On this week’s edition of our Shouts from the Back Row podcast, we discussed great dramatic performances from comedic actors and I chose to focus on two performers whom you wouldn’t normally associate with this subject: Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung. Of course, being such iconic martial arts stars, you rarely saw them stretch their acting muscles in their films because… well, they didn’t have to. Obviously, their audience never cared about plot or characterization as long as the two stars were able to deliver some kickass stunt and fight sequences. And, of course, the films in which they displayed their skills were generally pretty light-hearted and didn’t require much in the way of drama. However, in 1985, Chan and Hung decided to deviate from their usual formula and try something different when they made Heart of Dragon. The film is a pretty unique anomaly in the two actors’ careers, to say the least. For a large chunk of the running time, it’s a pretty serious drama which features virtually no action until the final act. Just imagine tuning into a Jackie Chan/Sammo Hung production to discover that Chan only has one fight sequence and Hung has none! Even though Heart of Dragon is a pretty uneven production that almost feels like two different movies spliced together, it does function as an effective showcase for its stars’ usually-untapped acting talents.
As the film opens, Ted (Jackie Chan) is a Hong Kong police detective who is forced to care for his younger brother, Danny (Sammo Hung). Danny is mentally challenged and even though he is 30 years old, he has the mindset of a child. Danny’s best friends happen to be children and when he hangs out with them, he often finds himself getting into mischief and Ted is called upon to bail him out of trouble. One day, Ted finds out he has achieved his lifelong dream of being accepted into the merchant marines. Of course, this will require Ted to be away sailing at sea with no one to care for his brother, which puts him in a major dilemma. At one point, Ted winds up snapping at Danny, blaming his brother for holding him back in life, but they soon reconcile and Ted decides to stay behind. However, it isn’t long before Danny accidentally becomes embroiled in a scheme involving some gangsters and some stolen jewellery, which winds up in Danny’s possession. When the gangsters come after the jewellery, Danny winds up being kidnapped and Ted is forced to put his ass on the line to rescue him, which leads to a climactic confrontation at a construction site.
It’s hard to imagine what it must have been like for fans of Jackie Chan or Sammo Hung to watch Heart of Dragon when it was originally released. I can only assume there was some disappointment when they had to wait until the film was three-quarters of the way over to see their first fight sequence. When the two stars pitched this movie, they probably wanted to branch out and do a serious drama, but the studio likely feared catastrophic disaster if they released a Jackie Chan/Sammo Hung picture without any action sequences. So the obvious compromise was to shoehorn a subplot about gangsters and stolen jewellery into the second half of the film even though there’s virtually no set-up for it whatsoever. Indeed, the first half of Heart of Dragon is a fairly serious, straightforward drama about the two brothers and it seems like the gangster subplot was concocted as an excuse for Chan to have a big action sequence, so that his fans would not feel cheated. However, in addition to the climax, Chan did actually film other fight sequences for the first half of the film. In the end, they wound up on the cutting room floor, though they can be seen as extras on the DVD release.
But even though Heart of Dragon is wildly uneven, it is a pretty entertaining film which does manage to be genuinely touching at times. Apparently, the studio wanted Hung to perform some fight scenes in the film, but he refused on the perfect logical grounds that his character was mentally challenged. But even though he doesn’t get to display his martial arts skills, Hung delivers a very solid performance as Danny. Even though the character’s child-like demeanour is a little over the top at times, he does garner genuine pathos and sympathy. Jackie Chan also delivers one of his best career performances as Ted. His standout moment is the heartbreaking scene where he finally snaps and has a huge emotional outburst where tells off his brother. Unfortunately, the only clip of this scene available on Youtube is the dubbed version, but Chan’s solid acting still shines through.
Even if you don’t find the dramatic aspects of Heart of Dragon to be your cup of tea, it’s worth hanging on to see the climactic action sequence, which is pretty lengthy and delivers the goods in a big way. But the scene is also lot more violent and darker than your typically light-hearted Jackie Chan action scene. Chan has always stated that he never wants his films to be too violent, which is why he is rarely shown firing a gun or killing his adversaries. However, Chan shows a much angrier and intense side of himself during the climax, committing such violent acts as killing a bad guy with a pickaxe. In a moment which was clearly inspired by Indiana Jones shooting the swordsman in Raiders of the Lost Ark, Chan is confronted by a bad guy swinging a shovel around, but elects to simply shoot the thug in the chest rather than fight him. After the big climax, Heart of Dragon also concludes with an ending which is a lot more poignant and downbeat than you’re used to seeing in one of his films. Overall, it’s really hard to predict how fans of Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung will react to Heart of Dragon. If you just want kick-ass action sequences, you’ll probably find the film disappointing, but if you’re anxious to see the two stars branch out and try something different, you’ll find it to be a pleasant surprise. At the very least, Chan and Hung deserve credit for leaving their comfort zones and showing that skilled action stars are also capable of being skilled actors.