It may have come to your attention by now, but I like Kung Fu movies. As a matter of fact, I love them. I love all the cheesy, epic, glourious, laughable, jaw dropping, awe inspiring, heartwarming, heart pumping beauty of the genre itself. Directors like Yuen Woo-ping, Chang Cheh, Lau Kar Leung, Corey Yuen, John Woo, Tsui Hark, Tong Gai, King Hu, Sammo Hung, and everyone in between and beyond. But most of all, even beyond the mood, the fondness for the sets and the actors and the directors, the thing I love most is the fights.
Ah, the fights. A well choreographed Kung Fu fight is more satisfying than almost anything on this planet. The intricate beauty of two men (or women) putting skills honed by years of training to perfectly executed use. The thrill as each shot just barely misses the other, as they dodge and weave and parry eachothers’ fists, feet and weapons. The admiration that fills me as I consider the tens, dozens, maybe even hundreds of takes that went into making a fight look just right. Because it is so steeped in the physical capabilities of real people, there are Kung Fu fights that look more astounding than anything a CG epic, or even an Anime, could ever pull off.
Of course, this is not always true. As a matter of fact, they are probably the exception. For every perfectly executed punch or kick in one movie, there are a dozen more where we get to watch people execute clumsy rolls and flips while they punch the air three feet to the left of their opponent. Perfect the genre is not.
But we are not here for them. We are here to discuss what is, in my humble opinion, the cream of the crop. The fights that, from front to back, are thrilling, entertaining, memorable exercises in fluid combat between real, live people. These are the fights you call your non-Kung Fu loving friends in to see. These are the fights that make you bite your nails, whispering “ooh” and “ahh” as the fighters duke it out, and make you have to pause multiple times to confirm that you, indeed, “did just see that”. The fights that make sitting through the sometimes interminable and painful storylines of some Kung Fu flicks all worthwhile.
Now, of course, this list is not absolute. For every entry on this list, there are about four others that are pulse-poundingly epic and enjoyable that I just did not have the space to include. And beyond that, this is only from the pool that I have seen myself, an extremely small number compared to the sea of these films that exists. And although I have seen hundreds of them by now, I am no expert. This is just the opinion of one guy on his computer who has discovered the wonder of mortal combat on film, and wants to share it.
A NOTE ON SPOILERS: MANY OF THESE FIGHTS TAKE PLACE AT THE END OF THEIR RESPECTIVE FILMS, AND THEREFORE ARE SUBJECT TO COMPLETE SPOILERS. ADDITIONALLY, SHOULD I FEEL THAT IT WILL ENRICH THE EXPERIENCE, I WILL SOMETIMES (AND IN SOME DETAIL) DISCUSS THE MOVIE’S STORY BEFORE THE FIGHT. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!
And so, let us begin…
Number 24: “The Forbidden Kingdom“: The Reason You Came To See The Movie (With Jackie Chan and Jet Li)
It might surprise you to hear this from someone who is such a hardline traditionalist, but I actually don’t mind this movie. I don’t love it (as you can probably figure since I said as much in an earlier review of an unrelated film) but I don’t think it’s an abomination like others say. It has some good, if effects heavy action scenes. The American kid is actually not that bad (he could have been SO much worse, you can rest assured of that) and the characters are fun and interesting, from a mythological and storyline angle.
However, we all know the reason you (and I) watched this film: The long awaited fight between Jackie Chan and Jet Li. The two, despite being in the industry forever and being among its most renowned performers, had never gotten around to having an on-screen fight. And so this simple fact was basically the one reason a lot of people went to see it. Luckily, the one fight the two have is not only the best fight in the film, but a damn good fight on its own merits.
So, halfway through the film, when Jet Li’s mysterious monk character steals the macguffin staff from our main hero, Jackie’s drunken immortal goes in to get it back, and awesome ensues.
Despite the liberal use of wires throughout, the fight is quite nice, with brilliantly complex choreography and smooth combat. The repeated changing of styles allows for a wide range of satisfying matchups, with Jackie of course involving his now-famous Drunken Boxing skills. The other thing to notice is just how easy yet fierce the two seem. Jet Li has been doing this stuff for about 30 years now, Jackie for more than 40. And it shows in the silkiness of their movements. It’s one of those times where the fight is made great not just by the choreographer, but by the performers themselves, and the whole thing is really fun to watch.
Number 23: “Ip Man”: Don’t Fight Ip Man (With Donnie Yen and Some Poor Bastards)
One of the most celebrated Kung Fu movies in recent years, Ip Man is the story of legendary Wing Chun master Ip Man (see what they did there?) and his actions during the Japanese occupation circa WWII. In theory. Obviously, more than a few liberties were taken to make this a good watch, but all things considered it doesn’t get too out of hand with the fights. The movie itself is very good and I highly recommend it.
Now, as a matter of personal preference, I usually don’t like the “one dominates many” fights. After a while, it gets boring watching the one character walking through the others, beating them down with nary a pause. Fights are at their best when the two characters are evenly (or at least almost evenly) matched, so you can see the clash of skill and fury as each one tries to outdo the other and not slip up themselves. It’s that poetry that made me fall in love with the genre in the first place.
That being said, though, as far as fights of complete destruction go, there may not be any better than the epic thrashing Donnie Yen gives to a group of Japanese Karate masters in this film. Between having heard that the Japanese general beat his friend/fellow Kung Fu enthusiast “Zealot” Lin to death, and having just watched a fellow honorable master get gunned down for messed up reasons not one minute ago, the usually tranquil Ip Man is not in a good mood at all. And it shows in the way he utterly walks through the 10 (yes, 10) Japanese masters he challenges in this scene.
Sweet Jesus, look at him go. I know those rapid-fire punches are actually a really bad idea in an actual fight, but damn do they look good. The swift, flinch-inducing brutality of this fight cannot be overstated, and very rarely will you see more broken limbs in a fight. That being said, it is over rather quickly, but hoo boy, what a thrilling couple of minutes those are…
Number 22: “Iron Monkey”: Battle and Balance (With Yu Rongguang, Donnie Yen and Yen Shi-kwan)
Iron Monkey is probably Yuen Woo-ping’s best modern film. It contains the goofy slapstick and elaborate fighting of his earlier creations (not too much of the former, thank God) mixed with the bubbling creativity of his later work, once he discovered the joys of wires. It can’t match the mastery of, say, Magnificent Butcher or Drunken Master, but as far as 90’s wire-fu epics go, it’s definitely among the best there is.
And so, in this scene, we find ourselves at the “climactic battle” between the heroes (Donnie Yen’s Wong Cai-ying and Yu Rongguang’s Iron Monkey) and the evil magistrate, a fallen monk named Hin-hung (played delightfully by the scenery-chewing Yen Shi-kwan). The two arrive, with Iron Monkey’s assistant Miss Orchid in tow, to rescue Wong’s son (an unusually young Wong Fei-hung) and to finally defeat the mad monk.
The first part of the fight is, as expected, brilliantly over the top. People defy the laws of physics with brazen enthusiasm, choreography is blazingly complex and enthralling, and at one point, the magistrate throws a woman at them. No, that is not a euphemism. He full on THROWS her at him. And it is awesome.
