Category Archives: Martial Arts

Kung Fu Hustle (2004) 4.29/5 (2)

 

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Rating: The Good – 84.1
Genre: Martial Arts
Duration: 99 mins
Director: Stephen Chow
Stars: Stephen Chow, Wah Yuen, Qiu Yuen

Nothing will prepare you for the breadth of imagination, style, emotion, fight choreography, and just plain good story telling that Kung Fu Hustle serves up without interruption for 95 minutes. Writer/director/star/stunt man Stephen Chow is the best kept secret in the world of martial arts movie making. With his mind-boggling talent, he should be held in the same esteem as Quentin Tarantino but few outside the fans of the genre are aware of just how good this guy is. Chow leads the cast as a petty criminal determined to make a name for himself in a world of quirky yet powerful gangsters. However, things take a turn for the surreal when circumstances bring him to a tenement block on the outskirts of the city where the inhabitants are protected by an overbearing landlady and her husband, a couple who have more to them than meets the eye.

Chow’s characters inhabit a strange Kafkaesque world of Eastern noir where the traditional martial arts concept is injected with steroids. Super-fighters emerge when you’re least expecting it and do battle in some of the most innovative showdowns the medium has offered. This is the essence of a martial arts movie, a celebration of bold concepts, graceful momentum, and some thunderously good fight scenes. Surprisingly however, the story is just as good. Chow’s character is truly hilarious as he bumbles through the early scenes but undergoes real change as the story progresses. The film comes alive when the camera is on him and we’re rooting him for him all the way. There’s even a romantic angle thrown in that works a treat, allowing Chow to tie the whole thing together in a most satisfying fashion. There’s nothing about this masterpiece that isn’t fresh and inspiring and it’ll have you laughing and exhilarated from the first frame to the last.

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Kill Bill Vol. 1 (2003) 4.62/5 (3)

 

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Rating: The Good – 96
Genre: Action
Duration: 111 mins
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Stars: Uma Thurman, David Carradine, Michael Madsen

As technically innovative as 2001: A Space Odyssey (seriously!), Quentin Tarantino pulls out all the stops in the first volume of this relentlessly imaginative and convention twisting story of an assassin who mercilessly hunts down her former colleagues after awakening from the four year coma they put her in. Not content to toil in one of the many action sub-genres, Tarantino bridges at least four genres from Spaghetti Western to Japanese Anime, seamlessly interweaving the different styles and pushing the boundaries of their conventions to the point that the viewer finds his/herself witnessing a broader yet unique and singular genre of his own creation. With each passing scene, he squeezes, twists, and stretches traditional conventions to find new ways to lure the viewer into his frenetic world of pure vengeance. The result is the most dazzling synthesis of visuals, sound, and music since The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly as Tarantino crafts one mind blowing scene after another. There’s a fight scene to rival anything from the Jidaigeki genre, a tracking shot to rival Goodfellas‘ “Copa shot”, a split screen shot to rival the best of De Palma, and an Anime scene as good as anything that genre has produced. On top of all that, the inspired casting gives us an utterly superb collection of performances lead by Uma Thurman’s scintillating portrayal of the Bride which finally gives us an action-heroine who talks and acts like a woman and not a man. Many have argued (including the director) that Kill Bill Volume 1 and Volume 2 should have been one film, but given the sleekness of this masterpiece, the difference in tone between the two movies, and the sublime manner in which this first Volume comes to a close, there’s more than good reason to see it in two installments. Unmissable.

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Once Upon a Time in China (1991) 3.86/5 (1)

 

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Rating: The Good – 78.2
Genre: Martial Arts
Duration: 134 mins
Director: Hark Tsui
Stars: Jet Li, Biao Yuen, Rosamund Kwan

Epic martial arts adventure starring Jet Li as the famous warrior Wong Fei-Hung who becomes embroiled in the intrigue of foreign powers and local corruption as he attempts to protect his homeland and traditions from their destructive influence. The outright strength of this magnificent piece of cinema is the tapestry of plots and stories it weaves into the central narrative not to mention the chorus of martial artists that intermittently set the screen alight. The result is a sprawling extravaganza of martial art drama. Hark Tsui brings an unabashed grandiosity to the film with striking cinematography and balletically choreographed action. James Wong’s magnificent score tells the story on its own level while Marco Mak’s editing whisks the audience along to the melodically unfolded action. As imaginative as the wire-work action sequences are there’s a slightly anaemic quality to their thrust which is a common problem with the flying style of fight movies. But what is lacking in oomph is made up for in artistry as Li, Biao Yuen, and company put on a masterly exhibition of on-screen action gymnastics. Within this, Li makes for a strong lead and catches the dramatic qualities of the famous leader admirably. Like the life and personality that Hark breathes into his epic saga from behind the camera, his lead actor and the remainder of the cast ensured that Once Upon a Time in China became much more than just another Kung-Fu flick.

