Saturday afternoons back in the 70s offered few options by way of television viewing. We had four channels at the Benintende house, so they were further limited. Thank the TV Gods for “Kung Fu Theater.” True, the dubbing was always horrid, and too often the films look as if they were edited with a meat cleaver and the prints were always scratchy beyond reason. Also true the highest quality of foreign films were not represented most of the time. But, there were hours of entertainment and plenty to talk about with my friends at school Monday morning. Every once in awhile, an actual quality film would show up and let me know there were films that combine quality storytelling with high-energy action.
Sure, most of the time plots centered on some vague sense of vengeance tend to be dispensed at the hands of a lone hero. Sometimes, it was at the hands of the antihero. Other times, it was too difficult to tell who the good guy was, and so I just watched people leap around, kicking each other for half an hour. Below is my list of favorite ten martial arts films. Yes, I have included “The Seven Samurai.” Some people think it does not qualify as a true martial arts film, and that it is an epic, or simply a story of good-versus-evil: these people need to go back to film school and sit through multiple viewings of “Un chien Andalou” and get right in the head.
Akira Kurosawa’s genius is on full display here. With “Yojimbo,” he drew upon American pulp novels for the plot, which is essentially a Hollywood western with a healthy dose of Dashiell Hammett’s “The Dain Curse” with all of its dark, broken noir glory. Here, a lone samurai (Toshiro Mifune, brilliant is too tame a word) wanders into a dusty town on the edge of nowhere, greeted by a dog carrying a human hand. That’s never a good sign. It’s a place where two factions are in perpetual battle. The headquarters for each feuding side lie opposite of the town’s wide, burbling main street. Neither faction has a warrior fit for the title, so they mostly just glare at one another. In turn, the two clans both try to recruit Mifune, who exploits each gang’s weaknesses.
The struggle continues to build, and Mifune’s increasingly battered exterior does not betray his vague, cynical defiance. Couple that with Kurosawa’s visual energy: the cameras move, the motion swirls, rain falls, the tension builds, smoke seems to be constantly wafting through unceasing winds. You can draw a straight line from “Yojimbo” to the Italian classic “A Fistful of Dollars,” a film which completely redefined the American western.
As an aside, when it comes to the man-bun, it boils down to this: Is your name Toshiro Mifune? Yes? You may sport the man bun. No? Get a haircut.
Enter the Dragon (1973)
Bruce Lee is at his best in “Enter the Dragon.” The film was a world-wide box office smash in 1973 and the most famous film of his career. Tragically, the martial arts superstar died the summer before its release from a cerebral reaction to painkillers. It was the end of a career that began with Lee starting out as a child star in Hong Kong cinema and a role on TV’s “The Green Hornet.” In a short time, Lee exploded into action pictures, becoming a force to be reckoned with. He got so popular and was such a cash machine that Warner Brothers agreed to make “Enter the Dragon” with Lee as star as well as co-producer. It was essentially Hollywood’s first martial arts movie. Robert Clouse directed by basically yelling “action” and getting out of the way. Meanwhile, the script was written by Michael Allin, a scribe with an eye for excitement – he’s also the guy who wrote the Isaac Hayes’ must-see film “Truck Turner.” Lee possessed the physical grace of a ballet dancer and the lightning fast speed and explosive power of a puma. The man was a master of kung fu, judo and karate. He paved the way for today’s mixed martial arts to eclipse boxing as America’s premier bloodsport.
Too many times, I went to parties as a teenager, only to get stuck talking to the guy clutching the skull bong, waxing poetic about Lee. “Man, he was so fast, he could rip your heart out and show it to you before you died.” Ganga wafting in the air, head leaning back, smug look on his face, bong dude would talk about how Lee was a master of everything he came in contact with. I always wondered how you would go about proving that boast. Also, why would you want to do so? Lee never struck me as the type to commit homicide to show how fast he was. I digress.
