Woman: What shall I call you?
Woman: That’s not a name.
Shatter: I know…it’s more like a way of life.
— completely unironic dialogue from Shatter, 1975
When I worked at a video rental store in the early 1990s (a.k.a. “The Golden Age”), the martial arts movies of Cynthia Rothrock were enormously popular.
China O’Brien, Lady Dragon, Rage and Honor, Tiger Claws all spawned sequels and were constantly rented.
What was it about her appeal?
She wasn’t just “cute”—she was a very accomplished martial artist, and it was very obvious when you watched her movies. (Also, she apparently inspired the character Sonya Blade in the Mortal Kombat video game, which is no small shakes).
There was something else about Rothrock’s films that characterized the bulk of “budget” action offerings for many decades up to that time: they had a sort of genuineness that many of today’s “love letters” to the genre don’t (or can’t) embody. There was little self-referentiality, “apology,” or winks to the camera acknowledging how ludicrous the proceedings were. And the customers of the store I worked at responded to those films the most, with multiple viewings and unshakeable loyalty to the B-movie actors and actresses who entertained them.
So who better than Rothock to narrate a kung-fu documentary from equally popular 90’s-era video store mainstay Full Moon Pictures?
Fists of Fury is a compilation of trailers and clips from classic (I use this term loosely) martial arts films mostly from the 1970s. To be clear, this is far more a compilation movie in the sense of That’s Entertainment or Terror in the Aisles than a documentary proper. The clips are grouped by themes like “chicks in kung-fu movies” and “weird props,” with Rothrock giving a short intro before each section.
Probably the most interesting section to me was the one on the rash of “Bruce Lee clones” in the wake of the celebrated actor’s passing in 1973—a subgenre of martial arts films known as “Bruceploitation”. These were movies starring actors who marginally resembled Lee (the unique haircut helped), with pseudonyms like “Bruce Le” and “Bruce Li.” Shamelessly presenting these actors as if they were the real Bruce Lee come back to life, one Bruceploitation film’s trailer even went so far as to add second-long, almost subliminal photos of the real deal in-between the movie clips.
My biggest impression when watching Fists of Fury was that these were movies the likes of we’d never quite see again—particularly regarding the more “outré” films showcased in the documentary, such as the 1978 Bruceploitation flick Enter The Fat Dragon, 1976’s bizarre Master Of The Flying Guillotine, and the star-studded Grindhouse-ready 1979 action movie Jaguar Lives. How could films like these ever be made today without a heavy sense of irony and a constant self-awareness of the exploitation fodder from which they came?
In Fists of Fury, there is an utter lack of the sort of self-referential Tarantino-style riffs we are so used to in a world of Kill Bill and Kung Fury. Even the Bruceploitation films, created specifically to reference earlier, better (presumably; I have not seen a full-length one) movies, are presented not as campy jokes (OK, minus Enter The Fat Dragon) but as just another action film to devour. These movies boil cinematic entertainment down to their most basic, universal crowd-pleasing parts: heroes, villains, fighting, sex, gore, and some slapstick humor. All this, minus a hipper-than-thou postmodern filter designed to ultimately shout from the mountaintops that one is more “sophisticated” than all that.
I did go into viewing Fists of Fury hoping for it to provide me a bit more context on the movies, though the intros by Rothock are tongue-in-cheek fun. This would be the perfect movie to watch casually with friends, put on during a party, or just get lost into by yourself. It’s an excellent intro into the heart of the martial arts genre, and will hopefully spur further viewing.