A scene inexplicably cut from Bruce Lee's first kung fu opus, THE BIG BOSS (aka FISTS OF FURY, 1971).
Every now and then a would-be movie-renter needs a bit of help when choosing from an unfamiliar genre and perhaps no genre is more misunderstood and maligned than that of the martial arts flick. Most Americans roll their eyes at the mere mention of “chopsocky” films and the incredibly stilted — and often hilarious — dialogue that goes with the territory, along with a perceived sacrifice of story in favor of mindless violence and ass-whuppin’; admittedly, these criticisms are not invalid, but much like any other genre one must sift through a lot of real shit to get to the gems, but a feature unique to this kind of picture is that sometimes the pieces of shit can be more fun than their more serious-minded brethren.
In her 1978 study of the subject, THE MARTIAL ARTS FILMS, Marilyn D. Mintz defines a martial arts film by pretty much any content that portrays the act of physical combat between people, a ridiculously liberal interpretation that allows her to classify such films as ROCKY, THE THREE MUSKETEERS and THE MARK OF ZORRO as such, a position that I strongly disagree with. Yes, boxing, swordsmanship and the like can be applied as both sport and combat arts, but for the purpose of clarity I would like to define the martial arts film as any movie that features combat involving mostly Asian forms of hand-to-hand and weapons fighting, whether the combatants are of Asian descent or not, although I will be focusing on films produced in China and Japan since virtually all entries produced anywhere else on the globe are generally horrendous specimens indeed.
And now that I’ve gotten the requisite film-fuck horseshit out of the way, let’s get down to it!
There are literally thousands of martial arts films to sort through, featuring just about every possible permutation of ways in which to do harm to one’s fellow man lovingly depicted in glorious Technicolor sanguinity, and it’s the job of die-hards such as yours truly to endure the utter garbage out there so we can advise you laymen on what to avoid and what to treasure.
Even if you have a limited knowledge of the subject, or none at all, you have no doubt heard of Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan, both of whom have unquestionably done more to popularize the genre to the world at large than any other actors and they have both contributed their share of classics and clunkers. I’ll spare you an analysis of their respective output and just give you the films of theirs that you really need to see; Bruce only made four complete features before his untimely death in 1973 and Jackie has an uninterrupted catalog of films that encompasses more than three decades, so remember the following are their quintessential works and should not be missed:
FIST OF FURY (aka THE CHINESE CONNECTION, 1972)
Thanks to a moron at the American film distributor fucking up, the film that was to be released as FISTS OF FURY in the States had its new title switched with that of THE BIG BOSS, which was retitled THE CHINESE CONNECTION to riff off of the then-current THE FRENCH CONNECTION and its heroin-related content, so seeing this film as THE CHINESE CONNECTION led to a bit of confusion as this film has nothing whatsoever to do with drug smuggling. Instead THE CHINESE CONNECTION is an archetypal “You killed my master!” revenge flick that has Bruce as the top student at a kung fu school in Japanese-occupied China whose master is poisoned by the dastardly Samurai fuckheads at a local karate/swordsmanship/Japanesestuff dojo. Bruce and his schoolmates endure all kinds of shit from the intolerably obnoxious Japanese because their teacher did not believe in vengeance, but since this is a Bruce Lee movie it’s only a matter of time until Bruce puts his slipper-clad foot right up the collective ass of every motherfucker in the dojo, all while firmly standing up for Chinese pride in the face of imperialist racism and all-around douchebaggery.
Intense and violent as hell, complete with some of Bruce’s — and martial arts cinema’s — most spectacular fights and the mother of all downbeat endings, this is simply the best film Bruce Lee ever made and it’s painfully obvious when Bruce stepped in to stage and choreograph the fights with his Hollywood trained eye since the hack director handles every other sequence in a rather pedestrian style that was common to much of Chinese cinema at the time.