Lee plays a Shaolin master recruited by British intelligence to enter a martial arts tournament undercover. The contest is the brainchild of a diabolical super villain named Han. Lee has a score to settle with Han – his thugs terrorized Lee’s kid sister, almost raping her. She commits suicide in defiance rather than submit to the goons for hire. He shows up at the island with a couple of American fighters: Williams (played by Jim Kelly, heavy on the Shaft-style street cred) and Roper (John Saxon, a suave playboy). Lee is all monkish purity and spirituality, with the singular vision of metering out revenge on Han. Lee takes out 50 opponents in the cave fight sequence. At one point, he actually kicked Jackie Chan. Lee apologized and promised Chan roles in all of his future films. Sadly, this epic would be his last.
Master of the Flying Guillotine (1976)
From the opening sequence of director Jimmy Wang Yu’s “Master of the Flying Guillotine” you know you’re in for a butt-kicking frenzy. A drunken one-armed derelict smashes a group of flies on his table from his teetering seat at the bar. He begins to brag about killing seven with one blow. He laughs, thinking the world should be in awe of such an amazing (to him) accomplishment. Suddenly, an object whips through the air, a basket lands on his head, the rope on the basket is yanked and the drunk’s head is severed and collected neatly in a basket.
The blind warrior who through the flying guillotine asks if that was the one-armed boxer only to find out it was, in fact, just an old drunk. He is unmoved by the error. He is a man on a quest for the one-armed man who wronged him and must pay. That’s about as much plot as you get. That’s about all you need. The blind guillotine master ends up in a martial arts competition seeking vengeance. The result is a film with plenty of martial arts action, each round more absurd than the one that preceded it. There is even a guy with praying mantis arms! Arms that extend. And smack the daylights out of his opponents.
The sound effects are comically bad, the dubbing is at best not even close to accurate and the martial arts are unbelievably gravity-defying. The version that played when I was a kid is very different than the one I saw in 2000. As a film, there is literally nothing to recommend this movie. As a fan of brainless violence and pure entertainment for the sake of entertainment, I cannot recommend this movie more fervently.
Seven Samurai (1954)
This film is often described by critics and film fans around the world as the greatest Japanese film ever made. There are days I would argue you could take the word Japanese out of that sentence and just call it the best film ever made. The top ten list of my favorite movies is constantly evolving, but this movie is never lower than six. Akira Kurosawa may be the most talented director this side of Alfred Hitchcock. His movies always move. They always build to the action in a way that gets me invested. There is a seamless brilliance to the constant motion that Kurosawa makes look effortless.
“Seven Samurai” is the master at the top of his game. So many facets of film-making and storytelling that are now common first saw the light of day here. Slow motion to add dramatic flair, the anti-hero or reluctant hero were little known or under-used. Kurosawa put them front and center. This is often credited as the first action film as well as template for martial arts films that follow.
Here’s the plot: A small village is be terrorized by a gang of thugs. Out of desperation, the townspeople go out in search of heroes, guardians willing to defend the village. They find seven men of various skills and talents. The seven samurai help train the villagers to defend themselves and it ends up with a climactic fight for justice and freedom from harassment by outsiders. Sure, it’s a tale that has been told before and since. But this is the time it was filmed so close to perfection. Of course I may be biased, but I’m the one writing and you’re the one reading this.
Production of “Seven Samurai” was halted twice due to Toho studios being on the verge of bankruptcy. The company had shovelled unheard of amounts of money into 1954’s “Godzilla.” The only thing that stopped the studio from scrapping production was the amount of money they had already sunken into the production. Kurosawa used both halts in production to take fishing trips. That is either grace or apathy under pressure. Either way, Kurosawa hit this film out of the park.
Drunken Master (1978)
“Drunken Master” is the film that paved the way for Jackie Chan to become the genres’ superstar. Golden Harvest realized Jackie Chan could not be the next Bruce Lee because nobody could – it’s like trying to be the next Michael Jordan, or the next Steve Jobs; some people simply fill a space in a place in time that nobody will ever duplicate, so work with what you have and make the most of the situation. Chan got teamed him up with director Yuen Woo-ping to create the first film to show drunken kung fu, a martial art taught to Chan by Yuen’s father, Yuen Xiao-tian. The elder Yuen also played Jackie Chan’s teacher in the movie. With “Drunken Master,” Kung fu comedy was born.