In the second part, the fight moves outside, and in a turn of events that could only happen in a Kung Fu movie, the floor becomes a roaring pit of flame, and the combatants are forced to fight while balancing on top of wooden poles. This part is the main reason I include this fight on the list, and what a sight it is. The scene itself is so gloriously ridiculous, the movements so blatantly impossible, that the whole thing reaches a sort of poetic epicness.
Number 21: “Fist of Legend”: Tradition Vs. Modernity (With Jet Li and Chin Siu-ho)
Some more Yuen Woo-ping, but unlike the fanciful wire action of the previous entry, Fist of Legend plies its trade solely on hardcore hand-to-hand fighting, featuring Jet Li in arguably his defining performance next to Wong Fei-hung in Once Upon a Time in China, this film acts as a remake/reimagining of sorts of Bruce Lee’s classic Fist of Fury, the 70’s film that is pretty much responsible for bringing Bruce into the world stage.
In this film, Jet Li plays Chen Zhen, who returns to China from Japan after hearing of the death of his master. This is all taking place during Japan’s occupation of China, though, so their relations are a little…strained. Of course, foul play is involved, since the Japanese high command actually decided to poison Chen’s master. And so one thing leads to another and before you can say “hard punch”, they try to frame Chen Zhen for murder. Luckily, Chen’s Japanese girlfriend saves him by implying that they were, ahem, “together” when the murder took place.
This saves Chen, but makes him a pariah among his more than a little racist dojomates. After insulting his girlfriend for a while, Chen is challenged by the dojo’s leader, Ting’en, who also happens to be his deceased master’s son as well as his childhood friend. Ting’en, although skilled in the arts of his father, has been feeling kind of inferior to Chen, who has been being idolized by the other students since he came back. And so the duel has many layers…
First, let’s discuss the combatants. Jet Li is, of course, magnificent. His form and speed are always near-flawless, and he is always a delight to watch fight. More interesting is Chin Siu-ho. Siu-ho is, like Jackie Chan and numerous others, trained in the opera style (focusing on general athletic capability and performance skill). However, he is also a trained martial artist, so therefore his on-screen fighting is always a nice mix of fast, sharp strikes and interesting acrobatic flourishes. I really like the guy, and between this and Tai Chi Master (made around the same time, also starring him and Jet Li and also directed by Yuen Woo-ping) he built up a lot of good will with me.
Unfortunately, he never really took off. Besides a few other memorable roles here and there, he has mostly been relegated to B-man status. Which is a real shame, because his screen charisma and skill are both ample enough to earn him a spot among the greats, as these two moments in the sun showed.
Anyway, enough of my ruminations, let’s get to the fight. The fight is, as typical for Woo-ping, fast and intricate, with both fighters using sharp, speedy strikes on eachother with the occassional fancy jump or kick. Things get really interesting, however, when Chen decides to stop messing around, and adopts a more Western stance to counter the decidedly Eastern Huo fist being used by Ting’en. The result is an interesting competition between form and function, with the aesthetically pleasing, though also combat-effective, Huo fist being pushed back by the unflashy yet extremely functional European fighting Chen is using. Look especially for the barrage of speedy punches used by Chen and that absurd handstand-kick he does toward the end of the fight. In a movie full of great battles, this one stands out as the most creative and weighted, and in an all-time classic like this, that’s saying something.
Number 20: “Shanghai Express”: Everyone Was Kung Fu Fighting. No, Seriously, Fucking EVERYONE (With Way Too Many To Count)
Like many Sammo Hung efforts of the 80’s, Shanghai Express (or alternately its original title, Millionaire’s Express) tries to find a balance between good action and comedy. Also unlike some of his other tries, it actually works here. Some of the moments in this movie are genuinely hilarious, as opposed to the frequently impenetrable comedy of other films. Chinese comedy, specifically Cantonese comedy, is very reliant on an understanding of the culture, which a great many of us, myself included, just don’t have. Fortunately, this film fares much better with more of a focus on sight gags, slapstick and generally clever situations. There’s a part involving a hotel room and a bunch of spies in particular that I would register as one of the most brilliantly funny sequences I’ve seen in any film.
It is also, without a doubt, in possession of one of the most absurdly huge casts of Hong Kong legends ever assembled. Unfotunately, the movie only has two fights, well, at all. There are some brilliant stunt sequences, but actual brawling is saddly sparse. But boy does the end go a long way to making up for it.
This fight, the gigantic orgy of combat that closes the film, sees what appears to be most of Hong Kong fighting with wild abandon. In this fight alone, you have Sammo Hung, Cynthia Rothrock, Yuen Biao, Johhny Wang, Yasuaki Kurata, Hsiao Ho, Lau Kar-wing, Hwang Jang Lee, Phillip Ko, Yukari Oshima, Dick Wei, Corey Yuen and Richard Norton. And I’m sure I missed a few.
And beyond that, the rest of the cast who AREN’T fighting include Yuen Wah, Jimmy Wang Yu, Eric Tsang, Lam Ching-ying, Wu Ma, Bolo Yeung, Chin kar-lok and Richard Ng. The movie was really a huge affair, and the final fight matches the hugeness. There’s so much variety in the fighting, with the acrobatic speed of Biao’s fight, the power of Sammo, or even the David vs. Goliath aspect as Hsiao Ho and another try to take down the titanic Johhny Wang. In terms of sheer amount, you get plenty of bang for your buck here.
Number 19: “Shaolin Prince”: The Best Chair Ever (With Ti Lung, Derek Yee and Jason Pai Piao)
In the pantheon of great choreographers, Tong Gai is a name you are sure to find. In the 70’s, the work he did not only on his own but alongside fellow choreography master Lau Kar-leung made for some of the best fights of the age. Yet something even more amazing happens when Tong Gai is allowed behind the director’s chair: some of the most creatively absurd films of the age.
Things start pretty standardly in this particular opus. The traitorous 9th Prince arranges to kill the Emperor and his two infant sons, and sends some thugs to do the job, including the Water General (an extremely effete man wielding a strangely ridged sword) and the Fire General (he has a sword that, predictably, can catch fire and shoot it at his enemies). Although the Emperor does indeed perish, the sons are taken away by his bodyguards. They end up seperated and are eventually taught martial arts under the care of various teachers (Ti Lung’s character, in particular, is trained by three eccentric shaolin monks). Eventually (about 20 years later) they meet back up, and then go to fight the man who stole their lives.
The subject of this entry is the final fight, which sees some of the most creative chaos one can hope for. The 9th (played wonderfully by Jason Pai Piao) is a supreme master of the fighting arts himself, particularly in the use of a metal gauntlet that allows him to capture, deflect or even snap any blade that is thrust at him. But beyond his own formidable skills, the 9th has one other advantage: his throne. You see, the evil one is usually ferried about on a throne carried by four servants. In the final fight, this reveals itself to be the greatest piece of furniture ever created.
First off, let’s look at the choreography. Tong Gai almost always shows up on lists of the all time great fight creators, and even behind the director’s chair it shows. The movements are fast and precise, the weapons deftly wielded and the staging brilliant. Particularly, look for some brilliant stick work by Ti Lung and some great acrobatic swordplay from Derek Yee. But holy shit, that seat. It’s like a set of Bond gadgets was dropped in the Martial World and the 9th decided to apply it to a chair. The seat moves back and forth with the push of a lever. The holding poles deploy blades. The bottom shoots knives. The seat spins so fast that it can knock people away. And the whole thing has joints, so the servants can contort it in strange shapes to keep their master safe. Combined with Tong Gai’s creative fight choreography, this leads to one of the most visually absurd, yet awesome, fights ever committed to film.