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Only God Forgives (2013) 1.43/5 (1)

 

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Rating: The Bad – 20
Genre: Crime
Duration: 90 mins
Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
Stars: Ryan Gosling, Kristin Scott Thomas

A Thai based drug smuggler (Ryan Gosling) is co-opted by his disturbingly affectionate mother (Kristin Scott Thomas) into a bizarre revenge scenario when his brother is killed. Oh dear! It’s impossible to properly describe how embarrassing this entire affair is for writer-director Nicolas Winding Refn. After pulling the wool over many fans’ and indeed critics’ eyes and convincing them that Drive’s directorial pretensions were in fact art, the emboldened Refn threw off whatever shackles his modicum of common sense placed upon him and went full tilt into a project of pure self delusion. The result is pretentiousness of genuinely hysterically proportions. How a director can be so clueless as to mistake adolescent-like ramblings as profound cinematic statement is just plain mystifying but to go one step further and not realise that even moderately discerning cinema lovers are laughing at him boggles the mind. From his main character’s metaphorical fiddling within the stomach wound of his enemy to the hack reinterpretation of Freud’s Oedipus Complex, this one just ploughs blindly forward with a smug smile and oblivious arrogance. However, the most unfortunate aspect to all this is that the truly talented Ryan Gosling seems to have bought the knock off Kool-Aid lock, stock, and rancid barrel. One was tempted to give him the benefit of the doubt in Drive because everything good about that movie’s intentions seemed exclusively a product of his contributions. But to not stop at any point during the shooting of this mess and echo the words of Harrison Ford to George Lucas “You can write this shit George but you sure as hell cant say it!”, is truly mystifying. Gosling is an intelligent actor but he has been worryingly slipstreamed into the perversely stupid world of Refn on this one. Any marks this movie gets is for Larry Smith’s rather nice cinematography but as far as the rest is concerned, Only God could forgive it!

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Controversial Criticism

The Raid 2 (2014) 3.57/5 (7)

 

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Rating: The Ugly – 63.4
Genre: Crime, Action, Martial Arts
Duration: 150  mins
Director: Gareth Evans
Stars: Iko Uwais, Yayan Ruhian, Arifin Putra

After escaping the infamous apartment block of The Raid: Redemption, police officer Rama is manipulated into a deep cover assignment designed to expose corruption at the highest level of the Indonesian underworld. But as he gets close to the son of a powerful gangster he finds himself fending largely for himself amid a gang war. The Raid 2 counts as a mildly enjoyable sequel to the surprise Indonesian hit of 2011 that in the absence of a similarly neat premise suffers under some pretentious efforts at compensation.

It’s a familiar problem:- failing to replicate the priceless energy of the first film, the director invests greater attention on the technical side to the production. Thus, The Raid 2 looks wonderfully polished, and individually there are some striking scenes but, overall, it doesn’t work as a package. The lavish production design and overly self conscious cinematography begin to smack of pretension as they intrude repeatedly on the plot’s rational progression which, on a whole other level, struggles to facilitate the same level of action that it’s predecessor dished out. With The Raid: Redemption, there was a streamlined plot which didn’t simply allow carnage to happen naturally, it demanded it! Under pressure to up the ante but without that same bespoke pretext, The Raid 2 contrives one sequence after another until we’re left with a complicated story that lacks the integrity of one solid motivation. This is borne out most clearly in how Rama drifts in and out of the movie despite being the principle character not to mention the only one who links the two films. The other side to this issue is that the action fails to hit the critical momentum of the first film which was a veritable masterclass in that respect.

That said, Iko Uwais makes for a solid lead yet again finding that perfect balance between fresh faced charm and a flurry of fists and feet. The movie always picks up with his presence and the fight sequences are at their most balletic when he’s at their centre. So it’s more the pity they didn’t build the entire show around him. More often than not it seems, we traipsing after the gangsters and their enforcers of which there are just too many littered about. The “colourful bad guy” is a staple of the great action film and the one or two that tend to populate them should be pillars of the movie’s personality. With so many popping up and disappearing through the course of this movie, they fade into nondescript references of the script’s confusing allegiances.