RETURN OF THE DRAGON (1972)
Originally THE WAY OF THE DRAGON, this was released in the West after the success of the US/Hong Kong Warner Brothers collaboration ENTER THE DRAGON — more on that in a moment — hence the cash-in moniker. The story, involving Bruce as a badassed country bumpkin sent to Rome to protect a relative’s Chinese restaurant from abuse by the Mafia, is no great shakes, but this is the only film completely directed by Lee from start to finish and the fights rock some major ass. The highlights include Bruce decimating the mob’s attempts to fuck with his countrymen and a stunning one-on-one battle between Bruce and Chuck Norris in the Colosseum that has justly been hailed as one of the classic set-tos of the entire genre (if not the classic).
ENTER THE DRAGON (1973)
Perhaps no other film exemplifies what Westerners think of as a kung fu flick as much as this textbook tournament story. Bruce is a Shaolin monk/bad motherfucker sent by British intelligence to participate in an exclusive competition on a kung fu megalomaniac’s private island while simultaneously searching out a missing British operative/mole and gunning for the gweilo scumbag (Bob Wall) who caused his hapkido badass sister (Angela Mao Ying) to kill herself. The James Bond angle is a bit of a reach and in no way fits in with Bruce’s established “badass for the little guy” persona, but when you have this much wall-to-wall, balls out ass-whuppin’ who fucking cares? Lee’s fighting skills verge on the superhuman and there is not one other character in the whole piece that is even remotely a challenge for him — certainly not an out-of-his-league John Saxon — with even the final battle against the claw-handed main baddie being pretty much Bruce Lee kicking an old man’s ass, but it’s nonetheless a pleasure to see him and Jim Kelly, the God of the over-the-top Afro, beat the snot out of all comers. For me the highlights are Bruce’s so-unfair-that-it’s-embarrassing beat-down on Bob Wall (in which Lee’s movements were so fast that the film had to be undercranked so they could be seen on screen) and the battle in the underground dungeon/heroin processing plant where Lee takes on about a hundred guys using his fists, feet, a pole, two Escrima clubs and a pair of nunchaku, with a very young, pre-eye surgery Jackie Chan on the receiving end of a savage neck-snapping.
BRUCE LEE: A WARRIOR’S JOURNEY (2000)
Of the many Bruce Lee documentaries — most of which were cheap and offensive cash-in exploitation trash and I should know because I've seen them all — this is hands down the best and it does the Nobel Peace Prize-worthy service of including the full-length fight sequences from the unfinished Lee-directed GAME OF DEATH, thereby sparing you the torturous experience of sitting through that posthumously-released act of cinematic necrophiliac rape. You see, before Bruce took the dirt nap he had begun shooting a film that he both wrote and directed and all that exists of this work is a sequence wherein Bruce and two other Chinese dudes (who are best left out of it) ascend a pagoda and Bruce fights a martial arts master of a different style on each level, finally ending up in a visually bizarre and stunning throwdown against one of his real life students, namely all seven feet and two inches of NBA legend Kareem Abdul Jabbar. The greedy bastards at Warner Brothers and Golden Harvest took the footage and crafted a “movie” around it featuring an utterly unconvincing double for Lee and the film is not only stultifyingly boring but it also has the nerve to paste a photo of Bruce to a mirror while his double peers into the looking glass. But never mind that bollocks; the documentary is both fun and informative, with a wealth of screen tests and home movies, and of course the un-fucked-with ass-whuppin’ footage.
SHAOLIN WOODEN MEN (1976)
A young nobody when he made this one, Jackie Chan plays a silent serf at the local monastery who seeks to learn kung fu skills for reasons that are revealed late in the story. Not great or spectacular by any means, this is worth it for a look at Jackie’s pre-superstardom output and is strictly optional for the casual viewer.
