5 Classics of Martial Arts Cinema

Martial arts cinema ranges from the horrible through the campy to the excellent. There is one ever-present risk facing this genre. That is, like porn, movie makers may conclude that viewers aren’t watching for character or plot so they might as well just focus on the action. When they do that and then they blow the action– well, that’s when it’s painful to watch. By numbers, most of this genre probably falls into that category. However, sometimes they get it right.

Of course, it’s not always clear what should be categorized as a martial arts film, given many cross-genre romps. The Matrix is science fiction, but it’s also a kung fu flick. The Bourne trilogy films are spy thrillers, but their characteristic gritty hand-to-hand combat sequences are integral to the films. I’ve tried to focus on films that one would unambiguously categorize as martial arts cinema (though anything by Kurosawa is likely to be considered mainstream cinema.)

I also, admittedly, display several of my own biases. I prefer films that avoid over-the-top superhuman choreography. I don’t want to say that I prefer realism. None of it is realistic, but there’s a vast difference between Jackie Chan’s choreography and that of The Curse of the Golden Flower. Still, I do include Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon and Kung Fu Hustle, which both rely heavily on wires and superhuman feats. I also like period pieces as opposed to modern-day films. Of course, characters with charisma also get my attention, but I don’t think I’m unique in that regard.

5.) Enter the Dragon

Enter the Dragon is Bruce Lee’s last film, and features Lee as a Shaolin practitioner cum secret agent. The film reminds me of the Ian Fleming novel You Only Live Twice in that it’s about a person being tasked to infiltrate an evil mastermind’s sprawling lair not because it makes logical or reality-based sense, but rather because the proposed infiltrator is just that damn good.



4.) Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon

This is undoubtedly the most critically acclaimed of the films on the list. It was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar in 2000, and while it did not win in that category, it did take four Oscars that year. It’s in a class of film that includes Curse of the Golden Flower and Hero that are known for stunning cinematography and historical settings. (Unfortunately, these films are also marked by an insanely excessive use of wire-work for my taste.) This film includes a romantic component as well as the fight to possess a sword called Green Destiny. As is mandatory for Kung fu films, there’s a martial arts master whose death must be avenged.



3.) The Legend of Drunken Master (aka Drunken Master II)

Jackie Chan plays a bumbling young man who is, ironically, a master of Kung fu when completely inebriated. The plot revolves around a mix up between an agent who is trying to steal a valuable artifact and Chan’s character who is trying to smuggle ginseng to avoid paying duty on it. Incredibly, the artifact and ginseng are packaged identically, and the thief ends up with the ginseng and Chan’s character with the artifact. It’s Chan at his best, with all the comedy and creative choreography that one would expect.



2.) Hidden Fortress

I’m not including this just to prevent a Chinese sweep. (On that note: I’ve heard the Thai Ong Bak films are quite good, but I haven’t gotten around do seeing any of them.) Anyway, there are some excellent Japanese period films that involve many combat sequences that are not over-the-top. Of course, Akira Kurosawa dominates in this realm. There are other Kurosawa films, such as Seven Samurai, Yojimbo, or Ran that could equally well be included. Hidden Fortress is probably best known to American movie buffs as a major influence on George Lucas in the making of the first Star Wars film. Hidden Fortress is a about a General (played by portrayer-of-samurai-extraordinaire Toshiro Mifune) who must escort a princess and her family fortune cross-country to safety. Of course, as in every hero’s journey, there are many challenges to be confronted.



1.) Kung Fu Hustle

This comedy is set in the gang-ridden slums of 1930’s Shanghai. A tenement complex is assailed by the gangs. However, the residents offer some surprising resistance in the form of unexpected apartment-dwelling kung fu masters. Unlike Jackie Chan’s down-to-earth comedies, this one is almost cartoon-esque. It features a cast of anti-heroes that keeps the film interesting, and the protagonist has a strong narrative arc.

I Always See the Wrong Movies: or, Post-Oscars Watcher’s Remorse

The one Oscar-Winner I saw

The one Oscar winner I saw

I only watched part of the Oscars last night. At some point I realized it wasn’t worth continuing. I see about three movies in the theater per year, and rarely are any of them Oscar material. At 10:00 pm all I had to show for watching was the chorus of the ditty “We Saw Your Boobs” echoing through my brain.  (Damn you, Seth MacFarlane, for that catchy, clever, melodic jingle that still runs like a gerbil in the rodent-wheel of my mind.)

