I love kung-fu flicks.  Always have, always will.  This, of course, stems back from a time in the eighties when my parents couldn’t afford cable and we still had a big ass antenna on the top of our house.  Remember that shit?  ANTENNAS ON THE TOP OF YOUR HOUSE?  It was like we were dinosaurs in the stone age.  Now I can watch episodes of The Simpsons within seconds on my phone.  But I digress…

Back when we had no cable you were forced to watch whatever was on the TWELVE channels that we had.  And one of those was PBS which I certainly wasn’t watching.  So after Saturday morning cartoons you usually had kung fu flicks or Godzilla movies on channel 9 or 11 here in Jersey.  Sure we went out and played outside, usually with sticks or throwing rocks at people…the shit we did back in the eighties.  But when we were in the house Saturday afternoon…it was Godzilla or Kung-Fu.  Even when we got cable they still had Kung-Fu Theater on USA Network so I’d watch that too.

We eventually started making martial arts flicks in America starring Cynthia Rothrock, Steven Seagal, Van Damme, Jeff Speakman and plenty more – but they never really captured that awful cheesiness of those bad movies I used to watch.  They brought Jackie Chan over here to try and make some films and they were awful.

I always knew about Bruce Lee and loved his films but as I got older I got to appreciate many more martial artists.  I learned about the Peking Opera School and the Seven Little Fortunes – most who became well known actors like Jackie, Yuen Biao, Sammo Hung and Yuen Wah along with directors like Corey Yuen and Yuen Woo-Ping (who wasn’t one of the Fortunes because he was a bit older, but still went to the Peking school).

It is hard to pick out my top 5 alone.  There are so many Jackie Chan movies I love to death…and none of his films even made the top 5.  But if you seek out Young Master, Drunken Master, any of the Police Story flicks, his cheesy but fun flicks like Rumble in the Bronx or Mr. Nice Guy…you basically can’t go wrong.  The man is a legend and his films are legend.  But if he didn’t make my top 5 – who did?  Good question.  So here’s my top 5 but not in any order.  I’m not sure which ones are my absolute favorite – these are just the five I’d pull out first if I was forced to show someone who has never seen kung-fu.

I’ll start with Bruce Lee.  Why not.  All in all Bruce Lee made 3 Chinese films at his height, one American film, and one film left unfinished that became the abomination known as Game of Death.  Bruce Lee starred in films since he was just a baby and actually did a number of them before he left Hong Kong to come to the United States.  He appeared on TV on shows like Longstreet and, of course, Green Hornet.  He was also a baddie in the 1969 James Garner flick Marlowe.  But this was pretty horrible.  He’s a bad guy who knows kung fu who misses a jump and ends up flying off a roof.  No lie.  It’s actually pretty funny,

While his first big film The Big Boss (released in the US originally as Fists of Fury) and the Bruce Lee directed Way of the Dragon (released here as Return of the Dragon) are both great films in the own right – the best Bruce Lee film really comes down to one of two flicks: Enter the Dragon or Fist of Fury (which was released as The Chinese Connection.  Confusing, right?  If you want more info on why they did this go to Wikipedia.  The Readers Digest version?  Stupid people are stupid).

I go back and forth on which one may be the best.  Enter the Dragon is in English but filmed in China.  It featured John Saxon (who actually looked like he could fight) and martial artist Jim Kelly (who kicked major ass with some major tude.  Bruce fought Sammo Hung very early in the flick and Bolo Yueng made a name for himself as a bodyguard with a bad ass physique.  It’s simply Bruce’s biggest and baddest role.  Who doesn’t remember him facing off against Han in the room full of mirrors?  Bruce taking on 6,000 of Han’s guards?  Bruce’s takedown of the man who killed his sister?  It’s just a great film from front to back….but…

At least at this exact moment I consider Fist of Fury the superior film.  Except for one SUPER CHEESY thing in this film (I’ll touch on that) this film is sensational.  Set behind the backdrop of the real life Jingwu School and the real poisoning of master Huo Yuanjia the film has Bruce as Chen Zhen, a student returning to Shanghai to marry his fiancee (the GORGEOUS Nora Miao).  The enemies of the Jingwu School are a Japanese dojo but the film does a bad job of explaining what is going on in Shanghai.  It’s during a time where the Japanese and Chinese all lived in Shanghai together but the Chinese are considered an inferior people in their own city.  If you know your history (or willing to learn it….or just want to travel to Wikipedia) you know of the bad blood between the Chinese and the Japanese – especially the horrors that occurred during World War II.  But this film is before World War II.  The film doesn’t set it up…basically the Chinese are treated like garbage in Shanghai and no one is willing to look into the death of Huo Yuanjia.