Number 18: “Blood Brothers”: The Fates of Men (With Ti Lung and David Chiang)
Blood Brothers was one of many collaborations between Chang Cheh, Ti Lung and David Chiang in the 70’s. Colloquially, they were known as “The Iron Triangle” and together made some of the best movies of the era. The acting and martial talents of Chiang and Lung, combined with the innovative and often bombastic ideas of Chang Cheh, led to them all being counted among the true superlegends of the 70’s. However, arguably none of the movies they made showed the talents of all three as effectively as this opus.
Name 5 Kung Fu movies with really, really good plot lines. Hard, isn’t it? Blood Brothers, incidentally, has one of the most solid plotlines of any movie of its kind, with some memorable characters and a storyline with more lust, revenge and betrayal than you can shake a stick at. It involves the rise and fall of three sworn brothers, and is one of the great epics of its time. It won acting awards for Ti Lung and David Chiang and, of course, there is the fighting, directed by a young Lau Kar Leung.
In the climax, we find former sworn brothers Ma Xinyi (Ti Lung) and Chang Wen Hsiang (David Chiang) battling after a slightly botched assassination attempt on Hsiang’s part leaves Xinyi wounded, but not dead. The fight itself is very solid, with the grace and precision you can only find in these earlier productions, but the thing that makes it stand out is the quiet moments injected into the fight.
*I appologize for the music, this was the only video of the actual fight I could find*
As stated, Lung and Chiang won acting awards for this, and they deserved it. They were both among the most talented performers to emerge from this era, and it shows in the way they use something as simple as a grimace or a glare to give weight to this fight. Every pause, in which they simply look at eachother and breathe, shows the near decade of history between the two. There is rage, regret, passion and a little sadness in their eyes as they attempt to close the book not only on eachother’s lives, but on the wonderful, now painful, life they shared.
Not many fights feel as important as this one does, and because of that, every punch, every parry and every gasp and wince feels like the culmination of something huge. It might not have the best choreography in the world, but it is veritably drowning in meaning and depth, and that is very rare in these affairs.
Number 17: “Wheels on Meals”: Settling the Score (With Jackie Chan and Benny “The Jet” Urquidez)
What can I say about this fight? Back when it came out, many argued it to be the best fight kung fu match ever put to film. While I can’t quite agree there (obviously, there are at least 15 fights I think are better…) I can agree that this is an extremely good fight, one of the most blisteringly fast and furious examples of hand to hand combat you will find.
So Jackie, Yuen Biao and Sammo Hung are assaulting the fortress of the villain of the week to retrieve a girl who has done nothing but screw them. But, chivalry and all that jazz I suppose. Inside, they run into his elite mooks who proceed to beat the crap out of them in varying degrees. Biao and Sammo get some solid fights, of course, but the highlight is Jackie being paired off against good old world kickboxing champion, Benny the Jet.
Now, let’s say a word about Benny. The man is, for lack of a better term, utterly terrifying. He looks like someone made a human face out of wax, used a blowtorch to melt it slightly so the features would be crushed together, then put shark eyes in the sockets. He’s also an incredibly stocky looking man, one who looks like he could kick your ass. And kick he does. This man is every bit as fast and effective a combatant as Jackie. There were even rumors that the two had a sort of “rivalry” going on, to see who was better. I’m not sure if that’s true, but there is indeed a feeling of ferocity and power to this fight that is not often replicated. Benny’s kicks and punches are fearsome pistons of terror (at one point, he actually puts out a set of candles just from the wind from his kick), while Jackie uses all the speed and movement available to outdo his opponent.
And they’re fast. Boy are they fast, I can’t think as fast as these two are hitting. The fight is a great example of how, no matter how fancy your choreography, speed and ferocity will always make for the best screen fighting. The two had a rematch some years later in Dragons Forever, and although that too is a great fight by any measure, it lacks the incredible energy of this fight. So, the best of all time? No, not at all…
But one of the best? Hell yeah, all the way.
Number 16: “The Five Deadly Venoms”: Venom Showdown (With Chiang Sheng, Kwok Choi, Lu Feng, Sun Chien and Wai Pak)
Ah, The Five Deadly Venoms. The movie that, about a year and a half ago, started me on this path when I accidentally found it looking through the action movies section at FYE. I watched it, and fell in love with the creative characters, the goofy expressions (Seriously, Lo Meng’s Toad has some of the all-time best goofy faces I’ve seen in a film), the clever fights and the unique abilities. Since then, I’ve seen flicks with better choreography, better stories and better production values. But for creative, fun Kung Fu, this one still holds a place in my heart.
It also holds a place in others’ hearts. FDV is one of the premier “cult” kung fu classics, beloved for its cheesy english dub and serving as fuel for everything from books to rap music (it gave a lot of fuel to the Kung Fu-centric Wu Tang Clan). Most importantly, though, it introduced the world to “The Venom Mob”, a group of 6 (really 5, since Wai Pak was only in a few other pictures with them) young actors renowned for their acrobatic and martial abilities, and more importantly, their ability to act their way out a paper bag, compared to many of their contemporaries.
A little scene setting is in order, due to the entry being the climactic fight of the story. The story follows the young Yang De (played by an endearingly quirky Chiang Sheng), the last pupil of the House of Venoms. As his master lay dying, he informs Yang of a great treasure that lay with an old associate of the house in a city in some-fucking-place (as they always are). Unfortunately, converging on the city are the five other pupils of the house, each one with their own purpose, unique ability and codename, related to a poisonous animal.
The eldest, Centipede, is a man with feet and fists so fast that he seems to have a thousand limbs (played by a bearded and marvelously cheesy Lu Feng). Next up is the Snake, whose unique take on the snake style involves using one hand as a snake’s fang, the other as it’s tail. This makes him great at defense, and especially skilled at fighting on his back (played by a strangely lethargic Wei Pak). Third in line, we have the Scorpion, an engine of pure destruction who uses his hands as the claws and feet as the stinger. (who, in the movie’s big plot twist is revealed to be Sun Chien, who until this point was a seemingly amicable civil servant). Fourth in line, we have the Lizard/Gecko (depending on the translation), who has such control over his inner energy that he can actually walk on walls, and use the height to deliver devestating kicks and the like (played by a amazingly charismatic Kwok Choi). And finally, we have the Toad, who has the most busted and blatantly unrealistic ability of them all: complete physical invulnerability, in addition to his considerable hand to hand combat skills. Toad is played by my number one fave Kung Fu actor, Lo Meng, who steals the movie with his earnest enthusiasm, his great fighting and by making faces like this.
And so we come to the fight in question. Yang has teamed up with Lizard to take down the evil Centipede and Snake, who are also moderately alligned with the Scorpion, who has not revealed himself as of the beginning of this fight (Toad, unfortunately, met his end earlier in the film).
The fight itself is a fancy affair, with lots of flipping and jumping, but the real treat is how we get to see all the styles clashing with eachother. The jump kicks of the Lizard are matched against the lightning fists of the Centipede, while Yang tries to deal with the multilayered attack and defense of the Snake. The Scorpion makes his entrance in a big way, though, bringing his kicks to bear against both of them. The whole thing is just fantastic to watch, as the powers that have been built up the whole movie just crash against eachother. There are standout moments in the fight as well, such as Yang and Lizards wall-clinging attacks and the epic kick combo through which Centipede meets his end. It’s a fancy and creative fight at the end of one of the more creative movies made by Shaw.
