And now for something completely different.
After a little more than three years of running this column, I figured I needed to change things up just a bit. Typically I keep each series focused on films by specific directors, but I thought it’d be fun to focus a series on a specific genre.
I love kung fu movies. I’ll happily sit down and watch Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, Jet Li, Donny Yen, Gordon Liu — just about any martial artist — throw down in wildly choreographed bouts of fisticuffs. But given the decades-long history of the genre, I figured it was time to dig a little deeper than the stuff you typically see on rental store shelves such as “Fist of Legend,” “Legend of Drunken Master” or “Enter the Dragon.” All of these titles are the suggestion of hardcore fans and, admittedly, I’d have never heard of them myself were it not for the input of a couple friends, so hat tip to Andrew Sedgwick and Nick Malone for the suggestions.
I figured, when you’re starting off a column about classic kung fu flicks, there’s no better place to start than with some Bruce Lee. The man is an icon in a way that few ever become. A movie star in the truest sense of the term. Decades after his death, people are still doing “Bruce Lee impressions” and immediately associate his persona with the genre. This film, “Fist of Fury” (aka “The Chinese Connection”), may be one of his earliest films, but it’s kind of ground zero for so much of the iconography that we associate with Lee.
His impressive nunchaku skills, his lighting speed, even the hand gestures and poses that have been so relentlessly imitated and parodied are here. But what’s amazing and the surest testament to Lee’s status as an icon is how impressive it all still feels. There are plenty of original films or actors that simply don’t have the same impact as they first arrived because of endless imitators and parodies, but that’s not the case here.
Lee absolutely owns every second he’s on-screen.
And, much to our enjoyment, nearly every second he’s on-screen Lee is punching or kicking the tar out of some unlucky bad guy. The plot justification for which involves Lee’s character, Chen Zhen (a character that would continue on in Chinese storytelling), seeking revenge for the murder of his martial arts teacher, but that’s mostly window dressing. The Chinese students are noble and spurred into violence only by the antagonistic Japanese martial artists, although that element does add an interesting bit of historical texture given the latter’s occupation of the country in the 1940s.
No, the real draw here is the near non-stop action. Lee, of course, gets the lion’s share of action scenes, but there are several larger brawls that are impressive in their own right. The fights, even Lee’s, aren’t anything extremely elaborate and have been duly surpassed as the genre progressed, but it’s amazing how much mileage can be had out of showcasing talented martial artists and framing their exploits with a steady, clean shot and editing that doesn’t have to compensate for a performer’s lack of skill or ability. Expect that sentiment to be applicable throughout this series.
It can’t be stressed enough just how great Lee is and how it’s still exciting to watch the man do his thing. Even though it’s quite clear these are staged, choreographed fights, Lee’s physicality and presence and precision is so remarkable that you feel the impact of each hit. Yeah, it has all the cheesy whiffing sound effects expected for a film of this sort, but Lee’s expressions and movements make it seem almost plausible for a punch to sound like that.
This was a great start to a series that I’ve been very excited to start and I can’t wait to keep going with it. Check back next week as I continue with a review of “Come Drink With Me,” followed by Jackie Chan’s “Snake & Crane Arts of Shaolin,” “The One-armed Swordsman” and “Ten Tigers of Kwangtung.”
Every week, Entertainment Editor Stewart Smith brings a new entry in “Catching Up On…” an ongoing series attempting to fill in the gaps of his cinematic education.