Tired of stunts done with computer graphics? Wires that gently float actors down after a dangerous 4-foot jump? Still imagining the pads off camera? Here is some much-needed medicine for your ailment.
Let’s start early on, just at the peak of the Hong Kong “old school” kung fu film. “Shapes”, or succinct, posing movements that didn’t necessarily have formal application but rather held symbolic meaning, dominated the fight scene. Phillip Ko was one of the champions of shapes, with a lot of vertical movement, extensive footwork, and complex handwork that only an octopus can mimic. He made otherwise lackluster stars look good while at the same time schooling them righteously. Here’s The Loot from 1980. Check out all of his films from 1978-1981.
When the modern Hong Kong film squashed the old “Shapes” franchise, there was a wave of kickboxing that dominated the market. One man who didn’t quite make the squeeze was superkicker and Drunken Master villain Hwang Jang Lee. His last major outing in Hong Kong was a starring role opposite veteran Wang Yu in Innocent Interloper (1986), choreographed by Shaw Bros. veteran and kickboxer Wang Lung Wei. Hwang does all his signature kicks, all with a cool shirt and a jheri curl. And check out Wang Yu. What’s going on? I don’t remember him being able to punch let alone kickbox. I have no idea what amount of cocaine or steroids the guy took to fight like this, I almost don’t believe it’s him, like it’s a different Wang Yu. In any case, he holds his own.
Meanwhile in Thailand, a film made by Tony Jaa’s mentor Panna Rittikrai (or “Litkrai” if you want to search his name) called Sing Wing Lui (1987) appeared on the radar and promptly vanished until 2006 when Tony Jaa made a big splash. Panna does “real-contact hits”, where instead of lining up the shot and faking it you just smack the stuntman with your kick. While he didn’t invent the method, he took it to its logical ends. The result is nothing short of pornography for action lovers. Panna did a lot of these films for ultra-low budget in his back yard and in the woods, much like your standard indie action filmmaker, and before 1992 they are for the most part spectacular. I also recommend Plook Mun Kuen Ma Kah 1 and Gerd Ma Lui (aka “Born to Fight“, remade in 2005 with Dan Chupong under the same title).
Where’s Japan in all this? One of the younger players in the Sonny Chiba-founded Japan Action Club was Junya Takagi, who put together a pet project called Bad History (1985). Three things come to mind when watching this clip: 1) single, long takes, a HK film lover’s dream, are everywhere, 2) this film is nowhere to be found. If anyone has a link to a VHS or anything, please let me know, and 3) there’s an absurd shortage of modern martial arts films in 1980s Japan, which extended into the 1990s, with only Henry Sanada filling the void on rare occasion (also a JAC heavy). The description of the video says Junya was “The last big gun of the action world in Japan,” which has a ring of truth to it. The Japanese market never had much of the modern martial art film, which is a crying shame because we could have had a LOT more of these. The clips are rough around the edges, but you can’t help but love this kind of editing that hides nothing.
Back to Hong Kong to round out the modern era. In the vein of Jackie Chan’s Police Story, and with many of the same stuntmen and similar in style, here’s stuntman Ben Lam’s breakout film Angry Ranger (1991), another one by Wang Lung Wei. You’ll also see Venom’s superkicker Sun Chien in the villain’s seat as his last big outing.
Lastly, Night Life Hero (1992) is similar in vein, but with a different stunt crew. Chin Kar Lok, the stuntman who doubled everyone including Jackie Chan, heads this pic. Ridley Tsui, Sam Wong, and other awesome new-wave-era stuntmen get tons of screen time. Night Life Hero is essentially a bunch of stunt guys getting together to make a goofy action film, so enjoy the non-obtrusive camerawork situated on a tripod 15 feet away, making every move clear as day. The film has tons of action aside from this clip, so search it out on YouTube.
Things slumped worldwide through the late 90s and early 2000s, and they picked up recently with some entertaining flicks, but the rawness of these videos can’t be glazed over. There is no CG, no faking anything. It’s straight out of the pipe into your head, and it’s the stuff I like to go to when I’m feeling down and need a quick fix. Here’s to a resurgence of the good stuff. Action Kickback all the way.