Number 15: “The Prodigal Son”: Masters’ Duel (With Lam Ching Ying and Frankie Chan)
The Prodigal Son is one of Sammo Hung’s best films, and if you know his career, that’s saying something. The tale of a spoiled brat’s tutelage in the ways of Wing Chun at the hands of an eccentric master is nothing short of an orgiastic collection of great fights, great comedy and memorable moments. But this isn’t a review of the movie, it’s of the best fight in the film.
At this point, Frankie Chan’s Master Ngai has shown himself to be a ruthless, yet semi-honorable man in search of a good fight. And he finds a possible contender in a local theater performer, Wing Chun master Lee Yee-tai (played by Lam Ching-ying). After a dinner party, Ngai requests a duel, which Yee-tai finds himself strong armed into participating in. His student, played by Yuen Biao, pushes him in, and the fight starts in earnest, and doesn’t stop.
At less than two minutes of actual combat, this is among the shortest fights on the list. And there is a much longer fight at the end involving Yuen Biao that would be just as worthy of being here. So why this one? Well, first, there is my fondness for Lam Ching-ying. Lam was one of the most graceful and effective martial artists I’ve ever had the pleasure of watching. His roles in numerous films, as a choreographer and as an actor, were nothing short of wonderful. Unfortunately, as you could probably figure from my use of past tense, he was taken from us far too soon, struck down in 1997 by cancer. Of all his roles, his performance as this effeminate yet still bad-ass Wing Chun master is probably his best, and it is one of my favorite Kung Fu movie performances.
More than that, though, the fight is just plain good. From the moment he is pushed in to the fight, the two masters do. Not. Stop. Hitting. Eachother. They move from fists, to grappling, to feet, to movement, all in a short time. And barring a quick interlude where each muses on the other’s skills, this is a constant fight with very few cuts. It may be short, but in terms of pure ferocity and intricacy, it is almost unmatched.
Number 14: “Gallants”: Yet Another Alley (With Chen Kuan-tai and Lo Meng)
Gallants is the most recent movie on this list, and it is also one of the best. This celebration of old, golden age Kung Fu flicks starring several of those golden age actors was my first Kung Fu review for the site, and remains one of my favorite flicks. The action is something special as well, featuring some great hand to hand combat between some of the best vets the industry has to offer.
The subject of this review is a certain alley clash between Chen Kuan-tai’s Dragon and Lo Meng’s Jade Kirin. Being the dicks they are, Kirin and his people decided to go and give the main character and his friends a hard time. After unwisely insulting (and assaulting) Dragon’s master, Dragon then goes on a rampage, ruining some of the thugs before Kirin himself gets involved.
The fight itself can be considered a continuation of an earlier skirmish between the two, which was interrupted by thugs and wacky circumstance. That little skirmish was great also, but this fight, taking place after a little more training for Dragon, is a lot more dynamic. The speed these two display is cool on its own, and made even better when you realize that the combatants are both up there in years (Kuan-tai? The dude doing the fancy spins? He’s in his mid sixties. Most people his age have trouble walking). Also noticeable is the smoothness and the stance perfection. These guys have been doing this for so long that these motions are as natural to them as breathing, and it shows. The fight is smooth and realistic, yet still jaw-dropping and memorable, and is backed up by the sheer skill and experience emenating from the combatants. And that is something worth celebrating.
Number 13: Lion Vs. Lion: Evil vs. Evil (Chin Yuet-sang and Johhny Wang Lung-wei)
Lion vs. Lion is my most recent view on this list, having only seen it three weeks ago as of this writing, but it has already taken a place in my pantheon of great Kung Fu flicks. The only reason I don’t hold the actual movie in top-tier status is that the ending is absolute horse shit. I mean of the HIGHEST caliber. However, luckily, that doesn’t stop the movie from having some of the absolute best fights I have ever seen. Actually, measured purely on how many “great” fights there are, Lion vs. Lion is definitely in the topmost class.
The plotline involves the government trying to get a hold of a list of rebels so that they can set about doing what governments do best in these films: killing dissenters. Lo Meng plays a righteous policeman who ends up quitting due to the corruptness he sees. He ends up with half of the list, hooks up with a con man, and ends up embroiled in a plot from various sides to get the list. So, standard stuff.
The fight in question is about half way through the movie. Johhny Wang plays a righteous master of the martial arts who is trying to get the list and give it back to the rebels. Except, it turns out he’s actually trying to get it to the government, since his father is an official who will be killed if he doesn’t send it in (Oh come now, it’s Johhny Wang! The man is arguably THE villain of Kung Fu). Despite this seemingly tragic situation, he’s a pretty hardline government man, so you don’t feel sorry for him. On the other hand, we have Chin Yuet-sang, a sort of acquaintance of Wang’s who is also in the same boat. Yuet comes calling one night to get the list, by force if necessary, and the fight begins.
This choreography is fucking serious. Chin Yuet-sang is a monster of a choreographer, having his hands in several other movies (including acting as assistant choreographer in “Last Hurrah For Chivalry”, my all-time fave) and co-directing this one. He’s also a very talented performer, and boy does he strut both these talents here. Both fighters look absolutely top-notch, with long takes showing the complex moves the two engage in, and elaborate, mostly wire-free routines.
Actually, that’s the really special thing here. The fight manages to mix the speed and ferocity of the works of those like Lau Kar-leung with the more fanciful stuff the movies of this time were known for. The fight has it all: starts with some elaborate movement based competition, followed by some furious hand to hand combat, with a little grappling thrown in. Next, Yuet-sang whips out a chain weapon of some sort, and Johhny counters with some great physical movement. And then he counters with a chair, because he can. The whole fight comes to an end with some desperate wrestling, and of course some good old fashioned Shaw Brothers “orange blood”. Truly a wonderful treasure, this movie is, and this is one of the best fights I’ve ever seen.
Number 12: “Kill Zone (aka SPL: Sha Po Lang)”: Sticks and Knives (With Donnie Yen and Jacky Wu Jing)
Possibly the film that made Donnie Yen the megastar he is today, Kill Zone (SPL) is the tale of a good cop who witnesses first-hand the tragedy that results when good, decent men do decidedly undecent things in the name of what is “right”. It features Sammo Hung in a truly amazing role as the villain of the piece, a ruthless crime lord who loves his family, and “Jacky” Wu Jing as his bleach-blond hitman/godson.
The movie itself is solid, with a good story and memorable characters, but it suffers, as many do nowadays, from a lack of actual fights. Now, I know that things have changed in Hong Kong. Movies are more expensive, and danger is treated with more respect, so the rampant creativity and safety-endangering schedules of the golden years are long gone. You can no longer have movies that are just barrages of creative fight scenes, with little to no story, because audiences at large won’t want that. That being said, a lot of these movies nowadays seem to be almost more “Dramas with occassional fights” as opposed to “Actual action/kung fu flicks”, and it saddens me slightly.