Chen Zhen knows something is up and as a badass mofo he is willing to march around Shanghai trying to figure out who is behind his master’s death (they said, at first, natural causes but Chen is too smart for that shit).  He uses disguises to get in close to the Japanese dojo and, in one of the most famous fight scenes in cinema history, Bruce goes in to fight the entire dojo.  He just kicks EVERYONE’s ass.  He shows them that, done right, Chinese boxing is much superior to karate.  There is also one part during this fight where Bruce grabs two guys and swings them around in a circle – and it is so obvious that they are dummies.  It’s cheesy, it’s bad, but it is the only bad part of this film.

Every action has an equal and opposite reaction.  The Japanese want revenge and go to Jingwu to wreck the place.  They also get the police to look for Chen Zhen.  Everyone is looking for him.  He doesn’t give up and he still works in the shadows finding out the facts on who killed his master.  Robert Baker, who was actually one of Bruce Lee’s students, plays Petrov – a Russian badass brought in to take down Chen Zhen.  It is such an amazing fight.  Yet just like everyone else who tries to take on Chen Zhen, he’s taken down.

The film is slightly a mystery story, it greatly shows off the racism the Japanese had for the Chinese, and really shows off the amazing abilities of Bruce Lee.  He was such a charismatic actor and martial artist – he was just so wonderful to see onscreen.  The character of Chen Zhen is just ferocious and because of that the angry man goes from fight to fight taking down whoever stands in his way.  It’s a sight to behold.  And Bruce never tires in his fight to bring down his master’s killer.

Jet Li has made some amazing films in his lifetime.  The Once Upon A Time in China series (part 1 with Yuen Biao, part 2 with Donnie Yen as a bad guy!) playing the famous Wong Fei-hung, the epic film Hero (more Donnie Yen!), the masterpiece Fearless (where Li plays Huo Yuanjia – the master Bruce Lee was avenging) and THE PHENOMENAL Tai Chi Master where Jet Li and Chin Siu Ho are expelled monks who find themselves separated and becoming enemies.  That one is directed by Yuen Woo-ping and co-stars Michelle Yeoh – the kung-fu sequences are fantastic.  He’s also done a bunch of Hollywood films…but nothing worth mentioning.

But the best of the best for Jet Li?  The one I can watch over and over?  That honor would go to Fist of Legend – which is a remake of Bruce Lee’s Fist of Fury.  The plot is basically the same as the first film except it is expanded a bit.  Chen Zhen is a student studying in Japan who goes back home after Huo Yuanjia dies.  There’s many differences in how this Chen Zhen goes about finding his master’s murderer.  There’s an excellent blindfold fight in this one and the “final battle” is quite excellent.  This also changes the ending of Fist of Fury which I like.  You really don’t know what happens to Bruce at the end of Fist of Fury but you can assume that he probably doesn’t survive.  In this one it expands further.  Chin Siu Ho is back here as well playing Yuanjia’s son who takes over the Jingwu school.

Is their a superior version?  Does Jet Li do a better job than Bruce Lee?  It’s an unfair question.  I really think that, for its time, Fist of Fury (along with The Big Boss) helped redefine how martial arts films were made.  It obviously had a much lower budget.  And you had Bruce Lee starring.  Jet Li is amazing, he’s charismatic, the direction here is amazing, and the fight scenes (and choreography) are second-to-none.  No – neither film is better than the other.  And even though the plot is basically the same you can watch them back to back and have such a great time.  There’s even MORE Chen Zhen movies and shows but Fist of Legend and Fist of Fury are pretty much the best of the best.