The three movies I saw in the theaters last year were: The Avengers, Dark Knight Rises, and This is 40. The first two will no doubt convince you that I am a 12-year-old boy trapped in a middle-aged man’s body, and the last will convince you that I have poor judgement. (This is 40 had its humorous moments, but there was far too much screaming for my taste, although we did see Leslie Mann’s boobs– damn you, again, Seth MacFarlane.) I saw another half-dozen 2012 films on long Korean Air flights, but these were equally lowbrow titles (Men in Black 3, Prometheus, and Brave– the latter at least won an Oscar during the hour and a half I was watching, I think it was for Best Animated Makeup Artistry.)

I’m not altogether lowbrow. I will see most of the big winners eventually, when they finally make it to basic cable. For example, I watched The Hurt Locker on Saturday, just one day before the Oscars. So I am only three or four  or five years out of synch.  The Hurt Locker is a particularly fine example of going the other way because I understand its distinction is being the lowest grossing Best Picture winner ever.

This year’s Best Picture Argo is definitely a film that I will see in the next five years–barring Zombies, the apocalypse, or a Zombie Pandemic Apocalypse. So there’s a 60% chance that I’ll see it. The Iranian hostage crisis is one of the first historical events that I remember seeing on the news first-hand. Had I been in the country when Argo came out–I might have seen it in the theaters, but probably not.

Part of me thinks that I should grow up and start watching the “right” movies.  However, part of me says, “wait, there’s this one day a year when everybody is talking about these movies, and the other 364 days  they are talking about Dark Knight Rises and The Avengers  So in some sense, I already am watching the “right” movies.

Will “Man of Steel” Turn the Tide on Superman Movies?

I hold contrary views to the character Bill, played by the late David Carradine, in the Kill Bill movies. Bill said that Superman was his absolute favorite superhero. The Man of Steel is among my least favorite superheroes. From a writer’s point of view, it’s hard to write an edge-of-the-seat Superman tale because readers have to feel the protagonist is in peril at every turn. That’s a tough sell if your hero is all-powerful and invulnerable. Superman writers learned this quickly, and they responded by creating a rock that could weaken or kill their character by its mere presence. In books and movies, the bad guy should be stronger and smarter than the hero. Lex Luthor is a devious fiend, but he’s no match for Superman in any domain but wickedness.

There’s a lot of talk about this year’s Superman movie, entitled Man of Steel, being darker and grittier with the implication that it’ll be more interesting than past Superman movies. The involvement of Christopher Nolan, who is most famous for the outstanding Dark Knight movie trilogy, makes many optimistic. It may be that they can tap into some of the Dark Knight narrative power. However, it’s easier to have gripping Batman tale. Batman is only human, with no superpowers, and he is inherently a loner (or in some cases a dynamic duo.) Batman may be smart, but he’s not the smartest. He may be strong, but he’s not the strongest. This makes it relatively easy to write him into perilous situations in which he is outmatched.

I have high hopes for Man of Steel, but I’m skeptical.

2013 Martial Arts Movies

Chinese classic literature will make a major appearance in martial arts cinema this year, with movies entitled The Monkey King and Journey to the West. Both movies will likely featuring the staff-wielding monkey who made mischief in heaven and on earth. You may be familiar with the tale from Jet Li’s portrayal of the Monkey King in the 2008 film The Forbidden Kingdom. Readers can get the jist of the tale by reading the book.

Japanese classic literature will also be addressed, sort of. In the tradition of The Last Samurai, Keanu Reeves will star in movie that has no business having an American lead. It will be some sort of take off on the famous tale, 47 Ronin.

There will also be another iteration of the life story of Ip Man. Ip Man was a Wing Chun grandmaster who, as one can tell from the pile of films about his life, lived a fascinating life. While his fame is eclipsed by that of his most famous student, Bruce Lee, Man was a police officer who had to flee China to Hong Kong because of his support for the Kuomintang.

The sequel to the Tony Jaa film Tom Yum Goong (Ummm, Tom Yum) is due out this year. It will be entitled The Protector 2 in the west. The Thai star is continuing to give Chinese Kung fu cinema a run for its money.

The Grandmaster

Journey to the West

The Monkey King

Tom Yum Goong 2 (aka The Protector 2)
TYG2

47 Ronin