Though letting himself down on his script writing duties, Gareth Evans still manages to prove himself an able director with an eye for scene composition. But he needs to learn discipline so he can tell when to hold back with the visuals and when to deliver them with punch. With too many striking set ups and bold colour contrasts, it all just whites out after a while. He’s shown he can handle action, and then some, and he’s given us glimpses of more but he didn’t properly deliver it with The Raid 2.

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Warrior (2011) 4/5 (2)

 

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Rating: The Good – 73.3
Genre: Sport, Drama
Duration: 131 mins
Director: Gavin O’Connor
Stars: Tom Hardy, Joel Edgerton, Nick Nolte

One might expect a movie set in the world of mixed martial arts to be nothing more than another vehicle in the sport’s locomotive-like publicity convoy. That it’s not, is only the first surprise Gavin O’Connor’s fight drama servers up. Joel Edgerton and Tom Hardy play Brendan and Tommy, two estranged brothers who were separated when the latter took off with his mother to escape their physically abusive father (played by Nick Nolte) years earlier. The older Brendan stayed with his father only to shun him at a later date and settle down as a physics teacher and family man while Tommy lost his mother, escaped poverty by joining the Marines, and served in Iraq.

The story begins with a ferociously volatile Tommy showing up at his father’s door 14 years later to throw insults at the now recovered alcoholic – not to mention his former wrestling trainer. However, it’s not long before he asks the desperate old man to train him for a blockbuster MMA event in which the winner takes home $5 million – so long as only training is discussed. Unbeknownst to them, over in Philadelphia, Brendan’s family are in danger of losing their home and so he too decides to return to fighting, eyeing the same prize as his brother. With the second half of the film dedicated to the all out carnage of the cage, the fraternal dynamic is only alluded to (in a standout night time scene that was shot on the Atlantic City waterfront) but it seems that the bluntly manic Tommy has never forgiven Brendan for not leaving with him and his mother and so their inevitable collision in the ring promises to erupt into a grudge match of biblical proportions.

There’s obviously lots going on here and that’s not the half of it. The film is beset with two or three needless subplots mostly concerning Tommy but given the tendency for these types of films to pay mere lip-service to back stories, the attempt to do more as opposed to less should be somewhat respected. It does come together thanks to some contrived character dynamics, some less than believable plot development, and O’Connor’s cleverly manipulative direction but so hair-raising is the end product that most will forgive the heavy handedness. Moreover, if you are content not to dwell on the negatives, the film can whisk you forward in a wave of unsubtle emotion right into the frenzied grinder of the tournament battles.

They’re a rousing bunch of set pieces connected with an adrenaline charged yet elegant montage of highlights from those fights we don’t see in full. And MMA fans won’t be disappointed either given the quality of the fight choreography. Yes, some of the physical untidiness of real-life fighting is filtered out in favour of more flowing moves but the hard edged savagery is represented clearly and authentically. The climax is a little on the nose and unashamedly gives the audience what they want but it undeniably works.

On the acting front, Edgerton shows once again what an interesting talent he is and Nolte does his best to battle the pathos with which his character is overflowing (a ridiculously overwrought drunken-relapse scene notwithstanding) but in truth everyone is overshadowed by Tom Hardy’s monstrous turn. As an unstable brute, it’s a commanding piece of acting that makes quality use of the writers’ best ideas for Tommy and avoids the pitfalls of their worst. Furthermore, not only does he maintain a deep and necessary vulnerability but he funnels it into his character’s personality so completely that it only juices his formidable energy all the more. Movie fans will get much from this film regardless of whether their preference is drama or action, but what will stay with everyone the longest is Hardy.

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A Touch of Zen (1971) 4.64/5 (2)

 

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Rating: The Good – 93.8
Genre: Martial Arts
Duration: 200 mins
Director: King Hu
Stars: Feng Hsu, Chun Shih, Ying Bai

There are really few films that have the capacity to take your breath away and this is certainly one of them. A Touch of Zen was released in 1971 and was the first of its kind so if it still manages to knock you for six today, imagine what it did to audiences who had never seen anything of its kind before. Furthermore, imagine how inspired its creators must have been to conceptualise it when there were no archetypes to begin with. All these considerations are pertinent when it comes to properly judging the scale of this film’s brilliance.

A Touch of Zen tells a sweeping story that walks a fine line between the natural and supernatural and opens with one of the most quietly stunning and contemplative moments you’re likely to witness on screen. We begin by following Ku, a modest artist who lives with his mother in an old abandoned fort that is reputed to be haunted. When he discovers a beautiful young woman has moved in to the house across from him, he gets embroiled in a conflict between her and the imperial soldiers who for reasons which eventually become clear are pursuing her.