And so, SPL goes most of its running time with nary more than a few skirmishes, which, although pleasing, are unable to truly quench that thirst we all have. However, toward the end of the movie, when shit really goes south, we get treated to two amazing fight sequences. The latter one involves Donnie and Sammo going at it like beasts, but it’s the first one, between Donnie and the then-relatively unknown Wu Jing that really blows the mind.
We find ourselves in another fucking alley (seriously, China must have as many alleyways as it does people) as Donnie and Jacky stare at eachother. After unveiling their weapons, a sort of riot club for Donnie and a long knife for Jacky, they run at each other. And this happens.
Jesus Christ. Like the Prodigal Son example a few spots back, the thing I notice most about this one is that, from that first clash, they do not stop going at it. The sound of weapons clanging is constant, and the speed and shortness of the weapons makes it almost look like a fist fight where the fists end in, well, weapons. Wu Jing shows why he was once considered the next great hope of Kung Fu movies (and I’m still rooting for him), throwing his whole fucking body into it while still looking fabulous.
And Donnie, well, he’s Donnie-fucking-Yen, full stop. Speed and accuracy are his game, and he plays it very well. Highlights include Jacky going ambidextrous, Donnie’s epic facial expresions and just the sheer “oomph” of the whole thing. Perhaps it was because it was coming at the end of a pretty action-light flick, but this fight had me so on the edge of my seat that I almost fell off of it.
Number 11: “The Kid With The Golden Arm”: Axe vs. Spear (With Chiang Sheng, Sun Shu-Pei and Lu Feng)
Another Venoms film, The Kid With The Golden Arm is one of Director Chang’s more eccentric flicks (not that Five Deadly Venoms was at all normal…), as well as one of his most fun. It involves a convoy filled with valuable gold being moved a great distance, and the clashes between said gold’s protectors and the villainous bandits who want to steal it. No, really. That’s the whole plot. There’s some stuff about old nemeses and some double-crossing, but all things considered, that’s it. The protectors are a motley crew, involving the head of the security company (Venoms member Sun Chien), a renowned swordsman who is a bit of a dick (Venoms member Wei Pak, in one of only three movies he was in with the Venoms after the original work) and his girlfriend (Pan Pin-chang), and two goofy but skilled axe wielders, Short Axe and Long Axe (Venoms member Chiang Sheng and Shaw standby Sun Shu-pei). Add in a drunken sheriff of world renown (Venoms leading man Kwok Choi) and you got a full suite of heroes.
The villains of the piece are a truly wacky bunch. The “Deadly Valley”, as they are called, is run by four powerful martial artist commanders. The least of them, Copper Head (played by Yang Hsuing), is a giant of a man with a giant brass helmet that he uses to enhance his already deadly headbutt. It’s as goofy as it sounds. The next, Iron Coat (played by everyone’s favorite villain actor, Johhny Wang Lung-wei) is defined by his fancy iron coat (you seeing a theme with the names here?) which makes his body immune to any piercing or slashing damage, and his shrewd intellect. The second in command of the group, Silver Spear (played by another prolific villain actor, Venom Mob member and choreographing demi-god Lu Feng), is a dangerously savvy man who is incredibly deadly with his signature weapon, a (wait for it) silver spear. He’s not above using dirty tricks to win, and has a particularly deadly ability to suddenly shoot his spear forward using nothing but wrist strength. He is one of the subjects of the fight.
Before we move to the fight, my fanboyism demands that I mention that the leader of the group, the titular Golden Arm Kid, is played by the one, the only, Lo Meng. He brings all his charisma to this role, that of a man that although ruthless in getting what he wants, is not without honor and decency. It is one of his most famous roles.
That was a lot of set up, but here we are at the fight. And boy is it a doozy. Short and Long Axe have gone ahead to secure a road for the caravan, and come across Silver Spear and his equally fabulous henchmen. An epic battle ensues, with Long Axe taking on the stabby brigade while Short Axe goes after the leader himself.
Long Axe does his part to make things exciting, but it is Lu Feng and Chiang Sheng going at it that makes this fight amazing. Lu Feng’s always wonderful combat skills (seriously, is there any form of combat the man is not Godly at?) are pitted against Chiang Sheng’s acrobatics and deft weapon wielding. The fight is, aesthetically, among the most beautiful on this list. The flips and jumps and dodges are all awe-inspiring and really push the actors.
Takes are absurdly long, with huge stretches of time where the camera will not move at all, letting us take in every detail of their fight. True, things get a little too fancy at times (Okay, seriously, you’ve been stabbed. Stop flipping.) but the fight feels truly epic and the speed and skill with which each combatant wields their weapon is utterly enthralling. They start out using their weapons’ natural ranges and strengths, relying on their bodies to dodge and weave. Then they get a little fancy, swinging and jumping for all they’re worth, and finally it’s close range time, where they pull their weapons into zero range and the clashing seems to become one long ringing. It really is a great example of weapons combat done right, and is the highlight fight in one of Kung Fu’s most unique little treasures.
Number 10: “Once Upon a Time in China II”: Cloth and Sticks (Jet Li and Donnie Yen)
Tsui Hark’s “Once Upon a Time in China” was revolutionary for being a deep, respectable production at a time when the Kung Fu flick was fading from popularity. Actually, one can give a fair amount of credit for the 90’s revival of the genre to that film and it’s decent, dignified hero and portrayal of the Chinese spirit. And indeed, the first film had some very impressive fights, mainly Wong Fei-hung’s (Jet Li) confrontations with Master “Iron Shirt” Yim at the end (played by Yen Shi-kwan, who gave us the wonderful Magistrate earlier in the list).
However, with the entry of Yuen Woo-ping in the second film, coupled with the talents of performers like Donnie Yen and Jet Li, the choreography reached a whole new level. Donnie Yen plays a hardline, and eventually corrupt, official who clashes with Wong twice in the film. The first time is a sudden and brutal sparring match in which we are treated to some blindingly fast stickfighting.
Seriously, look at them go. The sound of the sticks clashing is constant. Stickfighting, whether it be with spears or poles or anything else, is always a treat to watch when done properly. The amount of control required to manipulate what should be a long and unwieldly object earns the deepest admiration, and it is very hard to make a stickfight not look fucking awesome. This fight, even by those standards, is absolutely wonderful. And it sets the stage for their final confrontation later.
Again, we are treated to some wonderful stickfighting, with four shorter sticks instead of two (because Yuen Woo-ping loves us), and then things get really nuts when Donnie whips out the cloth. Yes, cloth. He swings a tightly wound cloth so hard and fast that it might as well be a firm object. This leads to an interesting combination of whipping techniques and stickfighting, as Donnie utilizes the maleability of his weapon of choice while also using its firmness to switch up his techniques. The result is a fight satisfying on both a traditional and innovative level.
Number 9: “Five Shaolin Masters”: Holy Shit That’s a Lot of Kung Fu (With David Chiang, Ti Lung, Alexander Fu Sheng, Chi Kuan-chun, Meng Fei and Johhny Wang Lung-wei, Fung Hak-on, Leung Ka-yan, Kong Do, Choi Wang)
Among the earliest entries on this list, Five Shaolin Masters is probably one of the all time classic Kung Fu flicks, with great choreography and an incredible cast which features almost all the heavyweights of the era (and, since said era was the “legends” era, most of them are all-time greats as well) in a film which tells of the aftermath of the burning (well, one of them) of the Shaolin Temple.
