The release of The Raid: Redemption has made us revisit our favourite martial arts flicks and pick five favourite films to suggest for Sound on Sight readers.
Before I give my five picks though, I would like to turn the floor over to a man who has been a friend of mine since grade seven at Oxford Street Junior High School in Halifax. As the line editor for Steve Jackson Games’ “Generic Universal RolePlaying System”, Sean Punch aka Dr. Kromm has been directly or indirectly responsible for a number of source-books on the Martial Arts including writing and editing GURPS Martial Arts.
I asked him earlier this week what films he would put on his list. He named three.
You’re not looking for goofy, cinematic Asian martial arts are you? Because I tend to like stuff that is more realistic, more like what commandos would use. You mentioned Steven Seagal and you have to include Under Siege on any list like this. It’s his best film and has the best fights of any of his films. His aikido is top notch and he does a really good job of using the environment of the ship while fighting. Plus he uses a knife really well.
It’s not a film that many would point to, but the fights in the second Bourne film (Bourne Supremacy) are really well done. They look like the quick brutal fights that a real, trained commando would have.
The thing with films with realistic martial arts is that most of the time, people have guns. The fights happen only when they can’t use guns. The Tom Cruise film Collateral has a really good fight built around a briefcase, even though most of the time the Cruise character just shoots people.
As Kromm correctly guessed, my five picks are all goofy, cinematic martial arts films. Despite the fact that I am a wrestling geek, I am not a big fan of what “smart” wrestling fans call “work-rate” which is to say technically precise fights. I am much more interested in the emotional context of the fights.
(And now hold on while I completely contradict myself. I contain multitudes.)
In no particular order…
Written by Steven Pressfield, Ronald Shusett and Andrew Davis based on a story by Andrew Davis and Steven Seagal
Directed by Andrew Davis
USA, 1988, imdb
I cheerfully acknowledge that Under Siege is the better film, but Above the Law is the film that established Seagal as a bad-ass. No one has ever broken arms on film quite like Seagal. The injuries always looked (and sounded) painful and permanent. Steven Seagal’s run as the baddest man on the planet started here and arguably ended with the the success of Under Siege in 1992.
Early in this film, Seagal faces multiple opponents in the middle of a Chicago street, coolly evaluating who he can take and how quickly and then executing his plan, dropping opponents like so much kindling.
Put together by one of Seagal’s aikido pupils, Michael Ovitz, who was convinced that he could make anyone a star, Seagal was surrounded by a great, young director and teamed with Sharon Stone as his wife and Pam Grier as his partner, perhaps hoping that Sharon Stone finding Seagal loveable and Pam Grier believing him to be a bad-ass would achieve for Seagal the same effect as what Ingrid Bergman did for Humphrey Bogart.
“If a face like Ingrid Bergman’s looks at you as though you’re adorable, everybody else does too. You don’t have to act very much” -Humphrey Bogart
Written by Kôji Takada, Motohiro Torii
Directed by Shigehiro Ozawa
Japan, 1974, imdb
True Romance (written by Quentin Tarantino, directed by Tony Scott) opens with Clarence Worley (Christian Slater) spending his birthday watching a Sonny Chiba Streetfighter triple feature. This was a reintroduction to Western audiences of a man so dangerous that his first international success, The Streetfighter, was the first film to earn an X rating for violence.
One of the innovations of The Streetfighter was showing X-Rays of exactly what Sonny Chiba was doing to the bad guys when he hit them including a much censored, rarely seen sequence, where Chiba castrates a rapist with his bare hands.
Written by Edward Tang, Man-Ming Tong and Gai Chi Yuen
Directed by Chia-Liang Liu, Action Direction by Jackie Chan
Hong Kong, 1994, imdb
Trained for the Peking Opera along with his “brothers” Sammo Hung, Yuen Biao and Corey Yuan, Jackie Chan is the martial artist as dancer and comedian.
“Jackie Chan is Fred Astaire, and the world is Ginger Rogers.” -Donald Westlake
Jackie Chan’s first big success was playing Chinese folk hero Wong Fei Hung in Drunken Master (1978). One of Wong Fei Hung’s students Lam Sai-Wing, also known as The Magnificent Butcher, settled in Hong Kong after his master’s death and trained the first generation of kung-fu actors and directors. In other words, the history and legacy of Wong Fei Hung is the history and legacy of kung fu films.
The first Drunken Master film was a comedic lark. The second film is all about the clown learning that there comes a time when the laughter must end. The last twenty minutes of the film, directed by Jackie Chan, is the finest set-piece in the history of martial arts cinema as Wong Fei Hung fights a series of increasingly more dangerous foes through a factory, like a kung-fu Charlie Chaplin in a martial arts version of Modern Times.