Having proceeded on a very subdued note until this point, the film then explodes into a martial arts epic with choreography and action on a scale that the later famed Hong Kong studios (Golden Harvest and Shaw Brothers) would take a decade to match. A Touch of Zen gives us our first taste of “wire-fighting” but director King Hu was far too clever to saturate us with it. Instead, we see our heroes and villains gliding through trees and over rooftops very seldom and always in a fashion that adds to the story’s mystique.

Though this film could have succeeded wonderfully solely as a martial arts film, around half way through it signals that it is in fact going to be much more and in a final sequence as spellbinding as anything any genre has ever offered up, it confirms that promise and simply blows your mind. This, quite simply, is cinema.

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Five Fingers of Death (aka King Boxer) (1972) 2.86/5 (12)

 

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Rating: The Good – 72.4
Genre: Martial Arts
Duration: 104  mins
Director: Chang-hwa Jeong
Stars: Lieh Lo, Ping Wang, Hsiung Chao

Two rival Kung Fu schools prepare for a tournament of champions but one is willing to stop at nothing to ensure victory even if it means killing the rivals off. Five Fingers of Death or “King Boxer” as it is also known was one of the earliest martial arts films to come out of the Shaw Brothers’ stable – although you’d never know it from the choreography of the fight scenes or their beautiful remastering by Dragon Dynasty (in collaboration with The Weinstein Company). The story follows one fighter in particular (played by the always interesting Lo Lieh) who, after a difficult induction, is given the secrets to his master’s “Iron Palm” technique in order to defend his school. In a world where every master has his own gimmick, this technique, and the glowing hand that comes with it, is the one that settles all arguments. The technique is brought to life through an audacious and hilarious yet supremely effective “borrowing” of the Ironside theme tune (that Quentin Tarantino himself used in Kill Bill Vol. 1 & Vol. 2) and emerges only infrequently amid some wonderfully choreographed action sequences.  The fights are plentiful, varied, imaginative and really quite ferocious given the era in which the movie was made. Eye gouging, flying kicks, and head butts galore are all tied together with balletic blood spatter and crunching sound effects to satisfy any hardened action fan. These are only some of the treats you’re in for when you watch The Five Fingers of Death.

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Kill Bill Vol. 2 (2004) 4.47/5 (4)

 

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Rating: The Good – 85.3
Genre: Action
Duration: 137 mins
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Stars: Uma Thurman, David Carradine, Michael Madsen

The second installment in the story of the Bride’s quest for revenge against the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad who left her for dead four years earlier is a very different animal to the first film in pace, style, focus, and even the genres it reinvents. And these are only four of many reasons why Quentin Tarantino was right to tell the story over two volumes. Much more dialogue driven than Vol. 1, we learn a lot more about the primary characters that feature in this volume including the Bride and we also get to see Bill himself (in a career best performance by David Carradine). Thus, the acting comes to the fore here and Carradine, Daryl Hannah, and Michael Madsen don’t disappoint as they give us some of the most unique action villains that have ever graced the silver screen. As in Vol. 1, there is an array of fascinating secondary characters populating the background to this story who together with the actors who play them (e.g., Gordon Lui, Michael Parks, and Carradine himself) represent a knowing and sometimes audacious nod to the genres that Kill Bill is exploring. For example, the old Shaw Bros. super villain (quite possibly the best in the genre’s illustrious history), Pai Mei emerges in stupendous fashion with a show stealing performance by Lui. These characters are largely responsible for the funnier moments (of which their are plenty) with Bud’s boss Larry (Larry Bishop) being a particular highlight. Although, the action takes a back seat to the dialogue in Kill Bill Vol. 2, there are no fewer than three sublime action sequences, the first being the best martial arts training sequence since The 36th Chamber of the Shaolin and the last (the ultimate showdown between the Bride and Bill) being the swiftest and most explosive duel since Sanjuro. File under cinematic masterclass.