Five young Shaolin students escape the inferno: heroic Ti Lung, thoughtful David Chiang, impetuous Alexander Fu Sheng, intense Chi Kuan-chun and competitive Meng Fei. Unfortunately, the Qing fighters who burned the temple, as well as the monk who betrayed them all, are hot on their trail. Traitorous monk Johhny Wang, titanic weapon user Choi Wang, Mantis style master Fung Hak-on, hand to hand master Leung Ka-yan and nobleman Kong Do (who uses some weird ass style that involves using his queu to bind people and a pair of skilled bodyguards). Throughout the movie, the five young students get beaten down horribly by the Qing masters, and realize they better sure as shit train if they want to stand a chance. So, after training for a while in skills that would let them take their choice of enemy, they all meet by a river, and all hell breaks loose.
The thing that sticks out about this fight is the sheer amount of technically perfect Kung Fu on display. The first time I watched, I found myself slightly disappointed. The fighting, although choreographically sound, was slower and more technical than I was used to. However, upon repeat viewings, I have come to appreciate the sheer variety of styles. Every fight is giving you something interesting and genuine to look at. With the exception of David Chiang’s triple impalement, nothing here is overtly impossible, and because of that, the fights feel grounded and meaningful. Each of these battles are between two equally skilled opponents, and it all comes down to their individual mastery of their techniques. It may not be the fastest or most aesthetically mind-blowing fight, but it’s probably the closest I’ve ever seen a fight to looking completely and totally feasible, and that does a lot for its memorability.
Number 8: “Invincible Shaolin”: Shaolin Showdown (With Sun Chien, Lu Feng, Chiang Sheng and Wai Pak, Lo Meng, Kwok Choi. Special Guest Johhny Wang Lung-Wei)
Ah, Shaolin. As the original martial art (seriously. Shaolin martial arts were the first ever developed, making it essentially the origin of all Kung Fu in history), the 1500 year old temple and it’s members have shown up in more movies than you can shake a stick at. Seriously, out of my collection, there are dozens that have “Shaolin” in the title, or involve the temple in some way. Even among this legion, though, Chang Cheh’s “Invincible Shaolin”, yet another Venom Mob flick, stands out for its great choreography, likeable characters and honestly interesting training sequences.
The story involves a duplicitous Qing General, General Pu (Let’s see, a villain. Did you guess Johnny Wang? Congrats, you’ve seen a Shaw Bros. movie…) He plans to invite a bunch of Shaolin disciples to his home, under the guise of letting them teach his soldiers new techniques, and then measure the strength of the temples to see if they are a threat.
So each temple sends three disciples. The three disciples of the Northern Shaolin Temple are the intelligent, level headed Zu Fong, master of the Whirlwind Kick (Sun Chien, in one of his best roles), the young, enthusiastic Yang Chung-fei, wielder of the Butterfly Pole (a typically rambunctious Chiang Sheng) and the slightly goofy, but likeable Bao Zen-tsao, master of Chin Kan palm (Lu Feng, at his most endearing). All three of them are masters of their own styles, and are clearly superior to their southern counterparts. Shamed, the southerners prepare to head home.
Except Pu has other plans. He murders the three disciples, sends the bodies back home and claims that the northerners got a little carried away. Incensed, the southern master sends three more students…who also get defeated. Unfortunately, one of the students can’t accept it, and tries to attack Zu Fong. Acting on reflex from being attacked from behind, Zu accidentally kills his attacker…who happens to be the southern master’s son. In addition, the other two southerners get killed trying to avenge him. Seeing that as the last straw, the master decides to get three of his own students trained. His own son, Mai Fong (Wei Pak, bringing the energy) he sends to train in Wing Chun, to counter Zu’s kicking. Old student Chu (an obscenely over the top and wonderful Lo Meng) is sent to learn Mantis style to match Bao’s immense strength, and formerly wandering student Ho Ying-wu (Kwok Choi, his usual charismatic self) trains with the master himself in Fishtail Pole.
What follows is about 45 minutes of very entertaining training sequences, as the southerners are taught their respective styles, while the northerners try to decipher the conspiracy surrounding them. Eventually, the general works things so that they all meet under his roof, and the battle begins.
First off, this is probably the only fight on the list where you have no clue who to root for. All these guys have grown on you throughout the movie, and to see them trying to kill eachother over a stream of misunderstandings and one really douchey general is kind of heartbreaking. But it’s a glorious fight, probably one of the tightest, most well varied I’ve seen. There really is something here for everyone, but unlike the Five Shaolin Masters example above, the styles here are a little fancier, and the choreography a little speedier.
If you like your fights slow and strategic, you need look no further than Zu and Mai. Sun Chien is a really good kicker, and matching his epic legs against Wei Pak’s speedier hand strikes is a stroke of genius. The cat and mouse game that ensues between the two is a tense little island in the sea of Kung Fu chaos. Yang and Ho, meanwhile, engage in one of the most visually interesting stick fights I’ve ever seen. The absurd length of Ho’s Pole and the weird shape of Yang’s staff makes the fight interesting almost in a scientific way. The challenge of wielding such unwieldly weapons makes the fight more exciting than it already was. Finally, Bao and Chu engage in a “silly-face-off” (although let’s be honest, Lo Meng is the king of such things) as their fists fly at great speed against eachother. The fistfight is excellent, with both combatants moving with speed and grace, and it ends on what is possibly the single most hilarious effect I’ve ever seen.
At the end, because he’s played by Johhny Wang, Pu gets involved, but doesn’t leave much of an impression. All in all, Invincible Shaolin is probably my third favorite Venoms flick. It’s got great characters, a great energy and ends on a truly great fight.
Number 7: “Last Hurrah for Chivalry”: Swords in a Field (With Wai Pak and Fung Hak-on)
Let me make this perfectly clear: John Woo’s Last Hurrah For Chivalry is nothing less than my absolute favorite Kung Fu movie of all time. From the moment that gloriously heartfelt ballad opens the credits, it is a wonderful collection of great fights, memorable characters, soul-stirring music and beautiful artistry. The storyline is filled with plot twists and intriguing characters, and the whole thing acts almost as a critique of the psychology of the Kung Fu universe, which I love. It is, to me, the perfect Kung Fu flick.
The fight is the thing here, though, and although a little stiff sometimes, Hurrah has enough great choreography to completely make up for any shortcomings. The true highlight of the movie comes in the middle, when Fung Hak-on’s character, a prideful sword for hire named Pray (“If you touch my sword, you better pray for your life”) meets up with main character “Magic Sword” Chang (played by Wei Pak, at his absolute best) in an abandoned field for a duel set up by a few choice betrayals. What follows is one of the most startlingly creative swordfights you’re likely to see.
*Only first 5 mins. of video*
Now, swordfighting is an interesting thing. Although not necesarrily boring, fights in which swords are the primary means of combat tend to be a bit more straightforward than, say, stickfighting or hand-to-hand combat. And they suffer for this. Unlike stickplay, in which the sheer complexity of the wielding makes it exciting, there are only so many ways you can use a sword. Don’t get me wrong, some of the best fights I’ve seen involve bits of swordplay, but actual full fights exclusively with swords are few and far between, and fewer still are the ones that are good.
In this fight, though, that problem is avoided through the sheer physicality of the duel. The characters dive, tumble, weave, jump, hide and use the environment in between long, uninterrupted sword combinations. This makes the fight interesting to watch, as opposed to the standard clang of blades that so many of these fall into. Beyond that, the swordfighting itself is top notch, with both actors deftly wielding their blades like they were born with them.