SNAKE IN THE EAGLE’S SHADOW (1978)
This is the first inkling of what was to come, insomuch as it's a hell of a lot of fun and is the first pairing of Chan and the scene-stealing Simon Yuen — father of Yuen Woo Ping, the genius who later went on to choreograph the fu on display in the MATRIX trilogy, among other stunners — as student and teacher. Jackie plays an abused servant at a martial arts school who is taken under the wing of the last master of the Snake Fist style, a discipline the master keeps secret since he is being sought by a murderous Eagle Claw proponent who seeks to wipe out the Snake Fist once and for all. After being secretly tutored in the art, Jackie engages in a series of set-tos and eventually incorporates a house cat’s fighting technique as witnessed against a cobra into his own skills, a bit of thinking that figures heavily into the final fight. A surprise hit, this was more or less remade the next year as…
DRUNKEN MASTER (1978)
There are those who give it up for PROJECT A (1983), but Yer Bunche says that without a doubt this flick is Jackie Chan’s finest hour and is also simply the funniest martial arts film ever made. Realizing that “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” the producers pretty much remade SNAKE IN THE EAGLE’S SHADOW, only amping up the humor and fight scenes and coming out with a five star masterpiece. Jackie plays an outrageously irreverent version of legendary real life martial arts hero Wong Fei-Hung, here reinterpreted as a young-but-talented trouble-making kung fu asshole who is the bane of his father’s existence and so incorrigible that his dad enlists the lad’s uncle, the drunken master of the title, to train him and set his ass straight. What ensues is a cornucopia of spectacular and downright hilarious ass-whuppery replete with weapons, rude behavior and jaw-dropping choreography, basically a feature-length highlight reel. Trust me, there is not one boring moment in the entire movie and films this fun are more rare that tits on a fish, so under no circumstances should you miss this one. This also unsurprisingly proved to be box office gold and was kinda/sorta remade the following year as…
THE FEARLESS HYENA (1979)
Pretty much the same as the previous two — though not quite as good — but worth checking out if you can’t find the other two. Plus it has what may be the first time we see Jackie in drag.
WHEELS ON MEALS (1984)
Typical of Chan’s mid-1980’s output, this entry greatly benefits from the presence of Jackie’s “brothers” from his Peking Opera school days, namely Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao. Shot in Spain and placing a distinct emphasis on comedy rather than action, this film goes down in history for the riotous final half hour in which the heroes engage in melee combat with a series of opponents, most memorably when Jackie takes on Benny “the Jet”Urquidez in a fight that rivals the Bruce Lee/Chuck Norris match in RETURN OF THE DRAGON.
DRUNKEN MASTER II (1994)
Up there with THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK and THE GODFATHER PART 2 as a sequel that may be better than the film that spawned it and makes you say, “Holy FUCK! That was a KICKASS movie!,” this fifteen-years-later sequel is simply amazing from start to finish and is considered by some to be the finest martial arts film ever made. I don’t agree with that assessment, but this sure is one entertaining mammajamma and a more than worthy companion to the original. I won’t recap the plot in order to save the surprises for the first time viewer, but if you can, track down the Hong Kong version since the American release — titled LEGEND OF DRUNKEN MASTER — chops off the politically incorrect ending in which our hero has quite by necessity drunk himself into a broadly-played state of mental retardation. As a catalog of stunning beatdowns this film is hard to surpass and may actually be a bit more palatable to the layman than the original because of the slicker, faster production values.
Now that you have the skinny on the gods of kung fu cinema, here are a few picks that may or may not be found at your local Cocksucker, er, Blockbuster Video, but each has virtues that make them all special and a lot of fun, so here we go:
13 EVIL BANDITS (1979-aka FLYING CLAW AGAINST 14 DEMONS and AGAINST THE DRUNKEN CAT PAWS)
Chia Ling — also known in the West as Judy Lee — stars here as a badassed kung fu chick who gets two poisoned darts fired directly into her eyeballs and spends the rest of the movie doing the DRUNKEN MASTER thing and getting ripped to the tits on rice wine, a prescribed treatment that is guaranteed to cure her blindness (???). Yeah, she’s blind, but that doesn’t stop her from kicking the ass of pretty much everyone she encounters. In fact, if we weren’t told that she’s blind we’d never have known it. There’s also a nearly incomprehensible main plot that has something to do with a bunch of bad guys out to get revenge on the magistrate who imprisoned their leader (I think), the inevitable final melee that involves an over-the-top comedic government official who may be cinema’s only pipe-smoking kung fu flaming homosexual badass, the bizarre antics of “the Poison Dwarf,” and there’s even a ludicrous romantic subplot in which the male half of the couple turns into a demon, complete with Sub-Mariner eyebrows, for no adequately explained reason. Feeling like it was edited by a weed whacker-wielding psycho on some bad brown acid, this film makes virtually no sense whatsoever but it’s lively as hell and never goes much longer than two or three minutes without a fight breaking out. In fact, this is what I’d imagine a kung fu movie lensed by a nine-year-old might look like and it even exudes a childlike sense of sheer fun.
