The use of props in Jackie Chan’s action comedy not only shows his innovative and spontaneous kung-fu style, but visualizes the changes in his emotions towards his opponents as well. While traditional action films are anarchic, rebellious, even violently vengeful, Jackie’s creative use of random objects as his weapons makes his action comedy fun and unique. More than a physical comedy, Jackie’s is almost a comedy of physics, where vectors and velocities are precisely calculated (Kehr).
The scene under analysis is chosen from Drunken Master (Yuen Woo-ping, 1978). It is located at the 68-70 minute time period of the film and depicts the fight scene between Iron Head Rat who cheated in the gambling game and Wong Fei-hong (Jackie ’s character) with the assistance of Master Su. The plot between characters and the creative fights intertwined, making the scene vividly dynamic.
From Pants to Hammer
Jackie can fight using random objects. He always gives himself a disadvantage by starting beneath his opponent, and being an underdog, he is forced to get creative using anything around him. This makes each fight organic and grounded, and amuses the audience with jokes that could not happen anywhere else (Zhou).
In this particular scene, he used a pair of pants, a wooden board, a wine jar, and a hammer. From my point of view, the chronological order of Jackie using these props is not unintentional; the degree of solidity increased as he became more confident opposing Iron Head Rat. Jackie started the fight with fear for Iron Head Rat who could crash bricks with his head. Using a pair of pants to block Iron Head Rat’s sights, Fei-hong came to understand that his opponent was not undefeatable and continued seeking harder props that could resist iron head.
It was a surprise that Fei-hong finally defeated Iron Head Rat with a hammer, enhancing the light atmosphere and the film’s comedy characteristic. It was more surprising that there was a Bruce Lee reference – Jackie used the hammer as nunchaku. As Jackie commented on himself, instead of making intense movies, he made light ones. Jackie has defined another version of heroism, one with a good-humoured willingness to suffer and win in an unexpected way (Bordwell 34).
Human as a Prop
It was the first time where Fei-hong and Master Su cooperated in a fight against one opponent. Instead of taking turn to fight with Iron Head Rat, Master Su used Fei-hong as a prop with acrobatic actions. The plots were short and the emotions were straightforward. Each action was precise and clear. With this expressive amplification, the audience could read the performers in a glance (Bordwell 146).
Emotions were expressively amplified also through the intensive use of medium shots and closeups, especially for Iron Head Rat. Different from other kung-fu, his head was the weapon, and it became more convenient to keep the focus on his facial expressions details. Overall, the film’s editing linked fragments of actions and magnified the emotional dynamics of the performance. The transitions from medium and long shots to closeups and vice versa were natural and smooth, making it comfortable for the audience to understand the fights.
Jackie’s creative use of props in the fight scenes amplifies expressive force. Kung-fu actions of unarmed fighters may seem repetitive after a while. By bringing random objects in our daily life to the fight, Jackie managed to bridge the gap with the audience and attract their attention. With the expressive amplification of camera shot filming techniques, Jackie’s action comedy enables the audience to enjoy gags and actions at the same time.
Bordwell, David. Planet Hong Kong - Popular Cinema and the Art of Entertainment (2nd ed). Irvington Way Institute Press, 2011.
Drunken Master. Dir. Woo-ping Yuen. Seasonal Film Corporation. 1978.
Kehr, Dave. "Chan Can Do." May/June 1988. Film Comment. https://www.filmcomment.com/article/jackie-chan-samo-hung-profile/.
14 February 2018.
Zhou, Tony. "Jackie Chan - How to Do Action Comedy?" 2 December 2014. Every Frame A Painting. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z1PCtIaM_GQ.
14 February 2018.