Snake and Crane Arts of Shaolin
After the eight Shaolin Masters disappear soon after creating the Book of the Snake and Crane Arts, a young man named Hsu Yin-Fung (Jackie Chan) appears in town carrying the book and the ancient Dragon Spear signifying that he has been charged with guarding the sacred tome. Fighters from all over the land start showing up to challenge the young man for the book, but they are no match for the martial arts power that he possesses. Despite the fact that he is beset on all sides by people who want the book for themselves, he has in mind a singular quest: locate a man with a scar on his left shoulder. When this man is discovered, Yin-Fung swears to all the combatants who have challenged him that he will reveal the secrets he has been harboring.
Opening with a nearly five minute fight scene showcasing Jackie Chan's expert skill at choreography (scored with music that Monty Python fans will instantly recognize as the opening credits music from Monty Python and the Holy Grail), Snake and Crane Arts of Shaolin follows almost directly on the heels of the breakthrough hit that put Chan on the martial arts film map, Drunken Master. Compared to the films that preceded Chan's blockbuster, Snake and Crane Arts certainly shows that Chan had become the master of his own destiny and that the dull nature of his past films were well behind him. The film is still not as plot driven as some of his later films would be, but it maintains a constant level of action throughout that more than makes up for the lack of story.
The film contains almost non-stop action scenes, with constant footage of clan leaders and their people challenging Chan's character to fights. It would be repetitive, if it weren't for the fact that Chan's character is a brash, headstrong fighter who gloats his way through the film. This gloating is made even more entertaining by the fact that Chan's character is able to back up all of his words. There is a great deal of humor in seeing a bunch of fighters come in a challenge Yin-Fung, only to be derided and then trounced by the cocky young man. He not only mocks the men that come after him, but also the women (who routinely try to seduce the book out of his grasp to no avail). He's the most assured character that Chan has ever played and that is the chief draw of the film.
Snake and Crane Arts of Shaolin has been released on DVD through Columbia Tri-Star Home Entertainment. The film has been given its first ever widescreen transfer, boxing the picture in at a ratio of 2.35:1. Just like its DVD predecessors New Fist of Fury and To Kill With Intrigue, though, the print is in terrible condition. Scratches, dirt, and grain mar the print badly, but this version is still better than any VHS version available. There are also some strange moments where the image slows down or skips a bit... moments that don't seem to be intentional. It is obvious that Columbia did try to clean it up a bit, but storage conditions weren't as viable in Hong Kong as they are today, so it left the company little room for a better version to master their transfer from.
The DVD also features, for the first time on US home video, a chance to choose between the original Cantonese soundtrack (with English subtitles) or the English dub. It is obvious that the original Cantonese track will be the way to go for purists, but it appears that the English subtitles are just a direct translation of the English dub. I'm not sure how different the original Chinese script is from the English translation that appears here, but I am wary of reading subtitles based off of an inferior way to watch a foreign film.
Also like the two previous Chan discs, extras are non-existent, with only a trailer for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon included. Considering that Criterion was able to rustle up a ton of old trailers for some of John Woo's early work for their DVD release of Hard Boiled, one wonders exactly why Columbia couldn't somehow locate one for this film. Still, Snake and Crane Arts of Shaolin is one of the better entries in Chan's early career and is certainly worth looking into.