Saturday, 17 January 2015
Jackie Chan in the 1980s - Winners & Sinners
Winners & Sinners is what happens when several of the world's greatest action directors decide to make their own, culturally specific version of The Blues Brothers or, maybe more accurately, the Carry On films. Briefly, Winners & Sinners is a broad, chummy comedy revolving around the misadventures of a team of criminals determined to go straight after a lengthy spell in prison.
Hung's recruits include Stanley Fung as Rookie, the secretive straight man; John Sham as Curly, a political activist for hire who fumes every time one of his pals sleazes around his sister Shirley (Cherie Chung); Charlie Chan as Vaseline, a self-appointed lothario; and Richard Ng as Exhaust Pipe, a gadget loving thief who's convinced he can make himself invisible. Hung himself stars as Teapot, the group whipping boy who ends up winning Shirley's affections by playing it modest. Jackie Chan cameos as an overenthusiastic cop who's down for casual brutality.
Primarily a comedy, Winners & Sinners is a series of rambling vignettes with occasional action interludes. Unlike many Hong Kong films that attempt to juggle these two clashing tones, Hung's film largely hangs together thanks to a relentlessly energetic pace. The cast, especially Richard Ng, are funny. One sight gag involving voluminous smoke from one of Sammo's trick cigars is inspired.
Hung's setpieces are exciting and dangerous looking. An umpteen vehicle pileup caused by Chan's dogged pursuit of two pickpockets gets very close to John Landis levels of destruction. Hung and action co-director Yuen Biao continuously find new angles on two (or three, or four) bodies interacting, editor Peter Yiu-Chung Cheung making superb use of the absolutely exhaustive coverage.
Of particular note is a forty second exchange in a starkly lit food hall that instantly seems like one of the most exciting uses of montage I've ever seen. It's just so fast. Each shot carefully composed to deliver an almost subliminal glimpse of the action without ever losing the geographical whole, or derailing the hammering rhythm. The sequence even caters for the styles of the two star fighters. Sammo Hung gets to deliver concise devastation blows while Chan moves in and around a stick-up crew attempting to flee.
In many ways the confrontation flies in the face of traditional fight theory. Wides are seldom held, the cuts are very fast, at first glance it almost seems like the excitement has been constructed in editing. Look at the arrangement over and over again though and you start to see that everything has been repeated a great many times from a wide selection of angles, each consistent enough to build a spatially cohesive whole.
I took an ungodly amount of screencaps during this fight, so let's run it down.
Jackie Chan hurls himself in from the left, leapfrogging a goon or two to deliver a kick hard enough to send Vest Top hurtling towards the wall in front of him. Stash Man tracks alongside the group.
A lower angle on Chan using one of his catapult people as a human shield. Camouflage's arm looks like it's twelve foot long. Vest Top winces up against the wall. Stash Man starts to cower.
Chan and the human gymnastic equipment. Chan uses the momentum of the crumbling man to launch a kick at the Camouflage Goon. Vest Top has fully sunk to the floor across these two shots - another layer of movement. Stash Man has gone into a full dither.
A lightning fast shot of Chan accounting for the Blue Goon on his right, then pushing off to deliver a knock down strike to Camouflage Man. Chan instantly changes tact to kick another Goon trying his luck. Note the angle is lower again, making us perceive Chan's legs as longer.
Continuous on the same set-up - Camouflage Man hurtles towards the screen as Chan lines up his kick at a White Vest Attacker. Chan tucks his leg up then throws it out again to meet the incoming attacker. These two planes of movement meet with a crunch. White Vest is stopped dead in his tracks rather than being sent back the way he came.
Pushing off from the pause strike to White Vest, Chan angles his leg up to the Blue Goon on his left, the close-up of the impact matching the position of the leg in the previous shot. Just when you think he must be finished Chan flings his leg out again to hammer White Vest in the face and put him on his back. It's superfluous, excessive, and utterly thrilling.
While Chan struggles with two headlocked Goons, a New Challenger appears - Knife Guy! Please note Sammo Hung crawling around in the background, still stunned from Chan's initial, explosive launch towards the gang.
Before Knife Guy can make any significant gains Chan has him trapped with his Adidas Casuals. The next shot reveals Chan is again using his Blue Goons as leverage, allowing him to push Knife Guy directly into the path of Sammo Hung, effectively tagging his co-star into the fight.
The section I've highlighted lasts maybe twelve seconds, making up just under a quarter of this complete sequence. Straight after Sammo Hung gets his chance to shine, his set-ups are longer and arranged to accentuate the impact of his famously stiff blows. This bodily harm is intercut with Chan snaking around his flailing opponents delivering double groin punches, shot from his character's POV.
If it's ever talked about seriously, Winners & Sinners is usually discussed in terms of how it took Hung and Chan out of period brawlers and into a more contemporary milieu. What I'm wondering though is where did this particular style of shooting come from? Is this the first instance?
A lot of the Sammo Hung films I'm familiar with - Magnificent Butcher and his additional footage in the Chinese cut of Game of Death - were still using long, traditional choreography with an emphasis on limbs cracking against each other. 1981's The Prodigal Son, directed by Hung and starring Yuen Biao, does contain a few exchanges with a similar kind of editing beat but nothing this complicated, claustrophobic or experimental.
Up until now Jackie Chan had matched Hung's bone splintering with his own unbeatable underdog. This was a mutation that saw Chan putting his stunt skills to the test, barrelling through teams of heavies and desperately selling for his final opponent. Chan is always communicating a steep climb. Considering this excerpt relies pretty heavily on call-and-response actions between a team of stunt men, and given that Jackie Chan is happy to slum as a component in his own fight scenes, perhaps he is the primary architect?
It's worth noting that the scene has elements in common with the bathroom fight in Walter Hill's The Warriors, both scenes sharing a similar kinetic punctuation. We're no longer dealing with well-trained experts, these people are more like street fighters, so it makes sense to take a different approach. Is this Chan's take on those kind of ideas? Hill and his editors compiled their fight like an explosion, hurling shrapnel in every direction. Chan and his team instead have every element tracking back towards him - the centre. A deliberately chaotic brawl is reduced down to one determined individual managing and responding to assaults from several different directions.
Most likely of all, Chan, Hung and Biao were goading each other on, pushing themselves to deliver their best possible work. After a string of duds and failures, Jackie Chan must've been especially hungry. Take a glance at the respective filmographies and it feels like there was an arms race going on between the former school friends, each of the stars working like crazy to take fight films somewhere different. Although I'm by no means an expert this short exchange in a strip-lit mall, deep in a crude comedy, strikes me as something new and precious.