Dir: Jackie Chan
In typical Indy fashion, the film begins with what feels like the end of an adventure we didn’t see. In this case, Jackie (as the character is called in the restored extended version I watched for this) is taking gems from a cave but is attacked by the tribe that lives there when he drinks the holy water. It’s all a lot of nonsense to lead into a pretty spectacular sequence of the character zorbing down a cliff and sets the tone pretty well.
At 117 minutes in this cut (extended from 107 in the original Hong Kong release, and just 80 minutes in its US version), Operation Condor takes a while to set up its story, which eventually finds Jackie sent to locate Nazi gold buried in the Sahara desert with three women (Eva Cobo, Carol ‘DoDo’ Cheng and Shôko Ikeda) in tow, who all have some connection either to the hunt or to the people who stole the gold. Aside from the set pieces (an exceptional car and bike chase and a slapstick break in and fight at Cobo’s house), the first hour of the film is a slog, especially because Chan and co-writer Edward Tang, in their cribbing from Spielberg, have decided to give all three of the female co-stars the Willie Scott role. This means that rather than just one perma-screaming damsel in endless distress we have an entire chorus of them. Along with the several times that their (mostly implied) nudity is used as a distraction in fights and the amount of times each of them gets hit, it all feels pretty retrograde, as do the racial politics, with a bunch of white stuntmen playing mujahideen fighters (better that though than putting them in brownface).
What keeps the whole thing afloat during the first two acts is twofold. First, there are just about enough setpieces to paper over the cracks and secondly, when those moments come, Chan attacks them with all his customary energy and precision. Operation Condor took 18 months to make and was the most expensive film made in Hong Kong up to that time and Jackie and co-director Frankie Chan put it all up on screen. The mid-film set piece that ranges all across the desert hotel where Jackie and the women are staying is a highlight, with agile and funny martial arts mixing with stunt work and an epic amount of squibs laying waste to the set when Eva Cobo fires a machine gun she can’t control.
As a fan of martial arts cinema, I always know broadly that what we’re waiting for is the last act of the movie. The action beats up until then are all well and good, but it’s all prologue. This being a long film, Jackie and his stunt team have a lot saved up for what is a roughly half-hour finale that moves from fight to fight, from overblown set to overblown set, and from stunt to stunt with breathless energy. Once we get to the base where the gold is held, the film is on rails (much like Temple of Doom when it finally gets to its own underground finale). Happily, he finally throws his leading ladies (all of whom, annoying though their characters can be, are very game and look like they’re having a great time), allowing them some inventiveness in a great little comic action beat.
Operation Condor came in the middle of an all but unprecedented 18 year run between The Young Master and Who Am I in which, at least in the Hong Kong films he was top-billed in, Jackie barely put a foot wrong—figuratively speaking. It’s in this last half hour that this film finally kicks fully into gear to stand alongside exalted company like the Police Story and Project A films. The fight that runs through the first room in the base, with Jackie winding his way through railings and into and out of vents as he fights, is reminiscent, at a time when they had fallen out, of Sammo Hung’s masterful Eastern Condors. Jackie, if never as hard-hitting as his bigger brother, inevitably goes bigger. First there is a fight across two massive seesawing platforms, and then the grand finale in a wind tunnel. This sequence is everything Jackie Chan does well: it is grandiose in its silliness, but also allows him to play to all of his physical comedy strengths as well as achieve some unique action beats.
This sequence, along with the end of first act chase and the last half hour as a whole, are where Operation Condor best captures the sheer joy of watching Jackie Chan work at his best. The film as a whole may be inconsistent, but in its best moments it soars like Jackie as he uses the turbine to fly at an opponent, gleefully yelling “Superman”.