Movie Review: The Fearless Hyena

Posted: May 13, 2011 in Movie Review, Reviews
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

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The Fearless Hyena (1979/ Goodyear Movie Company/ Dir. Jackie Chan)

Really? All the movies I’ve reviewed and this is the first Jackie Chan movie? Huh, that’s odd. This is as good a place as any to start with Chan. As far as I’m able to tell, this is Chan’s first directorial effort, even though Kenneth Tsang helped out. The thing is, this is a really cheap movie. Really cheap. You know how Shaw Brothers movies tend to look like a poor man’s version of old Hollywood movies? No? Do we need a Shaw Brothers primer? Okay, note to self, review a Shaw Brothers classic sometime. Let me break it down quickly. A lot of the Shaw’s movies were studio bound in a way that soap operas would find embarrassing. I’ve seen Shaw films that have almost no exterior shots, despite the fact that much of the movie ostensibly takes place outside. One Armed Swordsman comes to mind. The Shaws did build a backlot, and used it to great effect, but many movies still have a great deal of indoor studio shooting. The reason I bring this up is that things like Fearless Hyena didn’t have as much money as a Shaw production. That’s my point. They’re not even as expensive as a poor man’s knock-off. However, along with more exterior shoots (the forest is CHEAP!) there is also a bit more soul here. Chan and company are working their butts off to produce a new kind of kung fu movie. It worked too, this movie even supplanted Chan’s break-out film Drunken Master as the highest grossing movie in Hong Kong.


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So a little background to where Kung-Fu movies were at this time. While Bruce Lee had breathed life into the HK action scene for a while, after his death things more or less went back to the way they had been. That means a lot of historical settings, very stagey action, and acting that was more akin to the opera than anything even remotely approaching naturalistic. Yes, there were Brucesploitation movies, but even they tended to fall into the same pattern. One thing you almost never got in kung-fu movies was comedy. You’d get grim tough guys, fighting grim baddies in a set and standard story style. Jackie Chan wanted, very badly, to change all that. Now while Fearless Hyena doesn’t change everything, it does inject a few things that were new at the time. It’s not a perfect movie by any stretch, but it is pretty decent.

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What’s wrong with the movie? Well, the three acts sort of fall into place with a loud and rather sickening thud. First Jackie’s character (Shing Lung, but we might as well just call him Jackie) is irresponsible and gets into fights a lot. His grandfather tries to train in him Kung Fu and teach him responsibility, but it sort of fails. During this early part of the movie Jackie’s supposed to find work, which leads to a fairly funny bit with a coffin seller. The second act opens when some gamblers he beat up ask him to teach kung-fu at a school they work at. After the second act starts, the events of the first act are more or less forgotten. Likewise, once the third act begins, with the death of Jackie’s grandfather and the eventual revenge. That’s not a spoiler, that’s a definition of Jackie Chan’s movies for the first seven or eight years of his career. The point is, the script is mechanical and perfunctory.

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So what’s right about the movie? Well, let’s start with its great weakness. There doesn’t really need to be much of a script. Like a Charlie Chaplin movie, the story is just a framework on which comedy and fights can be laid out. The comedy, while broad, is pretty funny. Granted, it’s funny in a Chaplin/Three Stooges kind of way, but what exactly is wrong with that? The bits where Chan dresses up as an idiot and a girl to fight challengers to his school is still some of the funniest fighting I’ve ever seen. This is a really funny movie, even if it more or less drops the comedy in the third act. The comedy isn’t completely gone though. A sequence where two characters fight over a morsel of food with chopsticks is pretty good and sort of makes fun of the staged action of a Shaw Brothers movie.

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How is the action then? Pretty good for the time, but not spectacular as action in and of itself. When the serious fighting at the end commences, the movie is just following a path to its forgone conclusion. It’s actually more impressive watching the training than the final fight. However, given that naturalistic fighting wasn’t really a thing at this time, and that you can almost hear the metronome counting off beats as they fight, it’s not bad. It is however obviously a swan song for this sort of Kung Fu movie. Chan soon after abandoned this style of film fighting, going for a more naturalistic and fast paced approach. Once he proved to be the leading star in Hong Kong, others followed his lead and the world of Kung Fu cinema changed forever.

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So in the end, this is an interesting step towards a greater kind of movie, but it’s not much beyond that. It’s pretty good, but a long way from being great. You can watch it online for free if you look for it, I think it’s probably in the public domain at this point. You could also get it on get it on DVD. I would recommend watching it, but don’t go in thinking you’re going to see some groundbreaking wonder because you aren’t. However, you will see something funny and that’s worth your time.

Official Score:
15 Degrees on the Graffiti Bridge Scale.

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