The drunken boxing style actually exists, originating from China. In Chinese it is called Zui Quan or Zuijuquan. A key difference from the film is that actual drunken kung fu is a serious undertaking. If you were to attempt actually performing it while inebriated, serious injury would likely occur. During filming, Chan nearly lost an eye when Hwang Jig Lee kicked him in the head during the final fight scene. Throughout his film career, Chan has been injured often, but he keeps moving forward, always smiling and coming back for more.
Plenty of people have vastly differing opinions on this film. Some find it laugh out loud funny, filled with brilliant action and fights that are a combination of art and comedy. Then there are people who think that it mocks serious martial arts and ought to be ashamed of itself. Avoid these people at parties. Sooner rather than later, they will be holding the skull bong, talking about how brilliant Bruce Lee was and doing their level best to harsh your mellow.
Dragon Inn (1967)
“The Dragon Inn” is often called one of the best films in the martial arts genre. From the opening, it draws attention to the screen and lets you know all of the hype about the film is justified. It is one of director King Hu’s more well-known works, and it gave birth to a rash of movies that copies this original vision. Written and directed by Hu after he left the world-famous Shaw Brothers Studio in 1966 and relocated to Taiwan to make other movies, the best of the bunch is this one right here.
There is a rich narrative that finely builds the drama as new characters enter the Dragon Inn. Set during the Ming Dynasty, the emperor’s minister of defense is framed by a power hungry court eunuch and put to death. His family is hunted by the secret police until they end up at the aforementioned Inn. With them comes an odd band of people with stories, problems and baggage that foreshadow action to come. By action, I mean sword fighting.
Sword fighting is pretty much key to this film, and Hu came up with exciting, action-packed moments that push the plot forward. The choreographed quarreling is also what drives the film to its swirling finale. Again, the melody of “Dagger Society Suite” is felt in the film’s movements and conflict. Hu delivers in ways that put him years ahead of his competition. It’s almost like watching a real and violent ballet.
Once Upon a Time in China (1991)
This is the film that ushered in Hong Kong cinema’s kung-fu renaissance and launched Jet Li toward superstardom. Pity most of his future roles would be in some horrid movies with only Li’s name as a drawing card. In “Once Upon a Time in China,” however, Li is the ultimate example of how to kick ass and look as graceful as Fred Astaire doing so.
It’s a story of Wong Fei-hung, a real life 19th Century Robin Hood, with some martial arts mastery and mystic healing thrown in for good measure. During the 1990s, Hong Kong was returning to Chinese rule, and a film about a Chinese rebel fighting out from under the boot heel of oppressive colonialists had fairly obvious resonance. Of course, there is the final duel. Naturally, it takes place in a warehouse full of bamboo ladders. Forget the four sequels that were made in rapid succession. This is the one worth watching. “Jet Li is ‘the One’,” however, is not.
Berry Gordy’s The Last Dragon (1985)
Somewhere, there is a rule that 9 out of 10 martial arts films have to begin with the student learning his final lesson and being sent out into the outside world to find enlightenment. “Berry Gordy’s The Last Dragon” is guilty of that crime. It’s also a great low-budget, high-energy film with some likable actors and quality fight sequences. It was savaged by critics when it was first released, probably because it has a sluggish subplot regarding a gangster and his girlfriend, and it is definitely a movie not everyone will love.
The hero is Bruce Leroy, played by first time actor named Taimak. While he’s not going to be mistaken for a Shakespearean- trained actor, he has screen presence and looks comfortable within his skin. The heroine is played Vanity, the Prince protege who has some natural acting ability and a likability that is worth more in a movie that sets out to be entertaining and has no desire to be Oscar bait. That is enough one-named people for the rest of this article.
