Project A was something of a return to form for Jackie Chan, the star had been knocked around for years both figuratively and literally. An organised crime prompted flight to America had been a dead end and Hong Kong produced films like Dragon Lord had gone monstrously over budget while under-delivering financially. With this in mind Project A plays like a concerted effort to address the problems the star had faced. Most obviously, the film has a clear narrative push with characters and situations that develop in concert with the action.
As well as writing and directing, Chan plays Sergeant Dragon, a high-ranking member of the embattled Hong Kong Marine Police. Aside from a strong interservice rivalry with the Royal Hong Kong Police Force, the organisation faces opposition from both pirates and the wheezy bureaucrats who want to slash their funding. Project A frames this basic tension with an idea of self-determination, Chan representing the bright, young Hong Kong citizens who not only want to seize power for themselves but wield it effectively. Chan is surging, youthful energy butting heads with ancient colonial blowhards.
Project A is the first instance that I've seen of this kind of instructive bent in Chan's films. The Jackie Chan persona is maturing, he's no longer the directionless but talented youth, he's a pillar of the community. The evolution of character also coincides with a new approach to action and violence,
Chan dodges danger and fights out of a sense of civic pride. Perhaps Chan's brush with the Triads not only altered the trajectory of his career but how he came to consider his role as a star. From this point onwards Jackie Chan becomes synonymous with law enforcement, his fighting skills used for self-defence rather than self-promotion.
For his big comeback, Chan surrounded himself with the cream of Hong Kong action talent. As well as a first outing for the official Jackie Chan Stunt Team, fellow Peking Opera classmates Yuen Biao and Sammo Hung appear as allies from both sides of the law. Once again Chan and Hung fight alongside each other, but unlike Winners & Sinners this setpiece is more about how the two performers are able to build off individual movements and compliment each other. Hung's film showcased their ability to dole out world class bumps, Chan focuses on a sense of grace and precision.
Chan instead makes stunts Project A's focus, riffing on the death-defying antics of Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd. Chan shares the same comedic instincts as those silent film stars. He'll caper, even feign a scrambling, imprecise kind of incompetence to put himself in danger. He's also content to be vulnerable, we're not sure if he's actually going to succeed. Keaton waltzes through peril like Roadrunner, innocent and essentially immune. Jackie Chan is more of a Wile E Coyote figure. He gets harmed.
I can't help but feel that Chan's rough and tumble approach is also informed by Vic Armstrong's work on Raiders of the Lost Ark. Spielberg's film gives us extended glimpses of a man out of his depth, struggling to shuffle his bones around weighty Nazi machinery. Chan goes one further by being both the action actor and the stunt performer simultaneously. Although clearly adept we are given just enough rope to worry as, crucially, Chan never presents himself as invincible. There's always a price for our entertainment. We track with his falls, watch his body upend and bounce like a rag doll, then dash in to see him dazed and dragged up onto his feet. All in one take.