Tales of the Furious Fist and the Unseen Hero

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Hong Kong action cinema has gifted Hollywood with so much—in front of and behind the camera.

After 10 straight hours of getting combat programs installed in his brain, Neo opens his eyes and declares, “I know kung fu.”

Morpheus says, “Show me.”

They’re inside a cyber-dojo. What comes next is a fight scene so spectacularly beautiful that it became one of the defining moments of The Matrix (1999) and, perhaps, cinematic history. It also set a new standard for action films to come.

Kung fu has undoubtedly reached new heights in Hollywood. And it probably wouldn’t even have broken into the world’s movie-making capital had it not been for one man.

Fists, Dragons

Thugs fail to take control over one restaurant because of a man named Tang Lung; so the mob boss exclaims, “A man? Only one man?”

His minion replies, “But this man knows Chinese kung fu.”

One other thing: The man is Bruce Lee. He didn’t only know kung fu, he became synonymous with it.

The scene mentioned is from Way of the Dragon (1972), which Lee wrote and directed. The movie was the first Hong Kong production filmed in Rome. It featured a duel (between Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris) worthy of the Colosseum.

Around that time, Hollywood executives realized Lee was a superstar who warranted a much bigger role than sidekick Kato in The Green Hornet. The execs scrambled to finish a script, which became Enter the Dragon (1973)—a huge international hit. But as typical as any tragedy ever written, Bruce Lee died before the film was released.

His mysterious death only added to the legend. This came as no surprise to avid fans because, after all, he was born in 1940, the year of the dragon.

Lee was indeed a kung fu legend in more ways than one. Before Lee’s films, fights would go on and on before heroes and villains would actually hit each other. Then Lee’s The Big Boss (1971) came along and Hong Kong audiences were treated to fights where villains were knocked down in just one or two devastating blows. That it was believable wasn’t only because of Lee’s dragon-like screen presence, but also because the man could do 12 push-ups using just two fingers!

Fans worldwide, including American audiences, couldn’t get enough of Bruce Lee even after his death. The four films he completed were released in the US one after the other. Prints from his unfinished film Game of Death (1978) where Lee fought Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) were spliced together with new footage using lookalikes.

In Hong Kong, countless films with the words “fist” or “dragon” were produced. Several Bruce LIs, Bruce LAIs, and sundry Bruces surfaced. One was christened Chen Yuen Lung or “became a dragon.” He had a minor role in Bruce Lee’s Fist of Fury (1972) and then created a new style.

Chen’s major breakthrough came six years later with Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow (1978). That same year, Chen gained mainstream popularity as Jackie Chan in Drunken Master (1978).


The teacher demonstrates his secret fighting style of swaying and blundering about. “Don’t be fooled by my staggering around. There’s power inside to kill. It looks real enough, yet it isn’t. The fact that you’re pretending to lose let’s you win,” he says. “So…clever, isn’t it?”

It certainly was. He then performs every style of the eight drunken gods, ends with the drunken-goddess- flaunting-her-body, and the audience screams with laughter. The film, Drunken Master, is a cult favorite and was the beginning of Jackie Chan’s superstardom.

Unlike other kung fu styles, like tiger or crane, “drunken” isn’t a real style. Chan and director Yuen Woo-Ping simply made it up. But due to Chan’s opera school training, it looked genuine and dance-like.

While his Asian fans have known Chan since the ‘70s, it took a while before Hollywood took notice. After numerous blockbuster film franchises like Police Story (1985) in Hong Kong and three unsuccessful US films, Jackie Chan finally made an impact in America with Rumble in the Bronx (1995).

US audiences quickly caught up with the rest of the world, which already knew Chan not only for his comedic antics but also for his death-defying stunts. It was Rush Hour (1998) that finally made Chan a bona fide Hollywood star. It was also in 1998 that another Hong Kong superstar was introduced to Hollywood audiences, but as a villain in Lethal Weapon 4 (1998).

Heroic Villain

“Guy’s too damn good,” admits Murtaugh.

Riggs agrees, “Well, yeah he’s damn good. I mean, how’d he do that thing with the gun? How the hell did he do that? I mean, he took my gun apart in one deft move. How’d he do that?”

They look at each other for a moment. Murtaugh hesitates, “Yeah, okay. Let’s go ask him.” They walk over to the guy and get a terrible beating. It takes an underwater stream of bullets to kill him.

Yes, Jet Li was vicious in Lethal Weapon 4. It was a big departure from being the hero in Once Upon a Time in China (1991). The film, which was followed by five sequels, made him the new Hong Kong superstar. But that’s what’s brilliant about Jet Li: He plays the villain as effectively as he does the hero. The One (2001), Jet Li’s fourth Hollywood film, was his third as lead.

Before becoming an international action star, Jet Li was trained in wushu, China’s national sport and the competitive version of kung fu. Li was world champion for many years.

In 1990, fantastical wuxia (swordplay) films set in ancient China were revived. Due to bigger budgets and technological advances, aerial combats were staged. Actors or stunt doubles were hoisted in mid-air using ultra thin wires to perform gravity-defying fight scenes. Once Upon a Time in China was among the first to utilize this technique—and the man who made Jet Li fly in it would make a greater impact in Hollywood than any of the three kung fu icons who gained fame in front of the camera.

Unseen Hero

He escapes with a somersault, scales a wooden post, makes a back flip 12 feet up in the air—in slow motion—lands on both feet, receives a kick to his stomach, and hits the opposite post. And then Neo falls on his face, panting.

Morpheus asks, “How did I beat you?”

Neo says, “You’re too fast.”

In The Matrix, being fast didn’t have anything to do with kung fu and everything to do with Yuen Woo-Ping. The Wachowski brothers, creators of the Matrix trilogy, were the first in Hollywood to exploit his genius in 1999.

Previously, Yuen was best known as the director of the Jackie Chan movies, Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow and Drunken Master. The movies also starred his father Yuen Hsiao Tieng (Simon Yuen). (The elder Yuen was a pioneer in fight choreography when Chinese action cinema began in Shanghai.)

Later on, Yuen Woo-Ping choreographed the fights in other Hong Kong films, such as Jet Li’s Fist of Legend (1994), which caught the attention of the Wachowski brothers.

Besides the Matrix trilogy, Yuen’s magnificent moves were seen in other blockbuster films such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), Kill Bill Vol. 1-2 (2003-04), Kung Fu Hustle (2004), and Unleashed (2005). More recently, Yuen’s choreography was seen in The Forbidden Kingdom (2008), which fulfilled the deepest wishes of kung fu fans everywhere because it featured a fight scene betwee Jackie Chan and Jet Li.

With its breakthrough in The Matrix, kung fu has become the norm in Hollywood action films. Nothing is impossible, and anyone can fight in mid-air, stand on bamboo poles, or jump over lakes. Even a big fat panda can turn into a legendary dragon warrior.

print ed: 11/08


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