The plot is all about gangsters and night-clubs and bloody fights a thug named Sho Nuf and Bruce Leroy’s quest for the passive, honest life. Pity he won’t find it here on the mean streets. Bruce Leroy idolizes Bruce Lee and attempts to lead the noble life. Along the way, he catches our heroine’s eye. It takes Bruce Lee to show Bruce Leroy that there is room for romance in the world of tranquility and martial arts. It’s no shock that the bad guys in the film will come gunning for Bruce Leroy and he will kick the ever-living crap out of them with too much ease, leading to the showdown with Sho Nuf. You can guess how the movie concludes. As the title states, the movie is backed by Berry Gordy’s Motown Records, a label that supplied the very listenable soundtrack.
The Raid: Redemption (2011)
A true piece of escapism and shot in Jakarta and directed by a Welshman (Gareth Evans), “The Raid: Redemption” is a pile up of martial arts, horror, slapstick comedy and odd bits of musical theater thrown in. It could very easily have turned into a mess. Instead, it is a full measure of awesome, gruesome, action. There’s very little dialogue and a whole lot of well-choreographed action. There’s a plot that is fairly straightforward.
A police unit sets out one morning to regain control of a building in Jakarta that has been overrun by the baddest baddies this side of badville. It’s kind of like the Oakland Raiders’ fans on game day, only less bathed and more angry. Not as well armed as Raider fans though; I’m fairly sure that’s not possible. The raid begins and the violence flows forth at lightning speed. Evans knows how to stay away from the actors and keep the film rolling.
One guy gets hit with an axe, which then doubles as a handle to yank him about. There’s a refrigerator that doubles as a bomb. which is then used to yank him across the room. A refrigerator doubles as a bomb. Sticks fly, fists and feet land, and the energy is a swirl of epic complexity and kinetic fury. This is a world where everyone is a bad-ass. The film’s baddest bad-ass is Mad Dog, played by Yayan Ruhian, who is, ummm, effective as a psychotic death machine. Ruhian also acted as one of the film’s choreographers. It’s nice to have a trade to fall back on, because his acting skills are extremely limited.
One-Armed Swordsman (1967)
There was an era when musicals and romances and women ruled the Hong Kong silver screen, and then along came “The One-Armed Swordsman” directed by Chang Cheh. After that, it was was pretty much the end of subtlety, nuance and the flurry of Cantonese and Mandarin romance in the theaters of Hong Kong.
“One-Armed Swordsman” is a film about revenge. The kind of revenge where the film’s hero spends his days doing two things: Working out endlessly preparing for vengeance, and thinking only of the day when vengeance is theirs. Yu Wang is the kind of actor that makes Keanu Reeves look expressive and emotional. He has an odd charisma though and a screen presence that is undeniable.
After the Chi school of Golden Sword Kung Fu is attacked, one student sacrifices his life to save his teacher and his school. As he lays dying, his last wish is that his son be taken in as a student.
As he grows into manhood, young Fang Kang attends the school and treasures his father’s broken sword, focusing on the memory of his father’s sacrifice. Kang is hated by his fellow students and his teachers too. Eventually, one of the teacher’s daughter challenges him to a fight. He refuses, she goes every shade of berserk and recklessly chops off his arm. Broken and bloodied, he retreats only to be found by a young poor girl who lives by herself. She nurses him back to health. While this is going on, the toughs return with a weapon capable of defeating the Golden Sword. The students at the school begin dying at an alarming rate. Kang recovers with the girl’s help and stands as the last hope of the school where he was loathed.
If Karma was a screenplay writer, Kang would return, wielding his father’s broken sword and kill off every last student he could find. He look up the teacher’s daughter and unleash some of the old ultra-violence of her. There would be a smoldering hole in the ground where the school once proudly stood. Kang would be sitting atop a tree stump, his face covered in soot, eating some lunch and knowing justice was done. None of that happens.
What does transpire is a whole lot of cliches that everyone seeing this movie will know is coming from a mile away. That actually makes for a much better ending than the one Karma came up with.