"Fearless Hyena" doesn't have the cult following of other early Jackie Chan movies such as "Drunken Master" or "Snake in the Eagle's Shadow": this is peculiar since it is actually Chan's directorial debut -- his reward for the enormous success of those earlier movies, and a sweetener to keep him working for the studio a little longer. However, although successful in Hong Kong, the film seems to have been buried and lost to overseas Kung Fu fans, where it received the usual poor treatment: bad dubbing and blurry pan & scan video releases. Now re-mastered and re-released in a crystal clear "ultra bit" special edition by the redoubtable Hong Kong Legends, the film is sure to garner interest from Jackie Chan fans for its non-stop showcase of the master's talents in their earliest, liveliest incarnation. The film's simple plot is nothing more than a vehicle designed to show off every aspect of Chan's screen presence to its best effect; from his playful comic demeanour, to his ability to combine his Martial Arts skills with a slapstick approach that pays homage to Chan's love of Buster Keaton and the Three Stooges. Then, the last half hour of the film gets serious, and Chan gets to show some raw emotion (all-be-it of the highly exaggerated kind) as he goes into battle to avenge his fallen master. The result is at times uneven and self indulgent -- not surprising since Chan not only directed and choreographed all the action, but also wrote the screenplay too -- but there is no denying the mercurial little man's awesome physical dexterity and almost superhuman skills, both of which are well demonstrated in several amazing set-pieces.
The action takes place, like many Kung Fu flicks of the time, in a period just after the fall of the Ming dynasty, when the Kung Fu schools found themselves outlawed by the invading Qing Government. The opening pre-credit scene shows clan leader Chen Peng-Fei (James Tien) running for his life from the forces of the evil white-haired Governor Yen (Yam Sai-Kun). Peng-Fei's students sacrifice themselves for the sake of their instructor while he makes his getaway -- they fall to the awesome power of Yen's unforgiving "claw Fist" technique. This plot line then promptly disappears from the movie for the next sixty minutes or so! Instead we join Chen's cocky grandson, Heng Lung (Jackie Chan) as he is put to shame for his arrogance and misuse of the Martial Arts techniques he has been taught by his Grandpa, who is now in hiding with his unsuspecting grandson in a small shack on the outskirts of a poverty-stricken village.
Comedy is the dominant strain in this film for most of the running time now: Chan utilises pole fighting and some intricate choreography that incorporates everyday items of furniture into his whacky Martial Arts routines to great effect, bringing his cheeky screen persona to the fore in a number of sequences that don't exactly progress plot that much, but provide numerous comedy interludes that Hong Kong audiences would doubtless have found hilarious in 1979. In the marketplace where his Grandpa sells stick figures to children, Heng Lung comes across three cheating gamblers who are working a "find the pea under the cup" scam at one of the stalls. After he exposes their duplicity, the three ugly miscreants are not too pleased and attempt to ambush Lung as he makes his way home. However, the techniques that Chen has taught his Grandson ensure that Heng Lung makes short work of the bumbling criminals, and they wind-up setting-up a meeting with their master (a Benny Hill look-a-like played by Keun Li) who decides to offer Heng Lung a job in his fake Martial Arts Academy. Despite being warned never to abuse his skills for profit, Lung accepts the job in hopes of raising money to look after his ailing Grandfather.
The next portion of the film sees Chan pitting himself against a number of opponents who turn up at the Academy hoping to challenge its founder. Clad in a number of whacky disguises (from a cross-eyed janitor to a worryingly convincing piece of cross-dressing by Chan) Heng Lung fights off all comers -- still very much in comedy mode. When his Grandpa discovers what has been going on though, Lung is despondent, and unwittingly gives directions to a stranger who asks for the location of Chen Peng-Fei's house, not knowing that this is the white-haired assassin we saw at the beginning of the film!
The film now kicks into conventional "revenge" story. General Yen and his three goons murder Lung's Grandpa in cold blood, while Lung is restrained by a mysterious beggar who stops him from going to his relation's aid. It turns out that this beggar is the Eight-legged Unicorn (Hui Lou Chen) whom Lung's Grandpa went to his death to protect. Lung is outraged that Unicorn did nothing to help, but his motives spring from the fact that despite his years of training, Heng Lung is simply no match for Yen's awesome skills. The crippled beggar is himself easily able to defeat the angry Lung -- but he promises to train his new protégé in his emotional Kung Fu technique, after which, he just might be on a par with General Yen.
The film now plays out in time-honoured fashion: lots of scenes of Lung training under his new master which allow a few more scenes of comedy to play out before the emotional climax. There is the traditional sequence where Lung meets Yen before he is ready to combat him and is treated with such disdain by the evil master that he can't even be bothered to kill him. Instead, he laughs in the face of Lung's pain and impotent humiliation.
This is just the prelude to the final sequence which is as spectacularly choreographed a Martial Arts sequence as you would expect to see. "Fearless Hyena" features a few comedy sequences that go on slightly too long, and the story is by no means up to much -- but when it comes to Martial Arts action, Jackie Chan can usually be relied on to deliver the goods and this he does in spades in a film where he has total freedom to showcase his talents exactly how he wants them to be seen. The anamorphic transfer is fantastic and there is a fairly easygoing commentary by writers from Martial Arts Illustrated and Compact Magazine, Andrew Staton and Arnie Hayirlioglu. Audio options include Cantonese 5.1, English 5.1 and the original Cantonese mono.