Released in 2008 Ip Man is the newest film on my top 5.  The real life Ip Man is credited with bringing the kung-fu style Wing Chun to the masses teaching many students including his most famous – Bruce Lee.  This film has Donnie Yen (guess what?  He’s played Chen Zhen too) portray the kung fu master Ip Man and the film is basically broken up into two parts: at first a very wealthy Ip Man practices kung-fu for fun (even though his skills are unmatched) in the city of Foshan.  When the town is embarrassed by some out-of-towners Ip Man has to save the day.  It may sound a bit silly of a plot (at least the first part) but the film is just jawdropping thanks to fight choreography put together by Sammo Hung.  It’s too bad Sammo isn’t in the film, but he does show up in the second flick.

The second part of the film occurs during World War II where Ip Man and his family are forced out of their home and into poverty.  Ip Man does what he can so he and his family can survive.  But in trying to survive he also has several run-ins with the Japanese who have occupied Foshan including Hiroyuki Ikeuchi as a vicious Japanese general.  It’s the love of kung-fu and the love of his countrymen that drives Ip Man to do the right thing and fight against the tyranny.  Out of all five of the films I’ll list here my favorite fight to be in this film where Donnie Yen faces off Louis Fan to show off who is the better kung-fu master.  Ip Man starts the fight holding back but as it wears on and he’s insulted more it is so interesting to see how he ramps up his fighting.  Man – even that might be untrue.  The best fight might be when Ip Man fights a slew of Japanese soldiers in an arena as revenge for a friend who was basically murdered.

This film kicked off an entire Ip Man craze.  Four other Ip Man films were made, a television show, and Donnie Yen’s Ip Man had two sequels – the one featuring Sammo, the other with Mike Tyson.  The series gets worse as it goes but they are still great films.  Donnie Yen versus Mike Tyson is a sight to behold.  But nothing….NOTHING…beats this first film.  I’m not sure how historically accurate it is but I don’t really care.

This film was huge in China and made Donnie Yen perhaps the biggest Asian star ever.  He continues to be a huge movie star and has finally started to break into more American films with last year’s Rogue One and this year’s XXX: The Return of Xander Cage.

My next two favorites are probably films most casual film fans have never heard of.  Which is a huge shame.  One stars Sammo Hung and features Yuen Biao.  The other stars Yuen Biao and features Sammo Hung.  If you have ever seen the duo paired with the Peking Opera “brother” Jackie Chan then you’ve seen some amazing films.  Wheels on Meals, Dragons Forever, and the AWESOME Project A are three films that feature “the brothers” together with some fantastic action.  The films starring the three can be a bit cheesy but the action can be phenomenal.  I’ll probably touch on those three films in another post…

 

I’ll start with Magnificent Butcher.  The film stars Sammo Hung and is directed by Yuen Woo-ping.  Sammo has always been a big guy (Jackie Chan’s biography tells some great stories of mean and skinny Sammo at the Opera House – also touching on his weight gain AND massive film success) but he can move.  HE CAN FIGHT.  He is amazing.  Quick and nimble.  Woo-ping was coming off the massive success of Jackie Chan’s Drunken Master (where Jackie played Wong Fei-hung).  Together these two mad one hell of a martial arts flick.

Sammo plays Lam Sai-wing AKA Butcher Wing – one of Wong Fei-hung’s most famous students.  Sai-wing actually helped bring Hung Gar to the masses and it was the style I studied during my brief time doing kung fu (the stances alone can murder your legs).  In this particular film Wing is played a bit dim-witted and easily manipulated.  He’s a good guy and tries to do the right thing, but it usually ends up backfiring on him.

After accidentally beating up what he thought was thief, Wing’s actions cause a fight between Master Ko’s school 5 Dragons and Wong Fei-hung’s school Po Chi Lam.  Further bad blood comes about when Master Ko’s son Tai-hoi returns home.  He’s a bit of a hooligan and runs with his own gang ready to beat the crap out of anyone for no good reason.

Wing’s brother (who he hasn’t seen in 10 years) shows up in town with his pretty wife, trying to find his brother.  Tai-hoi ends up beating up the brother and kidnapping the sister.  A drunken beggar (who of course is a kung fu master) ends up trying to help the brother.  Through a series of incidents the beggar ends up thinking Wing is the kidnapper and the two wage an amazing battle.

