When I was a teenager living in Connecticut, my favorite television was Kung Fu Theater.
It came on around noon on Sundays, and I would harass my parents about leaving church early enough that I could get home and watch. Yes, Crazy Uncle Rich watched TV before VCRs and DVRs.
Back in November, Big Mike Leeder (The Man from Hong Kong) wrote a series of articles about kung-fu movies that inspired The Man with the Iron Fist.
They, in turn, inspired me to watch a bunch of kung-fu movies (some from the RZA’s inspirations, and some from my Netflix recommendations).
Mixed results follow!
Bodyguards and Assassins (2009)
Less a kung-fu movie than an action movie layered over historic events, this is about Dr. Sun Yat-Sen and his work to make China a democracy. I rented it because it stars the awesome Donnie Yen, but I was disappointed.
While it offers some interesting insight into how much the democracy movement meant in China in 1905, the characterizations are weak, the action isn’t fast or furious enough, and I know that it would all end in tears in a few decades, when the Communists took over.
A young swordsman uses his skills to rob from the rich, give to the poor, defend the weak, and generally enjoy himself. He gets mixed up with a gang who trick him into helping them, but he doesn’t put up with that for long.
Directed by Cheh Chang and starring David Chiang, this movie has strong characters, lots of action, and a fast pace. I know this is a short review, but that’s because I can strongly recommend it without resorting to a lot of high-flown verbiage.
I couldn’t find a video of the trailer, so here’s the whole movie!
Return to the 36th Chamber (1980)
A con artist decides to learn kung fu so he can defend the workers of a dye factory – including his brother – from oppression by the factory’s Manchu owners.
One of my favorites from Kung Fu Theater way back when was Master Killer (more properly known as The 36th Chamber of Shaolin). This is not really a sequel, but does share a star with that movie – Chia Hui Liu, sometimes called Gordon Liu.
This movie has a short set-up that draws characters strongly and admirably, followed by a very long training montage in which Chao Jen-Cheh (Liu) learns kung-fu without realizing that he is learning. Then there is a surprisingly long final fight against the Manchu.
If you don’t mind some goofiness with your kung-fu action, this is a good choice for you. I loved watching Chia Hui Liu in action again.
Killer from Above (1977)
How bad was this movie? So bad that all I can remember is that the action and plot had nothing to do with the title.
I know Carter Wong and Lo Lieh are supposed to be big deals, but you couldn’t tell from this movie.
Do not see this. It’s a mess. See for yourself. Here’s the whole movie:
This is a movie about China going to the Olympics for the first time, and the trials and efforts required for their Olympic team.
There is some kung-fu action – and it’s great – but mostly it’s a story about some of the people and their relationships.
Some people don’t like it, but they were probably expecting non-stop elimination rounds to determine which kung-fu experts got to attend the Olympics. I had no such expectations, and I was entertained.
The Mystery of Chessboxing (1979)
The interesting thing, to me, about my kung-fu movie marathon is that I could clearly see the transition from arm-swinging “kung-fu” to serious applications of actual kung-fu. This movie is a transition piece. Chessboxing is a specific style, but it’s really created for the movie so that the protagonist and his teacher can demonstrate how to apply the double knight attack of chess to a kung-fu battle.
This movie has fights, kung-fu lessons, funky haircuts, exotic costumes, strong characters, and an easy-to-follow plot. Oh, and did I mention the Ghost Face Killer? Because this movie has a Ghost Face Killer.
Here’s fifteen minutes from the movie:
Blood Money (1974)
AKA, La Brute, Le Colt et Le Karate; and The Stranger and the Gunfighter
This is what happens when you make a Spaghetti Western in Spain with Lee Van Cleef and Lo Lieh. If you are not boggled by that description, or you’re not already laughing, you clearly do not remember that Lee Van Cleef is a master ninja.
The plot of this movie is ridiculous. An emissary of a Chinese warlord comes to the United States to secure wealth for his master. Lee Van Cleef accidentally kills him before he can tell the warlord where the wealth is. His nephew (Lo Lieh) comes to the US to track down the treasure. In the end, they find the warlord had it all along.
Arm-swinging kung-fu, casual racism, and Lee Van Cleef without his shirt. Obviously this was an attempt to cash in on whatever success Red Sun (1971, Charles Bronson and Toshiro Mifune) had, and rarely has any Western so cried out for the Mystery Science Theater 3000 treatment.
