Thanks to the Matrix trilogy, QT’s Kill Bill, and the million knock-offs that followed, 21st century Tinseltown has been kung fu crazy in a way not seen since the 70s. It used to be that the leading man only needed to give the antagonist a good solid sock on the jaw to ratify his tough guy credentials. Now? Now he needs drop into his best ‘single whip’ pose and unleash a cocktail of wing chun, white crane and tai chi plus a little Brazilian capoeira for extra audience-pleasing spice. Life at acting school must be rough these days.
But while Keanu woodenly works his way through a series of wire-work extravaganzas, maybe we need to remind ourselves of a couple of forgotten classics (where it all began…) plus some more recent fare that slipped under the radar due to not having the Hollywood distribution machine behind it.
Way of the Dragon (1972)
It’s almost obligatory to start with Bruce Lee, best known to Western audiences from his one English language film, Enter the Dragon. This is much better. For a start, there’s actually a story (centred on a Chinese restaurant in Rome) whereas Enter was a thin excuse for endless (and admittedly wonderful) fight scenes. There are also moments of (dated) humor. And there’s no shortage of action: check out the nunchuk work in the scene out back of the restaurant where BL takes out multiple thugs, or there’s the classic finale in which he faces off against a young Chuck Norris in the Coliseum.
Drunken Master (1978)
Jackie Chan, the kung fu clown before he came to Hollywood. That said, as this film shows, Chan was clearly perfecting his comedic talents long before then. The fight scenes – all choreographed by Yuen Wo Ping (who masterminded the action in The Matrix) – are a combination of jaw dropping and hilarious. And just in case the fun diminishes the art, we get a reminder of just what Jackie Chan can (or could) do physically: the training scene where he’s suspended upside down doing abdominal crunches, that’s really him.
Once Upon a Time in China (1991)
The first in a trilogy of films by acclaimed Hong Kong director Tsui Hark and starring Jet Li as renaissance man, Wong Fei-hung (martial artist, healer, sage, etc.) Li is well-known for roles in Lethal Weapon 4, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, The Expendables and so on but this is before all that and focuses on his championship level martial skills (Yuen Wo Ping’s work again).
Kung Fu Hustle (2004)
Written and directed by leading man Stephen Chow, this is a modern version of the martial arts comedy, with laughs being broad and slapstick. In fact, imagine if Tex Avery had been obsessed with kung fu, he would have made cartoons that looked like this film. But apart from being ridiculously funny, the martial skills on display are awesome, each scene topping the last until the final crowd-pleasing showdown.
This is a Finnish-Chinese collaboration, the first (and quite possibly last) of its kind that produced a mix of Chinese ghosts and legend (and kung fu) mixed with the Kalevala, the epic poem that is Finland’s national literary treasure. It’s a weirdly compelling mix of Nordic melancholy and Eastern monk-like philosophy that taps into the violence in both cultures to produce balletic action sequences framed by a cliché-free plot – can’t be bad!