Once everyone realizes what is going on they go and free the kidnapped wife but Wing being Wing – he ends up trying to help someone else he thinks is “kidnapped” and ends up kidnapping her.  Long story short this girl is murdered and the girl is the goddaughter of Master Ko.  So Master Ko, his son, and all of the students go out to avenge the murder as they think they caught Wing “red-handed”.

Yuen Biao is just one of Wong Fei-hung’s students and isn’t really utilized here.  He does get a nice fight scene right past the midway point against a member of the 5 Dragons.  It’s nice to see him and, of course, everyone needs to start somewhere.

Kwan Tak-hing also shows up as Wong Fei-hung.  The man played the character many times over many decades including other films like Sammo’s The Skyhawk and Yuen Biao’s Dreadnaught (once again directed by Yuen Woo-ping).  Tak-hing is not a young man but he is quite a kickass martial artist and pulls off some phenomenal moves on screen.

There are some brilliant martial arts scenes here.  The film can be funny (especially most scenes with the drunken Beggar So) but also quite dark in its material as well.  The film squarely rests on Sammo Hung’s ability to be funny, serious, and show off an impeccable martial arts style.  He easily pulls off all three.  There’s no wonder why he became such a big star and why he is still acting/choreographing to this very day.

The Prodigal Son is a very simple movie.  There may be better performances by Yuen Biao (Knockabout, Dreadnaught, some of those “Three Brother” movies) but Prodigal Son truly speaks to me most.  The choreography is outstanding and even won awards for it when it was released.

The story is a very fictionalized version of the life story of Wing Chun martial artist Leung Jan and the sifu who taught him Leung Yee-tai.  Leung Jan ended up teaching the student who would go on to teach Wing Chun to Ip Man – so there’s a great legacy behind the actual martial artist.

Yuen Biao plays Jan, the son of a very wealthy man.  Jan is known as a street brawler with excellent kung fu skills but what he doesn’t know is that his opponents are being paid to lose.  When some street punks are beat up by a female opera star they bring Jan to avenge them.  The female opera star turns out to be a man – Leung Yee-tai.  The two fight and Jan finally learns that his kung-fu is terrible.

Wanting to learn from a true master he tries to become Yee-tai’s student – but he isn’t having any of it.  To try and learn from him Jan’s father ends up buying the opera company so Jan can come along.  For months Jan doesn’t learn anything but finally the opera troupe lands in a town where Lord Ngan Fei lives.  He’s an awesome martial artist and he duels Yee-tai until a weakness is revealed.

Now I won’t reveal the circumstances because I don’t want to give away the whole plot – but after a series of murders Jan and Yee-tai are forced to retreat to the country where Yee-tai’s brother Wong Wah-bo (Sammo Hung) and niece live.  It is here where Jan gets to learn the best Wing Chun from both men and take his teachings to go back and avenge his master.

It is a very well-worn plot device used in martial arts films.  Person gets beat up, finds master, learns martial arts, goes back to beat someone up.  The screenplay helps – it’s quite funny especially the interaction between Jan and the townspeople in the beginning of the film and all of the scenes with Yuen Biao and Sammo Hung together.

This film is actually directed by Sammo  (he’s an accomplished director who has directed many films including Dragons Forever, the Lucky Stars series, and Jackie Chan’s Mr. Nice Guy) who does an amazing job.  The film looks fantastic, the direction is amazing, and the fight choreography is second to none.

Yuen Biao is just a phenomenal martial artist.  The moves he could pull off in his youth were just extraordinary.  Going back and watching his films I just couldn’t understand how he wasn’t just a big a star as Sammo or Jackie Chan.  Sammo and Jackie continued to make big movies, Yuen just kind of fell off.  It is what it is I guess.  But for those who discover Yuen Biao and watch his films you understand just how amazing he is.

There’s a semi-sequel to The Prodigal Son in the Wing Chun TV series.  Biao is back as Jan, Sammo is back as Wah-bo, and Nicholas Tse plays Jan’s son Leung Bik.  I’ve watched the series all the way through once and I thought it quite good – with Jan having to deal with his brash young son.  This, of course, was at the height of Nicholas Tse’s popularity so I’m sure that helped with the show.  At 40 episodes it was quite lengthly so you get the most bang for your buck.

 

Agree?  Disagree?  What’s your favorite martial arts films?