As it goes on, they get more creative. Chang at one point hides under a collapsed hut, only to burst out when Pray goes to investigate. Having injured his arm, Pray uses his ambidextrous nature to his advantage (I must note also that Fung Hak-on, in addition to playing Pray, choreographed these wonderful fights). The whole confrontation is deeply satisfying, both mechanically and story-wise. And it earns its spot even more for how it takes a style that could have easily been boring and makes it into the most exciting battle in the movie.
Number 6: “My Young Auntie”: Assault On Uncle’s Home (With Hsiao Ho, Lau Kar-leung, Johhny Wang Lung-wei, Numerous Others)
Some Lau Kar Leung coming your way, now. Lau-sifu is probably the single best choreographer to ever live (a title he MIGHT share with Yuen Woo-ping, depending on the movie). Because of his history in martial arts (His father trained under Lam Sai-wing, a pupil of the real life Wong Fei-hung, and Lau himself is a lifelong practitioner), he has an intuitive understanding of the capabilities of his actors. Lau’s choreography is focused on speed and precision, as opposed to aesthetic pleasure or acrobatics. There is very little flipping or jumping or the like, but in exchange, we get treated to extremely long takes of characters exchanging blows, their hands barely missing eachother, and due to this, Lau almost always achieves that nebulous goal of making his fighters look like they are actually fighting, as opposed to acting, as if they could slip up at any minute and smash each other in the face.
Which brings me to My Young Auntie. A Kung Fu comedy classic, it is frequently absurd and over the top, with broad characters and a storyline which does just enough to tie it together. My opinions on the overall quality of the movie are kind of long to get into, needless to say I am not as fond of the movie as I would hope, but the point here is the fight, and although there are a few standouts here and there, the real crown comes in the end.
First, some scene setting. The titular young aunt Cheng Tai-nun (played by Kara Hui) is indebted to a wealthy, yet kind, landowner who, upon his death, does not wish his worldly possessions to go to his greedy, vicious brother Yu Yung-sheng (played by, you guessed it, Johhny Wang Lung-wei). And so, he marries Tai-nun and dies, and leaves instructions for her to go and give the deeds to his property to his far worthier nephew Yu Cheng-chuan (played by Lau Kar Leung), and his Kung Fu capable son “Charlie” Yu Tao (played by an incredibly annoying Hsiao Ho). What follows is about an hour and a half of shenanigans, with some decent fighting added in, which culminates in Yung-sheng stealing the deeds from them.
To fix this, they decide to re-train Cheng-chuan and his three brothers, all older masters (not knowing that Cheng-chuan has kept up on his training down the years) but, being young and stupid, Tai-nun and Yu Tao decide to go back and get it themselves. The compound is protected by thugs and traps, but the real trouble comes in the form of two of Yung-sheng’s attendents, one a swordwielder and the other a master of “Hard Qi Gong” (Iron body-endowing breathing techniques) which makes him completely invulnerable save for one weakpoint on his body (exactly like the Toad from Five Deadly Venoms). They are beaten badly and Charlie goes home to retrieve the uncles. The five return to Yung-sheng’s compound, and thus the final battle begins.
Lau Kar-leung is an interesting director. It’s like he purposefully holds in all his great fights, until he finally blows his load at the end (kind of like a…well, you see where this is going). The fight is big enough to be divided into two halves. The first half is the massive assault on the compound, with the four older masters and Charlie all fighting through to the compound proper. It’s a good, chaotic fight, with the less important uncles getting a chance to shine, and some good choreography throughout.
Then Charlie and Cheng-chuan get inside, and here’s where it gets really good. Hsiao Ho, despite his habit of playing annoying characters, is a really good martial artist, and a skilled physical performer. He takes on Mr. Hardbody, while Cheng-chuan holds off some mooks and eventually clashes with the sword wielder. Each side of the fight is really good, with some fantastically elaborate choreography and real good matching between the characters.
Shit finally comes to a head with Cheng-chuan’s confrontation with Yung-sheng, after Charlie gets his ass kicked trying to fight his vastly more skilled senior. Seeing Lau Kar-leung and Johhny Wang, two of the best in the business, going at it is a rare treat.
Both men were at the top of their game when this was made, and it shows in this fight. The lightning speed of their strikes, the ease with which they keep changing up styles. It’s a fast and utterly furious ending to an already incredible end sequence. Too bad it comes at the end of a movie I find nigh-intolerable…
Number 5: “Magnificent Butcher”: Same Movie Tie: Students in Battle (With Wei Pak, Yuen Biao and Lam Ching-ying, Yuen Miu) Misunderstandings and Finality (With Sammo Hung and Lee Hoi-san)
Magnificent Butcher represents, to many, one of the best Kung Fu flicks ever made. And while I wouldn’t quite give it that moniker, I can agree that it is absolutely incredible. The choreographing talents of Yuen Woo-ping meets the physical ability of Sammo Hung, to give us some of the most impressive and utterly furious fighting you’ll ever see.
This film tells the story of Lam Sai-wing, the titular butcher. He is a student of folk hero and Kung Fu standby, Wong Fei-hung. Unfortunately, a series of misunderstandings involving an already-envious master of a rival school, and the cruel shenanigans of his son (a truly vicious, irredeemable slime played by Fung Hak-on) result in Fei-hung’s students finding themselves in danger in while the master is away.
The first fight actually involves two other students of Fei-hung, Foon (played by the great Yuen Biao) and Chik (played by Wai Pak), getting into a brawl when Master Ko (played by Lee Hoi-san) comes calling. Ko sends two of his own students out, a tricky fighter with various hidden weapons for Foon (played by a menacing Lam Ching-ying) and a Monkey-style stick fighter for Chik (played by the marvelously expressive Yuen Miu). What follows is a absolutely masterful and intense sequence.
Wow, look at these guys go. All four of them make the most of this one fight scene they have. Yuen Biao brings his entire physical ability to bear, flipping and dodging with the best while delivering some truly great kicks. And that finish, where he fights while putting back on his coat, is in the running for one of the most badass things I’ve ever seen. Not to be outdone, Lam Ching-ying uses that slender frame to deliver some awe-inspiring shots, and his clever cache of weapons makes for an interestingly unpredictable fight.
Meanwhile, on the other end, we have Wai Pak showing that, although he may have never taken off as well as his Venom Mob bretheren, he was a match for any other Kung Fu star of the time. His match against Yuen Miu is a blazing flurry of shots, dodges and parries, and it only gets better when Pak himself picks up some weapons. Miu, definitely an underappreciated favorite, steals possibly the whole fight by throwing himself fully into the “monkey” aspect of his style, while delivering some truly amazing stickwork, both in terms of his attacks and his movement. The fight is capped off by Lee Hoi-san stepping in to utterly wash the two pupils before Sammo, the reason all this is happening in the first place, steps in and the fight ends. But boy what a fight it is…
At the other end of the movie, we have the final confrontation between Lam and Master Ko. Ko, grief stricken over the loss of his son (but again, he deserved the shit out of what he got) has come to take revenge on Sammo, and thus a battle of styles begins.
