brief, Project A is one of Jackie Chan’s (and his two Dragon brothers’) best films. It’s a perfect encapsulation of the sort of kung foolery that made them famous, and that we’ve since come to expect from them. The direction is sleek and effortlessly professional, the camerawork is on point, the music is delightful, and with the exception of a few pointless characters and moments that sort of drag on, Project A is about as close to perfect as this kind of movie can get. It’s three people at the peak of their game doing what they do best; this is a project that’s definitely worth an A.
Verdict: Filled with memorable moments and excellent action, Project A is an icon of HK action cinema.
Overall entertainment: 9.5/10
Quality of violence: 11/10
Snack of choice: The biggest plate of spaghetti, please
Project A (1983)
Also known as: A計劃 (A Gai Waak), Pirate Patrol, Jackie Chan’s Project A
Director: Jackie Chan
Writers: Jackie Chan, Edward Tang
Jackie Chan – Sergeant Ma
Sammo Hung – Fei
Yuen Biao – Inspector Hong Tin-Tzu
Kwan Hoi-san – Captain Chi
Dick Wei – Pirate Chief San-Po
Hoi Sang Lee – Mr. Lee Cho-Kou
Mars – Big Mouth
Isabella Wong – Winnie Shih
Tai Bo – Tai Bo
Lau Hak-suen – Admiral Shih
Wong Wai – Chou Wing Ling
Hon Yee-sang – Chiang