LEGENDARY WEAPONS OF CHINA (aka LEGENDARY WEAPONS OF KUNG FU, 1982)
Considered in some circles to be the best kung fu film ever made — an opinion I do not share — this tells the story of a warrior cult who believe in a quasi-magical form of pugilism that will make them immune to bullets. Learning nothing from the deaths of wave after wave of ventilated adepts during tests against rifles fired at them at point blank range, the head of the cult orders the assassination of their former top instructor, now deemed a traitor thanks to his denouncing their belief in bulletproof kung fu as suicide and leaving the cult to become a recluse. The student sent to kill him has been brainwashed into a state of homicidal zealotry and it’s up to a female adept who has remained loyal to the former instructor to stop the assassin and/or find and warn the elder, both difficult tasks. When the assassin and the adept clash, it’s great fun as they both seek to accomplish their missions in secret while steering clear of an abbot who also wants to plant his foot in the former instructor’s ass. It all snowballs to the inevitable conclusion and to say more would spoil the surprises, but I will say that you get many incredible displays of classical kung fu styles performed by the cream of the Shaw Brothers studio crop.
THE STREET FIGHTER (1974)
Triads, but why quibble?). That’s pretty much the basic plot, but as the story unfolds we get to know Tsurugi and see the source of his animalistic rage, a rage that is frequently expressed in a graceless ballet of maiming, bones broken in x-ray and spewing blood, all of which won the film the first MPAA-assigned X rating for graphic violence. Not for the squeamish or easily offended, this is an exploitation milestone and should be seen at least once.
And Sonny Chiba’s performance is simply unforgettable.
KIDS FROM SHAOLIN (1984-aka SHAOLIN TEMPLE 2)
An early Jet Li film, this is a charming and light-hearted comedy/romance about two families who live on opposite sides of a river; one family has nothing but sons, the other nothing but daughters and all of them are masters of kung fu. Li shines as the eldest son and the two families continually war against each other in an effort to see whose style is better. The fu on display is exemplary, particularly that of Li and a kid called “Monkey Boy” and it all comes to a head when an army of bandits attempt to abduct the girls. The would-be abduction ignites a twenty-minute martial arts free-for-all replete with flying limbs and spectacular weapons forms that must be seen to be believed.
MY YOUNG AUNTIE (1981)
Beautiful Shaw Brothers regular Hui Ying Hung gets her only headlining role as a proper, traditionally-raised girl from the country who marries a man old enough to be her father, much to the chagrin of his Western-influenced son.
Our heroine must endure her new nephew’s disapproval and attempts to get her to leave, all while trying to adapt to a more sophisticated life with modern trappings. And as if that wasn’t enough, she also has to thwart a plot to screw over the government. Good thing she also happens to be a hardcore kung fu phenom! The film culminates in a multi-person nonstop kung fu brawl that goes on for over a half hour — seriously! — and is so exhausting that I had to stop the DVD about halfway through to take a break. Not for all tastes, but I love it.
