- The Transporter
Okay, yes, I know: I'm already in trouble with a lot of people. Jason Statham is not a martial artist and, frankly, he's a bit of a toolbox . . . especially in this film, for which he seems to have WAY over-compensated for his receding hairline in the ol' weight room. Just let me speak my peace, and we'll move on. Corey Yuen choreographed the fights in this film, and he's someone we haven't seen a lot of in the west. He's brilliant, and at the top of his form here. Anyone remember what it was like to decide to watch Die Hard for the first time, thinking, "Oh well, I know it'll be real dumb, but I've me time to kill," only to find yourself blown away, literally and figuratively, by the movie? This is what happened to me with Transporter, only in a geeking-out-over-kung-fu way. I expected dumb action with lots of orange fire balls; I got elaborate, creative fight choregraphy patterned after a particular actor's strengths. La la la, bad-ass driver, la la la, lots of guns, la la la, OH MY GOD HE JUST KICKED A GUY IN THE HEAD BACKWARDS!
- Ong Bak
Oh my God in heaven. If you are a fan of unbelievable, real physical feats, this is a flick for you. If you dig authenticity in your martial arts, and learning about new ones, this is a flick for you. If you get squeamish over the sound effect of bones breaking, don't . . . uh . . . don't rent this movie. Seriously. You'll yuke. But it rules. Tony Jaa stars in this movie, which principally involves Muay Thai traditional kickboxing (very different from aerobic kickboxing). It also has the best foot-chase sequence I have ever seen.
- Legend of Drunken Master 2 (US title)
This would be one of those highly mainstream kung fu movies I was talking about. It's remarkable because it's an incredibly pure martial arts movie from the latter part of Jackie Chan's career (wherein most of his movies are sort of adventure comedies). Jackie actually fired the director for his predilection for wire work, so there are only two or three moments of wire-suspended antics, and those for exaggerating responses to kicks. The movie is perfect for Chan. It centers around Chinese Drunken Boxing, which is a very eccentric style perfectly suited to his creative choreography and incredibly acrobatic movement. Part of what's cool is that the final fight is between Chan and his real-life bodyguard. (Also cool because it points up a weakness of drunken styles [that they generally don't include powerful kicks] by way of Chan's bodyguard being a fierce foot boxer [found paper bag, breathing into it...geeking out...subsiding...].)
- The Chinese Connection (US title)
There's so much to say about this movie, it's difficult to know where to begin. It doesn't translate to our times so well, but most of Lee's movies come across as pretty dated these days. Three words should sell it: Nunchaku-Katana fight. It is definitely his most hard-core martial arts flick, and it has a downer ending. Lee was trying to expand his range as an actor (or at least his cast-ability), and he made a movie that was an almost overt expression of his disgust over the racial discrimination he experienced trying to work in America. Now the style is pretty tough to pin down. Lee sort of patented his martial-arts philosophy under the name Jeet Kun Do around 1965, under which philosophy he spurned adherence to traditional forms as limiting to a fighter. He was trained from youth in Wing Chun, however, and The Chinese Connection (Fist of Fury in China) concerns a character who returns to avenge the death of his kung fu teacher, who was presumably a traditional practitioner. Someone who knows more about gung fu needs to throw me a freaking bone here.
- Fist of Legend
Now, some will call a foul on me right here, right now. Fist of Legend, you see, is a remake of Fist of Fury. Jet Li stars, Yuen Wo Ping (the first Matrix) choreographs. Un. Be. Lievable. There's plenty of wire work in this one, but it's beautifully incorporated into actual climactic moments in a fight (I know: what a concept [okay, there is one embarrassing "one-arm pull-ups" bit]). The glory of this film is just how coordinated the direction, choreography and Li's movement are. Li was the youth wu-shu champion in China for, like, sixty-two years in a row, or something like that. And wu shu is pretty, if nothing else. They ditch the downer ending, as you might expect, but they have a fight between blind-folded fighters. Literally, blind fighting.
Before everyone starts freaking out and commenting (though I suspect this may end up another comment-less entry) on my lack of Shaw brothers, or my adherence to big-budget glam in this list, kindly note: These are my top five. They don't have to be yours. If you think that's lame, I have but one response.
. . . Boot to the head . . .