Piece first published by Scene360.
In a sense, all Asian action movies kick ass – even those no-budget DTV ‘ninja’ flicks that seemed to come out once a week in the Eighties. Ass-kicking is what defines them. Yet there are some martial arts movies that can take on the competition and wipe the floor with it, through sheer filmmaking or fighting craft. These are the pioneering films, whose respect for past tradition or influence on the future guarantees them a key place in the genre’s history. Here are five of them.
Enter The Dragon (1973)
After appearances as ‘Kato’ in American television’s high-camp Batman (1966-7) and The Green Hornet (1966-7), US/Hong Kong citizen Bruce Lee would star in a run of features in the early Seventies that showcased his extraordinary fighting skills while popularising the kung fu movie beyond China’s borders. This culminated in Robert Clouse’s Enter the Dragon, both the first Chinese martial arts film to be co-produced by a major Hollywood studio (Warner Bros), and also Lee’s final film before his untimely death in 1973. Much like jeet kune do, the ‘style of no style’ that Lee founded in 1967 from a combination of different martial arts techniques and disparate philosophies, Enter the Dragon is a hybridised mishmash of ideologies and genres all violently resolved in no-holds-barred biffo.
On a mission all at once to assist the British authorities, to reclaim the Shaolin Temple’s lost honour and to wreak some personal vengeance, Lee (Bruce Lee) enters a martial arts tournament in order to infiltrate the illegal operations of Shaolin renegade Han (Shih Kien). What ensues is a heady blend of cod spiritualism, 007-style espionage, voguish blaxploitation, and of course clashing martial styles and sensibilities, all pitted violently against one another in an island pad that combines the Eastern and the Western, the traditional with the groovily modern. Lee’s easy takedown of giant scarred thug Oharra (Bob Hall) is unmissable, while the climactic duel with Han multiplies Lee’s immense talents in a hall of mirrors.
Riki-oh: The Story of Ricky (1991)
There was a notorious scene in First Blood (1982) when Sylvester Stallone’s Rambo established his tough-guy credentials by stitching up his own arm wound. The hero of Riki-oh: The Story of Ricky, whose name is not so far from another of Stallone’s iconic he-man rôles, goes one better: after his arm is slashed in a fight with prison ganglord Oscar, Ricky sews the wound using his own sinew for suture. Then, after having an eyeball knocked clean out of its socket, Oscar disembowels himself, using his own intestines to strangle Ricky – until the latter deals a bone-crushing deathblow to Oscar’s lower skull (shown in glorious X-ray).
Lam Nai-choi’s prison-set dystopian manga adaptation is certainly cartoonish, not to mention ridiculously camp, but it also fully earns a Category III rating (one of the first awarded to a sex-free Hong Kong film) for its improbably gory ultra-violence. When Ricky, trained in the mystic art of qigong, strikes, typically his fist does not just make hard contact, but passes right through to the other side leaving only a gaping fleshy hole in his opponent’s body – while he is himself resistant (indeed, he embodies resistance) to all manner of lethal attacks. So as this champion of justice and freedom works his way through the ranks of a privatised penitentiary, the increasingly monstrous criminals and corrupt wardens do not quite know what has hit them – and nor, thanks to this film’s deliriously unreal excess, do we.
Warrior King (2005)
There’s a scene near the beginning of The Warrior King where Tony Jaa, just arrived in Sydney in search of stolen elephants, runs into Jackie Chan on his way out (actually a lookalike who has often served as Chan’s body double). Chan, who has an early bit part in Enter the Dragon, would dominate the kung fu genre throughout the late Seventies, Eighties and Nineties with his cheeky personality and insane stuntwork – but this airport encounter represents a passing on of the baton to new blood, and a new martial art.
Jaa (the screen name of Panom Yeerum) first caught western attention in Ong-Bak (2003) with his acrobatic moves and punishing use of elbows and knees as weapons – but in The Warrior King (aka Tom-Yum-Goong, aka The Protector), Thailand’s indigenous martial art of muay thai is literally taken abroad by Jaa on a quest for missing pachyderms and appropriated national identity. Not unlike much of Chan’s own output, the film is a not always well-judged blend of queasy violence and clownish humour, but it will go down in history for an uninterrupted four-minute take in which Nattawut Kittikhun’s steadicam follows Jaa up, around and through a multi-storied club interior, taking down scores of villains single-handedly. Yet perhaps equally representative of this film’s high impact is the climactic sight of Jaa surrounded by an army of fallen black-suited opponents, all groaning from the multiple compound fractures that we have just seen him mete out.
The Raid (2011)
If Ong-Bak introduced the world to both muay thai and its extraordinary on-screen practitioner Tony Jaa, the similar Merantau (2009), directed by Welshman (!!) Gareth Evans, did the same for Indonesian martial art pencak silat and the powderkeg Iko Uwais. Evans and Uwais followed this up with The Raid, an uncompromisingly brutal police siege actioner wherein Uwais’ cop Rama must crash, kick and crunch his way through a whole tenement building’s worth of baddies for reasons both professional and personal. At first vicious bulletplay is at the fore, but once enemy crossfire has mowed down most of Rama’s colleagues, the guns are mostly put away and the knives and machetes come out – not to mention the fists, feet, elbows and knees.
After all, as Rama’s aptly named opponent Mad Dog (played with visceral ferocity by Uwais’ fellow fight co-ordinator Yayan Ruhian) puts it in explaining his preference for fists over firearms: “Squeezing a trigger – it’s like ordering takeout.” So while all this film’s bullet ballet is certainly intense, its real home-cooked treats are instead to be found in the wincingly nasty close-up fighting whose effect is greatly aided by bone-snapping foley work. With all this pummelling punishment, no doubt the four on-set massage therapists listed in the film’s closing credits were required to work overtime. The results are genre in its purest form, unperturbed by the thinness of the characterisation or perfunctory quality of the dialogue. Here, the ecstatic orgy of carnage is all.
The Grandmaster (2013)
Ostensibly a biopic of Ip Man, grandmaster of the Wing Chun school of kung fu, Wong Kar-wai’s beguilingly beautiful film brings us full circle. For while Ip Man has become something of a legend in his own right, and his life has has already been celebrated (with considerable license) in Wilson Yip’s huge Hong Kong hits Ip Man (2008) and Ip Man 2: Legend of the Grandmaster (2010), the real Ip was also sifu to the real Bruce Lee in Hong Kong. Any film about Ip Man’s life is inevitably also concerned with the history of martial arts in the cinema.
This take on Ip certainly delivers plenty of hyper-stylised, minutely controlled slo-mo fighting, set against raindrops, snowflakes or the rapid movement of trains. Yet Wong continually frustrates expectation: Ip (Tony Leung) bests Grandmaster Gong Yutian in a battle as much of philosophical wits as of physical skills; Ip is then himself bested by Yutian’s daughter Er (Zhang Ziyi) in a fight that is also a flirtation; and Ip’s climactic combat, towards which the whole film seems to be building, never happens, replaced by Er’s greatest duel (shown in flashback). By the end, viewers may well be wondering who is the real ‘grandmaster’. Preoccupied less with brawling as an end in itself than with broader themes of time’s passage and artistic tradition, The Grandmaster falls into line with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Hero and House of Flying Daggers, elevating conventionally low-brow genre materials to the arthouse.