SEVEN BLOWS OF THE DRAGON (1972-aka THE WATER MARGIN)
Imported by Warner Brothers at the beginning of the Seventies kung fu movie boom, this Shaw Brothers epic tells the story of the Mountain Bandits, a bunch of Robin Hood-esque folk heroes, and their rescue of the unjustly imprisoned Jade Dragon, a pole fighting master who is framed for treason by his adulterous wife and the steward of his house. Loaded with colorful characters — Black Whirlwind and Young Dragon steal the movie — and crazy fights, this is more fun than it has any right to be and includes a scene where a bad guy warns one of his men against the technique of one of the heroes thusly: “Watch out! The Double-Kick of Death!!!,” at which point the wielder of the aforementioned technique proceeds to kick the guy THREE times. Entertaining as a motherfucker.
FIVE ELEMENT NINJAS (1982-aka SUPER NINJAS and CHINESE SUPER NINJAS)
It’s the old Chinese versus Japanese thing again, but this time it’s in the hands of infamous director Chang Cheh, widely and not unfairly hailed as the most bloodthirsty of the Shaw Brothers helmers. A bunch of sneaky ninjas slowly decimate a Chinese kung fu school with the help of a female spy and “the five element ninjas,” and the one surviving student escapes to train in a style specifically designed to defeat the five elements. Old school kung fu at its best and the final fight against the master ninja has a shockingly explosive ending that was understandably edited for television airings in the 1980's.
FIVE DEADLY VENOMS (1978-aka THE FIVE VENOMS)
The five students of the Poison Clan have left the temple and entered the outside world, and their aging master sends his last pupil to find out what has become of them. What’s the big deal, you may ask? Well, the five students are each masters of individual skills that grant them superhuman powers to complement their prodigious kung fu expertise; there’s the Toad (invulnerability), the Snake (penetrating strikes), the Centipede (multiple fist attacks), the Scorpion (stunning kicking prowess) and the Lizard (ability to cling to walls like Spider-Man and kick your ass at the same time), all of whom were groomed in evil skills that if misused could threaten the world at large.
The remaining pupil has been schooled in a bit of each technique and must determine if the Venoms are using their abilities for good or ill, and if they have become villains they must be stopped, which is only possible by allying with at least one of the wayward Venoms. Much intrigue and creative violence ensues, culminating in an outrageous fight with the Lizard standing on the wall and kicking ass. A classic of the martial superhero sub-genre, the one stumbling block with this one is that it's very plot-heavy and takes its time weaving intricate levels of intrigue when there's no fighting going on.
MARTIAL CLUB (1984-aka INSTRUCTORS OF DEATH)
A character study of two warring schools who each seek the spotlight position in a traditional lion dance festival, this film features several great fights but really focuses on the importance of taking one’s training seriously and not using it for purposes of showing off, a lesson painfully learned by one of the protagonists.
MASTER KILLER (1978-aka THE 36TH CHAMBER OF SHAOLIN)
One of the best Shaw Brothers films and unquestionably the film that made Gordon Liu a star, this recounts the supposedly true story of San Te, the man who brought Shaolin kung fu from the temple to the outside world. Basically a feature-length look at one man’s years-long training for the cause of justice, the film holds the viewer riveted from start to finish, each frame made more involving due to Liu’s ultra-expressive, sad-eyed visage. The kung fu is exquisite and the hero’s accidental invention of the three-sectional staff is a gem. This is a perfect film to show to people who aren’t into martial arts films since the movie intimately focuses on San Te’s personal struggle, a struggle that just happens to involve half a decade’s grueling study in the killing arts. In fact, even my mother loves this one!
HEROES OF THE EAST (1979-aka SHAOLIN CHALLENGES NINJA)
A young man (Gordon Liu) dreads entering into an arranged marriage with the daughter of his father's Japanese business partner. That is until he sees his cute-as-hell bride. The two marry and all goes swimmingly until the wife is revealed to be a hardcore mistress of the Japanese fighting arts, a fact that ignites an ongoing battle between the spouses over which is better, Chinese kung fu or Japanese budo.