The secret power of this version of Wong Fei Hung is that he practices Zui Quan or drunken boxing. While real masters of Zui Quan fake being drunk, Jackie Chan’s Wong Fei Hung learns that he can become invincible by straddling that fine line between sobriety and drunkenness. While he continues to act the drunken fool, Wong Fei Hong is incensed by the crimes of his opponents and willingly sacrifices his future health to bring them to justice. In the climatic fight scene, he finds that to beat his opponents, he must drink increasingly strong alcohol until he is literally breathing fire.
Written by Sompope Vejchapipat
Directed by Rashane Limtrakul
Thailand, 2009, imdb
Why Raging Phoenix?
DRUNKEN. MUAY THAI. HIP-HOP. PARKOUR. KICK-BOXING.
My work here is done!
Oh all right.
Raging Phoenix features the best female martial artist since Michelle Yeoh, namely JeeJa Yanin aka Yanin Vismistananda/Yanin Vismitananda. What makes her special is that she hits people like Tony Jaa (that relentlessly physical Muay Thai style); she combines martial arts with dance like Jackie Chan only adding break-dancing to the mix; she uses team martial arts choreography like Jet Li and Tse Miu in My Father is a Hero and she has more emotional range than any of the men. She is also completely willing to get dirty and look unglamorous.
The plot of Raging Phoenix (such as it is) sees JeeJa playing Deu, a morose alcoholic who has lost or alienated everyone in her life with her combative ways. When slavers try to kidnap her, she is rescued by a troupe of drunken Thai kick-boxing break-dancers (I can hardly believe that you can list those words one after the other into a phrase that exists on film), named Pig-Shit, Dog-Shit, Bull-Shit and Sanim. All four men have lost someone in their life to slavers and have dedicated their lives to drinking and beating up slavers while drunk.
To be exact, they practice the art of Meyraiyuth, a combination of drinking, Muay Thai, breakdancing and parkour. There is a bit more philosophy here than in Jackie Chan’s Drunken Master films. As Bull-Shit explains to Deu, “Meyraiyuth is about pain. Alcohol is just the way that pain becomes violence.”
In other words, when Jackie Chan practices Zui Quan, the drunker he gets, the better at Kung-Fu that he gets. Which is why Drunken Master II ends with Jackie drinking alcohol so strong that it sets his breath on fire.
When Jeeja Yanin practices Meyraiyuth, the more emotional pain that she is in, the better at beating people she is. Which is why Raging Phoenix ends with a heart-broken Jeeja flat-out killing people with knees and elbows.
While melodramatic, the film does have villains who create Jeeja’s emotional anguish and deserve her wrath. They are slavers, so it would seem obvious that they are kidnapping girls for forced prostitution, but that would be too simple. (One almost feels like the change was made at the behest of some official in Tourism Thailand worried that horny tourists might see the film and feel guilt over their sex trips.)
Instead of simple sexual slavery, the Jaguar gang in the film kidnaps women to create an expensive perfume so intoxicating that its wearers become addicted to sex. The perfume is made from human pheromones and when this is announced it conjures thoughts of some hideous rendering factory which feeds beautiful Thai girls screaming into its gears to be ground down into tiny perfume bottles.
Again, too simple an idea. The slavers make their perfume from the rarest substance know to man: the tears of genuine sorrow from beautiful women.
There will come a time and soon, when Jeeja Yanin is given a script worthy of her amazing talents. Until that time, we can enjoy the immense guilty pleasure of watching her in action.
Written by Sandy Shaw, Jing Wong
Directed by Corey Yuen
Hong Kong, 1995, imdb
Jet Li won his first martial arts competition at the age of twelve competing against adults, making him a legend before he even became an actor. He would go on to win fifteen gold medals and one silver before retiring from competition at the age of 17 to g o into movies. Like Jackie Chan, Jet Li has played Wong Fei Hung, although his interpretaion in the Once Upon a Time in China series is a much more serious version than Jackie Chan’s drunken prankster.
In a sense, teaming Jet Li with Tse Miu was teaming the adult Jet Li with himself as a child – teaming the legend with the birth of the legend. They actually made two films together. The first, an historical film called The New Legend of Shaolin, was a commercial success but made bad use of the combination as the directors Corey Yuen and Wong Jing wanted Jet Li to play the hero as so traumatized by tragedy that he has become emotionally aloof even to his own son.
Their follow-up film solved that problem by casting a Jet Li as a modern cop, forced by his bosses to take down a crime-lord despite his sickly wife and his young son. Instead of being emotionally aloof, this time Jet Li is a guilty father trying to find ways to connect to his family without endangering them as a result of his investigation.
In one of the rare unions of subtext and fighting style feeding off each other, at one point in the film Jet Li ties a rope around Tse Miu and uses him as a human yo-yo, made of elbows and knees, to attack criminal goons with. It is breath-taking and disturbing, as Jet pulls his son close and sends him away, pulling him in and out of harm’s way, both bonding with his son and endangering him simultaneously.
– Michael Ryan