A young daydreamer (Jackie Chan) assumes the identity of a dead martial arts hero and quickly finds himself caught up in a plot by several clans to steal famous martial arts artifacts being transported by an escort company.
Jackie first emerged as a comic kung fu star in Half a Loaf of Kung Fu, an early Lo Wei-produced kung fu comedy that is sustained by more enthusiasm than skill or wit. Low-brow antics, a dull blend of wuxia and classic kung fu elements, and mediocre supporting talent limit the film’s appeal. It doesn’t help matters that Jackie was attempting to turn on the very genre that was to make him a superstar.
Despite a rocky relationship that ended in controversy, Jackie Chan owes much of his initial success to producer and independent filmmaker Lo Wei. Lo had attempted to turn Jackie into the next Bruce Lee in films like New Fist of Fury and To Kill with Intrigue, but the young star wanted no part of it. After wrangling over several lackluster films done the “Lo Way,” the producer backed off and let Jackie take creative control on Half a Loaf of Kung Fu. Like an untamed beast set loose from captivity for the first time, Jackie ran wild with an almost desperate attempt to find his own voice. The result was a scramble to get as far away from the standard martial arts roles of the day as possible, by making a mockery of them.
The opening credits sequence, which is traditionally the place to display a preview of the martial arts action to be seen throughout the film turns into a series of sketches where Jackie pokes fun at just about every genre staple from Shaolin monks to noble swordsmen. At one point, the camera pulls away to show Jackie sparring with a miniature wooden dummy and at another point he even portrays Japanese star Shintaro Katsu in his Zatoichi guise. The opening sequence isn’t a complete joke though. He briefly gets serious with a pair of broadswords.
The film itself is sadly routine and only hints at the genius of Jackie’s breakout classics beginning with Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow. Jackie spends most of Half a Loaf as an untrained and unlikely hero who gets lucky on more than one occasion as he joins an escort company in protecting artifacts. This goes against the theme of most of Jackie’s better films where his characters only overcome adversity through painstaking effort and self-sacrifice. The drunken beggar role that became so popular with Simon Yuen’s performance as Sam Seed in Drunken Master is introduced here when a kung fu-fighting beggar (Lee Man-tai) sees through Jackie’s disguise as a famous whip hero and takes the lad under his wing. Unfortunately, his method of training Jackie is rather implausible and unsatisfying.
Character actor Dean Shek Tin, who almost exclusively played comic roles, is a compulsively-farting beggar who teaches Jackie some lame kung fu moves with names like “Concubine” and “Steel Finger.” But practice makes perfect and by the end he’s taking on the toughest of opponents. Tough isn’t really the right word though since Jackie doesn’t take any of these engagements seriously enough to make anyone look genuinely imposing. Lead villain Kam Kong is reduced to making crude stabs at the groin while Jackie makes like Popeye after eating Spinach and rips off Kam’s queue and wields it like nunchaku.
The final match is overlong, and disappointing by Jackie Chan standards. Members of several clans who have been struggling to get some artifacts team up to take on Jackie and his pals including so-so martial arts actress Doris Lung and Dean. The choreography lacks the punch and intense rhythm Jackie would perfect latter on and none of his foes can match Hwang Jang-lee or any of Jackie’s other great screen adversaries to come. But one nice touch occurs when Jackie is forced to read a kung fu manual while fighting Kam in order to learn some new moves. This gimmick is performed again by Jet Li at the end of Kung Fu Cult Master (1993).
Half a Loaf of Kung Fu isn’t a terrible film. It’s better than all of the films where Lo Wei tried to fit Jackie into a mold. Jackie has a certain charm, but with a lot less substance. The main problem is Jackie’s effort to break down the kung fu hero stereotype. It results in inferior kung fu choreography that is somewhat sloppy with Jackie intentionally relying too much on cheap gags and basic acrobatics. Therefore, this is not an essential film, except to see Jackie making his first baby steps towards becoming the next kung fu superstar, his way.
Genre: Kung Fu