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The Prodigal Son (1981) 4.22/5 (2)

 

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Rating: The Good – 84.7
Genre: Martial Arts
Duration: 100 mins
Director: Sammo Hung
Stars: Biao Yuen, Ching-Ying Lam, Sammo Hung

The best old school martial arts film bar none, Sammo Hung’s ode to Wing Chun Kung Fu features the most awe inspiring fight sequences ever filmed. The film tells the story of Leung Chang (played brilliantly by the multi-talented Yuen Biao), the son of a wealthy merchant who wins fights around Canton because his overprotective parents pay people to lose to him. When an opera troop comes to town he gets involved in a fight with an effeminate actor Leung Yee-tai (the mesmerising Ching-Ling Yam) who in a blistering display of soft power destroys Leung Chang’s illusions about his own abilities. Determined to learn Kung Fu for real, he has his father purchase the opera troop and signs up as Yee-tai’s assistant much to the annoyance of his new master.

The Prodigal Son (or “Bai ga jai”/”The Spoiled Child”) is a truly wonderful film on every single level, and perhaps some martial arts fans are turned off it because it’s as much a comedy as it is an action film. Proper film fans, however, will appreciate this discipline and understand that it only augments the power of the fight sequences once they do begin. In addition, the humorous scenes are so truly funny that you’ll be entertained in a way that typical martial arts pictures don’t normally entertain. There’s also some real emotion in this film and the actors (who were all classically trained opera performers) balance the emotion and humour with expertise.

However, it is Sammo Hung’s directing of the fight scenes which turns this film into a mesmerising homage to Wing Chun. Opting to shoot the scenes from wide angels with deep staging and few cuts was a brave move (as a common cheat in action films is to shoot close up with fast edits in order to make the fighters look quicker) but Hung knew that he had some special actors on hand and a seriously impressive martial art that was very different to the Shaolin kung fu that most Hong Kong films portrayed. Specialising as Wing Chun does in close-quarter combat techniques, the characters utilise the tight space with a series of sharp turns and simultaneous strikes, or square with low strikes, and very few high kicks (that said, most of the bad guys represent the more famous styles so fans of the high kick won’t be necessarily disappointed). Making the most of these fighting principles, Hung’s choreography presents us with a lightning fast martial art charged with intelligence. But his actors play a critical role too. In particular, the dancing skills they acquired during their classical opera training gave them a keen sense of positioning which elevated Hung’s searing choreography to a level not seen before or since on film. Where this comes together most impressively is about half way through the film where Yee-tai and a rich prince (also a Prodigal Son – from the Cantonese point of view) do battle on a small bridge between a barge and the street. In this two minute sequence, the audience is quite simply treated to the greatest combat spectacle ever committed to celluloid. Utterly sublime.

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Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999) 4.57/5 (1)

 

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Rating: The Good – 74.3
Genre: Martial Arts, Crime
Duration: 116 mins
Director: Jim Jarmusch
Stars: Forest Whitaker, Henry Silva, John Tormey

Jim Jarmusch’s quirky yet deeply compelling film follows an unusual hit man who spends his days absorbing the Hagakure (or “The Way of the Samurai”) and his nights applying those lessons to his profession. Ghost Dog is as original a take on the hit man genre as you will find as Jarmusch blends a number of the seemingly incompatible conventions (i.e., hip hop, samurai sword play, Italian mobsters) into a coherent, tongue-in-cheek, yet ultimately serious story of commitment and discipline. Forest Whitaker is perfectly odd as the hit man in question, while Cliff Gorman brings just the right amount of humour and malice to his role of the vicious mobster who doesn’t appreciate Ghost Dog’s finer perspectives on life. And just because this movie is all about the moments in between the lines that’s not to say there isn’t some great action on show also. Let’s just say chambara fans won’t be disappointed.

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The Yakuza (1974)

 

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Rating: The Good – 69.3
Genre: Thriller
Duration: 112 mins
Director: Sydney Pollack
Stars: Robert Mitchum, Ken Takakura, Brian Keith

With Sydney Pollack behind the camera, Paul Scrader and Robert Towne co-writing the script, and Robert Mitchum in front of the camera this film had all the right ingredients to be a classic example of vintage Hollywood. Although, it perhaps didn’t scale to those heights it is a first rate 70′s thriller. Mitchum plays a retired soldier, Kilmer, who returns to Japan to repay a debt. Ken Takakura plays the Japanese ex-yakuza Tanaka who himself is honour-bound to help Kilmer. The Yakuza perfectly blends the hard-edged action of 70′s American cinema with the samurai sword-play of the jidaigeki genre to produce a rather original film for its time. Such a blending has been attempted many times since with most new attempts more jarring than the last. The Yakuza avoids the pitfalls of those later films by showing genuine interest in the Japanese psyche and how westerners operate in a world dominated by their sense of honour and respect. Richard Jordan as usual scores well as Kilmer’s right-hand man.

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