Finally, my Jackie Chan Film Festival has hit one of the true classics. Project A is just such a quantum leap ahead of the immediately preceding films in his catalog (Dragon Lord, The Big Brawl), especially in terms of production values. Jackie, here writing, directing and producing in addition to starring, finally moves from an endless string of films set in Imperial China and moves up to Colonials times, with Britain running Hong Kong. So rather than having Jackie join one martial arts school that is battling another martial arts school over some triviality, we instead get a four-way confrontation between the colonial navy, the police force, a band of pirates and the gangsters that are playing all sides against each other.
Here, Jackie plays a navy man named Dragon (although I'm pretty sure my English dubbed copy called him "Jackie" at one point). With the Navy suffering a series of embarrassing defeats at the hands of the pirates (due to insider info coming from the gangsters), their men are conscripted into the police force to help stop a gun-running operation. This introduces the great Sammo Hung as a conman involved in selling the stolen rifles, although even he doesn't seem quite sure who is conning who in this operation. Fellow Three Dragons member Yuen Biao also appears as a police force captain whose investigation into the gun-running leads him back to the pirates.
So the plotline is already a step above the usual "you-killed-my-master-now-I-must-kill-you" plot so many earlier Chan films followed. What really sets this film apart, though, in the stunt work. Jackie assembled what looks like a massive number of stunt people who look willing to take all kinds of punishment. It's not quite up to the level of the beatdowns that Tony Jaa was dealing out in Ong-Bak, but it's amazing how many people crash into furniture, plummet off of balconies, get smashed over the head with bicycles and are blown up with grenades in this film. And of course, Jackie is right there as well - this film features the famous clock tower stunt (an homage to Safety Last! - although a scene right before set in the clock's innards brings Modern Times to mind as well). An extended foot-bicycle chase also shows the typical inventiveness of the stunt work during this phase of Jackie's career.
If you are a novice Jackie Chan fan, this is probably the earliest film you should start with, but it's also one of the best there is. I've got to go ahead and give this one five stars, just because it manages to avoid some of the minor pitfalls that I already know will be coming up in some future films (mostly awkward romantic comedy beats - Jackie manages to stay mainly unattached in this one). Up next: another candidate for best Jackie film? Could be! It's Jackie Chan's Police Story.