The two square off over hand-to-hand skills and swordsmanship, with the husband soundly defeating the wife, while smugly gloating over Chinese superiority the whole time. Having had enough, the wife attacks her husband with ninja trickery and defeats him, which leads her husband to denounce her abilities as "murder" and not martial arts. Thoroughly offended, the wife promptly leaves her husband and returns to her family home, and at his servant's insistence the husband gets shitfaced drunk and writes his wife a scathing letter that pisses all over Japanese martial arts. The letter is intercepted by her male relatives, each one a hardcore master, and HOO BOY!!! are they pissed off. The Japanese masters then show up at the husband's home, declaring that each of them will take him on one at a time each day in order to disprove his insulting comments.
Just one of the film's several Chinese-versus-Japanese martial challenges, this one designed to prove the superiority of either the katana or the wushu sword.
What ensues is a joy to behold as Gordon Liu puts his money where his mouth is and kicks much Rising Sun ass while simultaneously gaining his in-laws' respect and winning over his fiercely traditional wife (she stops wearing her formal kimono and adopts Chinese garb while cheering him on; not exactly subtle storytelling, but it works). Nobody gets killed and the film ends on a note of two proud cultures reaching an understanding, something you never see in a Chinese versus Japanese scenario. Perhaps the perfect martial arts date movie because love — and being a total badass — conquers all. No lie, this is my all-time favorite Shaw Brothers flick and I urge you to see it immediately.
MAD MONKEY KUNG FU (1979)
One of the all-time classics (and narrowly edged out by HEROES OF THE EAST for point of place as my favorite Shaw Brothers movie), this one relates the story of a Peking opera performer who enjoys his wine a bit too much and endures great tragedy as a result. The hero (the incredible Lau Kar Leung) performs tales of the legendary Monkey King onstage with his beautiful sister (the toothsome Hui Ying Hung) and unfortunately the girl’s beauty arouses the lust of a local whorehouse owner (played by perennial all-purpose bad guy Lo Lei, here seen in a rare appearance without his trademark long white wig and beard) who frames the hero for drunkenly raping his concubine. Protesting his innocence, the hero is sentenced to death but is saved when his sister offers to become the brothel owner’s woman (you know what that means), but the bad guy is such an outright son of a bitch that he needlessly and sadistically adds injury to insult by having the innocent actor’s hands savagely crippled. The story then skips ahead a few years to find the actor now barely scraping out a living as a candy vendor on the street, aided by his pet monkey. The hero soon attracts an unwanted sidekick in the form of "Monkey" (Hsaio Hu), a young street urchin whose apelike demeanor earned him his nickname, and the two soon come to depend on each other. When local ruffians kill his real monkey after he is unable to pay protection money, the hero trains Monkey to take the place of his pet. While working at another job to bring in extra cash, Monkey catches sight of the hero’s sexually enslaved sister and attempts to rescue her. After the inevitable ass-kicking, Monkey begs the actor to train him in monkey kung fu so he can save the sister, plunging the story into a grueling training sequence.
After much intense hard work, Monkey proves to be a natural prodigy at the simian style and he and his master storm the whorehouse to lay down some righteous payback. Unquestionably one of the most satisfying revenge flicks, this is stunning in every way.
Honorable mention: YES, MADAM (1985) and RIGHTING WRONGS (1986)
Both of these are recommended due to the presence of Cynthia Rothrock, a petite blonde American kung fu champ who can outfight any man. YES, MADAM pairs her with a young Michelle Yeoh (CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON)
and the final fight scene is fucking incredible, so much so that it has been known to make non-believers into fans of kung fu movies instantaneously.
RIGHTING WRONGS (aka ABOVE THE LAW and pre-dating the Steven Seagal movie of the same name) pairs Rothrock with Yuen Biao, but for all intents and purposes Rothrock owns the film, especially during her blistering fight with the equally badassed Karen Shepard. Both films are definitely worth checking out for the awesome fights, but both have dated badly and bear all the visual earmarks of mid-1980’s action cinema that very quickly became quite tired.
And with that, let me remind you to add any of your own picks to the comments section.