A great poet once penned the immortal verse: “Go Ninja, Go Ninja, GO. Go Ninja, Go Ninja, GO.” This week’s Roundtable is all about movies that involve martial arts. What are your favorites?
My pick for this week’s Roundtable will go slightly off the beaten path and arrive at one of my favorite John Carpenter films: ‘Big Trouble in Little China‘. It’s really more of a sci-fi movie, but I just loved the way Carpenter takes his passion for martial arts films and mixes in the supernatural. Although star Kurt Russell (in one of his best roles as truck driver Jack Burton) wisely avoids any Eastern moves of his own, he’s surrounded by a number of thugs (led by the evil Lo Pan, played by James Hong) who not only go after Jack with their physical skills, but by conjuring magic as well (usually in the form of electricity, fireballs or another form of energy). Of course, the movie is, at its heart, a comedy, so none of this is to be taken too seriously. It’s just a whole lot of fun.
I’ve always had a sweet spot for Sammo Hung and one movie where he really shines is ‘Pedicab Driver‘. It’s not a perfect movie overall, but the fight scenes are just amazing, with great hand-to-hand choreography based on traditional kung-fu, great athleticism, acrobatics, and a bit of humor. There’s a particular scene in a gambling hall that might just be my favorite fight scene ever.
Sammo proves that martial artists can be amazingly agile in any shape and size. This isn’t an over-the-top wirework movie (though I love that style too). It’s not particularly well shot, and it has subtitles. Going into these Hong Kong kung-fu/action movies of the ’80s and ’90s, you have to know that they’re all about the fight scenes and crazy stunts. Just ignore all the other stuff.
In his youth, Sammo Hung studied at the China Drama Academy with Jackie Chan and Yuen Biao. Later, those three made a number of movies together including ‘Dragons Forever’ and ‘Wheels on Meals’. Those are also must-sees if you’re interested in kung-fu style martial arts and slapstick comedy. These guys are magic together.
Some other Sammo trivia: He was in ‘Enter the Dragon’, where he played the student that Bruce Lee faced at the beginning of the movie. He also later made a movie parody, ‘Enter the Fat Dragon’, where he played Bruce Lee.
Adam Tyner (DVDTalk)
Back when I was in junior high and high school, I lived to dive through VHS and Laserdisc cut-out bins. My dad and I would basically just look for the first movie or two that’d crack us up, and that’s what we’d buy that week. Like a lot of kids, I’d watch kung-fu flicks on one of the local UHF stations along with whatever ‘American Ninja’ sequel my cousins had rented, but it was one of those bargain bins that got me really into martial arts cinema. My all-time favorite chop socky discovery was ‘Mad Monkey Kung Fu‘, a movie whose plot, yes, hinges on avenging a pet monkey. It’s spastic, gloriously insane, and has the most entrancingly bizarre fighting styles I’ve ever laid eyes on.
Though it’s tempting to pick something classy like ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’, ‘Best of the Best‘ is currently my favorite martial arts movie. It’s packed with ’80s clichés and channels everything from ‘Bloodsport’ to ‘The Karate Kid’ and even ‘Rocky IV’. Ultimately, that’s what makes it great. It’s the culmination of the all underdog rah-rah movies of the ’80s, but with serious Tai Kwon Do action as opposed to say, ‘The Mighty Ducks’, or something else Disney. The last two fights in the movie, where the “America, F*** Yeah” spirit crescendos into something more rational, is can’t-miss cinema, and the martial arts are key to both the entertainment and the transcendence of those scenes.
When I watch martial arts movies, I want to see the kind of action that makes you sit on the edge of your seat, duck with the blows on screen, and stand up and cheer when the hero defies gravity and sends the villain (who had it coming) straight to the hospital. The best of the bunch has to be the live-action ‘Street Fighter‘ — because it has all that plus Jean-Claude Van Damme in a beret! Okay, I’m kidding, even though the beret did have the best performance in that travesty of a film.
Anyway, part of me wanted to go with a Tony Jaa actioner like ‘Ong-Bak’ or ‘The Protector’ since that dude is just phenomenal, but the truth is that my absolute favorite martial arts flick is another Thai movie called ‘Chocolate‘. Sure, it doesn’t make much sense, but there’s just something special about a little girl (the amazing JeeJa Yanin) kicking the living shit out of grown men three times her size.
I’ve never been huge into full-on martial arts flicks. The ‘Matrix’ movies were probably my first love when it came to the genre. While I thorough enjoy all three entries in that trilogy (yes, I’m one of those guys), they were trumped out of the top spot when Quentin Tarantino made the ‘Kill Bill‘ movies. The martial arts in ‘Kill Bill’ is always fun. ‘The Matrix’ has fun martial arts moments, but isn’t as consistently entertaining as, say, the long House of Blue Leaves scene in ‘Vol. 1’. And nothing in ‘The Matrix’ comes close to the level of enjoyment that the Bride’s training with Pai Mei offers in ‘Vol. 2’. The ‘Raid’ movies came close to dethroning ‘Kill Bill’, but the Five Point Palm Exploding Heart Technique always wins.
I was all set to sing the praises of the great Sammo Hung when Junie beat me to it. Watching Sammo’s portly frame move with such inconceivable agility and grace is truly a sight to behold. One of my favorite of his movies is ‘The Magnificent Butcher‘, in which Sammo plays a likeable dope who inadvertently starts a feud with a rival kung-fu school. There’s very little plot in this one. It’s essentially an all-fight movie filled with silly slapstick humor, but those fights are so awesomely choreographed that you can watch the movie dozens of times and still not catch all the details.
For a more serious martial arts movie, I was also a fan of David Mamet’s ‘Redbelt‘. You’d never expect the playwright and filmmaker famed for his intellectually challenging stories and convoluted dialogue to make a movie about Mixed Martial Arts, but he does a pretty great job with it. Chiwetel Ejiofor stars as a high-minded Jiu-Jitsu instructor who’s forced to compete in a flashy MMA tournament when his martial arts studio fails to make ends meets and a douchebag Hollywood star (Tim Allen, of all people!) cheats him out of a potentially lucrative movie contract. Although seemingly an unlikely setting for the writer of ‘Glengarry Glen Ross’, ‘Redbelt’ is a tale of conflicted men struggling to define themselves, and explores the themes of masculinity, morality and the failure of words to communicate honestly that run through all of Mamet’s works. And it has some pretty fascinating, highly technical fight scenes that emphasize martial arts technique rather than just showy finishing moves.
Tell us about your favorite martial arts movies in the Comments below.