House of Fury (2005)
Hey, Jackie Chan: When you made that awful, awful, movie, The Tuxedo? This is what you were trying to do but failed.
Hey, Robert Rodriguez: This is what Spy Kids inspired. Thank you.
Anthony Wong Chau-Sang (a favorite of mine for about 10 years now) plays a widower raising two teenage kids. He always tells them, and their friends, stories about how he is a super secret agent who only pretends to be a practitioner of traditional Chinese medicine. The kids think he is full of it.
Then he disappears, and the kids find a secret room in the medicine shop with top-secret super spy gear. It turns out that Dad was telling the truth at least some of the time, and now it’s up to the teens to save their dad before a paralyzed American spy (Michael Wong, who is awesome even in a wheelchair) can take his revenge!
If you like Hong Kong action movies, then you need to see this.
Deadful Melody (1994)
How could anyone, ever, believe that Brigitte Lin is a man? Between this and New Dragon Inn, there is something seriously wrong.
If you haven’t seen this classic Hong Kong action fantasy, rent it NOW!
Yuen Biao (one of Jackie Chan’s fellow students) plays the heir to an important security firm. A secret patron (Brigitte Lin) hires the firm to transport the Magic Lyre, an object coveted by all the major kung-fu schools.
I cannot stress enough that this is a fantasy movie – with crazy magic powers, goofy hair colors, operatic acting, flying people, mistaken identities, and tons of action.
It’s a classic. Even if there aren’t enough prosthetics in the world to disguise Brigitte Lin as a man.
Chinese Connection 2 (1977)
Just as Bruce Lee’s The Chinese Connection is also known as Fist of Fury, Bruce Li’s Chinese Connection 2 is also known as Fist of Fury 2.
Confused yet? Good.
Bruce Li plays the brother of Bruce Lee’s character from the first movie. The Japanese are still in Shanghai, trying to close down all the kung-fu schools. Chen Shen (Bruce Li) objects, and has to fight Miyamoto (Lo Lieh, again) before letting himself get taken to jail.
Seriously overshadowed by Jet Li’s re-make, Fist of Legend. If you can’t just skip this one and see the Jet Li, here’s Chinese Connection 2:
Soul Brothers of Kung Fu (1977)
Two male illegal immigrants and their female friend come to Hong Kong. They try like crazy to find legitimate work, but they don’t take any crap and they stick up for the defenseless. One of the people they stick up for is Tom (Carl Scott), and he asks one of them (the one played by Bruce Li) to teach him kung-fu. The other immigrant joins the Triads, and Carl Scott and Bruce Li have to fight him to the death.
Do not let this crappy movie distract you from how good Carl Scott is. Although this movie was bad, I would happily watch more Carl Scott. He is terrific. Bruce Li might have been too, but the studio was trying to make him be Bruce Lee, instead of letting him be himself.
I cannot recommend this movie. It’s so bad nobody bothers to post the trailer, and the full movie is on YouTube.
Kid with the Golden Arm (1979)
After a famine, the Imperial government sends a shipment of gold so the people can buy food. They contract with a security company to protect the shipment, and send along an Imperial agent to watch over things. The security company also hires some kung-fu heroes to help out.
Meanwhile, the Chi Saw Gang plot to steal the gold. They have names like Golden Arm, Silver Spear, Sand Palm Fighter, Iron Robe, and Brass Head.
Goofy names and arm-swinging kung-fu aside, this is a fun martial arts action movie with clear characters and some decent suspense. Not a lot, but some.
Here’s a fight between Golden Arms and the Imperial agent:
Shaolin & Wu Tang (1983)
Another Gordon Liu movie!
A Ching Dynasty noble wants to learn Wu Tang’s 8-divine sword technique as well as Shaolin shadow fist. So he sets two students against each other, escalating the situations until a battle royale ensues.
This is a silly movie, saved by the athleticism of Chia Hui Liu and Adam Cheng. Playing two best friends, they exude camaraderie. Their surprise at discovering that they have to fight each other, as the champions of their styles, reads as very real.
The dialogue is hilariously bad, and the copy that I got from Netflix was a bad transfer from VHS or VCD, with dropped audio and a pan-and-scan picture instead of widescreen. Enjoy!