13 posts categorized "Martial Arts"

June 10, 2014

THE LEGEND OF DRUNKEN MASTER — CLASSIC FILM PICK

Legend of Drunken MasterAt the age of 40, Jackie Chan reached his pinnacle of virtuosity as an adept slapstick comedian, martial arts expert, fight choreographer, and stuntman actor with “The Legend of Drunken Master” (1994). This is the big bad mother of all martial arts movies. It is chockablock with Jackie Chan performing outrageous fight sequences, many involving large numbers of participants using various found objects as weapons.

Jackie Chan draws on the comic sensibilities of Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton, and Charlie Chaplin in order to imbue his character with intellectual wit and grace of movement. The film’s 20-minute climax is one of the most athletic and dangerous martial arts sequences ever filmed. When Jackie Chan crawls across hot coals, that’s Jackie Chan doing the deadly stunt for real. Large heavy objects fall close to Jackie Chan’s frequently imbibing character. As we discover during the film’s closing outtakes, not all missed hitting him.

The film — not to be confused with Jackie Chan’s 1978 kung fu movie “Drunken Master” — is a broad comedy populated with archetypal characters of Chinese comic tradition. A theme-carrying subplot, involving the theft of Chinese cultural artifacts by a local mafia, identifies the film’s core of nationalist sovereignty beneath the wild physical action and screwball humor that explodes from the screen. The brutality of China’s social conditions is nonetheless implied by the film’s environment of violent crime.

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Jackie plays Wong Fei-hung, loyal son of a strict father and a wily stepmother, Ling (Anita Mui), whose martial arts skills are equal to that of Fei-hung. Anita Mui’s hilarious performance is all the more silly because she plays Fei-hung’s stepmother when she is in fact nine years Jackie Chan’s junior. Ling runs a martial arts school where she teaches a style of kung fu known as “drunken boxing.” As the name implies, the technique involves the practitioner getting drunk, really very drunk.

Jackie Chan’s gravity defying execution of drunken boxing finds his character endowed with super powers in relation to how much booze he drinks. Fei-hung uses alcohol in direct ways as well, as when he lights a rival on fire by spitting alcohol at a flame.

The originality of the film’s many dynamic fight scenes sustains the action with escalating surprises. Fei-hung goes against a small army of men with a large piece of bamboo that he transforms from a truncheon into a slicing weapon. In another confrontation Fei-hung kicks dirt in an opponent’s face as an opening gambit using available resources. You’ve never seen a fighter attack another with a chin to the eye-socket before. Such is the wealth of martial arts knowledge woven into the film’s beautifully accomplished action set pieces.

The joy in Jackie Chan’s face is infectious. It’s clear in the outtakes that he was sitting on top of the world when performing stunts for one of the funniest and action-packed martial arts movies ever made. Jackie Chan’s physical ingenuity brings with it an enormous history as a naturally gifted storyteller whose development dates back to his life as a childhood actor.

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Rated R. 102 mins. (A+) (Five Stars - out of five/no halves)


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November 18, 2013

5 FINGERS OF DEATH — CLASSIC FILM PICK

FIVE FINGERS OF DEATHBefore Bruce Lee’s “Enter the Dragon” set a new standard for the American public’s newfound obsession with martial arts movies in 1973, another, more traditional, Chinese Kung Fu movie had already set the stage for its success. China’s legendary Shaw Brothers studio helped pave the way for Bruce Lee with a similar Warner Brothers distribution deal that placed “5 Fingers of Death” on grindhouse and drive-in screens across the country in the spring of that year.

The story contains elements from television’s “Kung Fu” series and even steals an iconic bar of unlicensed music from the “Ironside” courtroom series — which Quincy Jones composed. Listen for the “Psycho”-like horn screeches that accompany our hero’s use of the deadly Iron Fist technique that causes his fists to glow red. Cool. By the end of 1973, “5 Fingers of Death” was in regular double-feature rotation with “Enter the Dragon.” It was the perfect diamond-in-the-rough warm-up act.

If the film’s unforgettable title wasn’t enough to capture audience imaginations, the film itself paid off on its brutal promise of dynamic and outlandish violence. I saw the movie when I was a kid — my dad took me to see it on Christmas Eve — and the memory of watching a deadly villain rip out the eyeballs of his opponent before dropping the bloody orbs unceremoniously on the ground is forever etched in my memory. So too, obviously, is the mortal anguish that the destructive act had on its victim.

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Martial arts actor Lo Lieh was already Asia’s first Kung Fu superstar after making a slew of action movies under the Shaw Brothers, dating back to 1965. In “5 Fingers” Lo plays Chi-Hao, a young Kung Fu student in love with his aging master’s daughter. A gang of Japanese thugs from an outlying martial arts school are looking to take over the region by taking out Chi-Hao’s master. Chi-Hao begins studying with another shifu in the secret technique of the Iron Fist. His training involves thrusting his hands repeatedly into hot gravel, and striking trees wrapped by a single strand of rope. Breaking tree limbs is also part of his regimen. An upcoming tournament looms.

An anti-Japanese ethos of explicit racism, no doubt informed by the then-recent occupation during World War II, runs through the storyline. Dung-Shun is the villainous leader of the Japanese mob that ambushes Chi-Hao and ties his arms around a tree before smashing his hands to bloody pulps. Chi-Hao’s disability only makes him train harder to prove his abilities in the upcoming tournament.

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“5 Fingers of Death” includes a double climax that undermines its clichéd storyline. An air of magical-realism infuses Chi-Hao’s Iron Fist technique that he uses to settle the story’s final score. Included in Quentin Tarantino’s list of 12 favorite movies of all time, “5 Fingers of Death” is notable for its regular use of flying sidekicks to punctuate fight sequences that represent microcosmic battles against outside influences. They are literal fights to protect an ancient culture under constant attack.

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Rated R. 98 mins. (A) (Five Stars - out of five/no halves)


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October 27, 2013

MAN OF TAI CHI

Man of Tai ChiFor his directorial debut, Keanu Reeves crafts an exquisitely entertaining martial arts picture aimed at the international market. Reeves is clearly playing to Asian audiences. Punched up with self-mocking sequences of camp humor involving Reeves’s megalomaniacal character Donaka Mark, the cleverly clichéd story — by music-composer-turned-screenwriter Michael G. Cooney — is droll to begin with.

Martian-arts master Tiger Hu Chen plays Chen Lin-Hu, an impoverished Tai Chi practitioner whose master (Yu Hai) is about to have his humble temple impounded. An underground fight circuit — operated by Donaka Mark — discovers Lin-Hu’s fighting skills, and auditions him through a series of private mano y mano battles with fighters from other martial-arts disciplines. Although it’s counterintuitive that a tai-chi fighter could defeat mixed martial arts masters, Lin-Hu wastes no time working his way to the top of Mark’s illegal fight club circuit in brilliantly choreographed fight sequences that are as brutal as they are visually lush. The level of pure athleticism on display is astounding. These are fight sequences you can sink your teeth into.

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“Man of Tai Chi” is clearly a labor of love from Keanu Reeves, whose friendship with the Sichuan native Chen Lin-Hu formed the basis for the movie. With its simple narrative trappings, the bare-bones storyline allows for a feel-good martial arts movie concerned with celebrating the jaw-dropping spectacle that highly skilled martial artists from various disciplines can provide. So while Chen Lin-Hu doesn’t carry the magnetism of a Bruce Lee or a Jackie Chan, his talents receive a proper context in a popcorn movie that works like a charm.

Rated R. 105 mins. (B+) (Four Stars - out of five/no halves)

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