Sammo, as mentioned multiple times in this list, is one of the great performers of the genre, managing to be just as agile and awe-inspiring as his thinner opera mates, while delivering the power they simply cannot. Regarding our villain, I’m quite sad that this is the only entry featuring Lee Hoi-san on the list. He is known as one of the best villain actors in Kung Fu, playing memorable heavies in more films than I can count. Aside from Master Pai of Last Hurrah for Chivalry, this is probably his best villain. The guy is a dick, but you feel kind of sorry for him and his honest rage at the loss of his only child.
The fight itself is a parade of styles, as each fighter switches up their technique to try to take out the other. They range from realistic animal styles to more blatantly supernatural techniques, such as that Cosmic Palm (very reminiscent of the Iron Fist from King Boxer way back when. All we need is the Ironside audio clip every time his palms glow, and we’ll be perfect…). The whole fight looks amazing not only due to the precision and grace of the always great Sammo and Hoi-san, but because of some very impressive acrobatics on the part of both actors. The result is an epic climax to an incredible Kung Fu experience. This movie is truly one of the best, and these two fights show why.
Number 4: Same Movie Tie: “Legend of Drunken Master”: Under-Train Battle (With Jackie Chan and Lau Kar Leung)/The Final Fight: Drunken vs. Kicking (With Jackie Chan and Ken Lo)
Any Jackie Chan fan (and more than a few general Kung Fu fans) knows that the Lau Kar-leung directed Legend of Drunken Master is among his best, and has some of the best choreography in the history of Kung Fu cinema. The keen martial arts eye of Lau Kar Leung combines with the smooth speed and flexibility of Jackie Chan to create what is arguably the highlight of each one’s career. Jackie, although getting up there in age at the time, manages to utterly shame most of the Kung Fu stars half his age, moving with almost supernatural grace and ability.
The first winner here is the early duel between Wong Fei-hung (Jackie) and an old man who seems really interested in taking his “ginseng”. The old man is played by none other than the movie’s director, Lau-sifu himself. What follows is a battle on hand and knee across the undersides of multiple train cars, eventually culminating in a furious exchange of weapons and fists under a nearby structure.
This is simply incredible. Lau was in his 50’s at this time, and yet you would not know it at all from how damn fast he moves that spear, and later his fists, throughout the fight. And Jackie shows off those old Opera reflexes, bending and contorting in a ridiculously confined space, and managing to hold his own against a man who has been doing this almost since before he was born. It is mindboggling that these two can move with such precision and grace while in a position that is making my legs hurt just looking at it, and it is shameful how often this fight is overlooked.
That all being said, the fight that this movie is known for is nothing to be sneezed at in the least. Actually, pound for pound, this might be some of the best hand to hand (and foot) fighting I’ve ever seen. In the climax, Wong has engaged the movie’s main fighting villain, a villainous smuggler in a great suit, played by Chan’s former bodyguard and longtime member of the JC Stunt Team, Ken Lo. However, despite the fact that he looks quite foppish, the smuggler starts to whip out some legwork that makes Wong’s (and the viewer’s) head spin. After getting his ass utterly wrecked for a little while, Wong drinks some industrial strength alcohol, and the shit hits the fan so hard it ends up in another state.
To say that Ken Lo is one of, if not THE best kicker I’ve ever seen is not hyperbole in the least. Actually, just for this role alone, I still sometimes refer to him as “Mr. Kicks”, his title back before I knew his name. Watch the beginning of the fight, when his legs seem to move independenly of his body just to freak Jackie out. And the moment where he stands there at a perfect right angle, his leg straight up while he fixes his glasses, dropped my jaw the first time I saw it. His legs move faster than most people’s entire bodies, and the result is a blistering display of why, although less frequently used, good footwork is some of the most impressive stuff you can have the pleasure of viewing in a movie like this. Not to be outdone, Jackie shows why he is the best there is, contorting and flipping around with such fury and speed that he seems almost inhuman, and delivering (and taking) shots that cause the viewer to wince openly with each blow.
It should be noted that this last fight was choreographed by Jackie himself, after a disagreement with Lau caused the two to have a falling out. So it probably explains why the fight is so much more visceral in nature than the comparatively technical back and forth of the previous selection. That being said, they are both brilliant fights, and more than earn the movie its high spot on this list.
Number 3: “8 Diagram Pole Fighter”: Coffins, Sticks and Madness (With Gordon Liu Chia-hui, Phillip Ko and Johhny Wang Lung-wei, Lin Ke Ming and numerous others)
Another Lau Kar-leung entry for the list, this masterpiece involves the origins of the titular pole style of fighting, and features an all-star cast of many latter day Shaw Bros. legends, not the least of which is Gordon Liu himself, who gives one of his more memorable performances as the aggressive and driven Yang (fifth of a bunch of brothers). After almost all of the rest of his brothers are slaughtered, Yang ends up in a shaolin temple (don’t they always?) and pretty much invites himself to stay. However, when the same issues that claimed the rest of the family threaten his remaining loved ones, Yang must leave the temple to go and save them.
Holy shit, where to start with this one. First off, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention one sad, unfortunate fact about the film. It was originally meant to focus on Alexander Fu-sheng, but he tragically died in a car crash during filming. He was only 28 when he died, and his loss was a huge blow to the industry. He was a charismatic, likeable guy onscreen, a hard worker off, and is one of my personal faves. Interestingly, his character and performance is still in here, his character that of another Yang survivor who ends up mentally unbalanced from the stress of seeing his brothers killed, but he all of a sudden disappears a ways into the film, and the rest focuses on Gordon Liu’s character.
Moving on from the tragic stuff, the fight itself is Lau Kar-leung’s choreography at its most elaborate. The fight is absolutely insane, starting with Gordon Liu killing a bunch of mooks with a bundle of sticks, and moving into a large room (the oft used “Inn/Tavern/Temple” setting from Shaw) where a collection of coffins awaits him. His sister, still living, is in one of them, and he must defeat his enemies to find out which one it is. We then get to marvel as Gordon Liu fights not only the enemies before him, but physics itself, as he engages in an incredibly elaborate set of movements and clashes with his opponents. And then the other monks show up, and shit gets even crazier.
The way the coffins are used, both as barriers to his progress and as weapons themselves, really make this unlike any other fight you will ever see. The always masterful Gordon Liu shows why he’s considered one of the all time greats, taking both the weapon to weapon combat and the wire-centric stuff and making it all look damn good. The complexity of the fight scene is hard to describe, with incredible jumps, swings, clashes, dashes, stunts and straight up duels making the whole thing feel like one gigantic, chaotic mess that still has that old Lau-sifu touch of perfection. It’s an orgy of fantastic stickwork. And teeth. Lots and lots of teeth.
And that’s really what makes this so special. Beyond the pitch-perfect speed of the choreography, you sit there with your jaw open as you realize that you’re watching a bunch of monks fight a bunch of evil warriors who are using fucking coffins to fight as weapons. It’s like the worlds most morbid Mario level mixed with the most psychotic and gruesome Kung Fu shenanigans you can imagine, and it is absolutely amazing.
Number 2: “Martial Club”: The Importance of Space (With Gordon Liu Chia-hui and Johnny Wang Lung-wei)
Let me be perfectly blunt here: Martial Club is a strictly decent Kung Fu flick from one of the best directors of such things, Master Lau Kar-leung. It’s slow and ponderous for about 70 percent of its run time, giving only okay fights and bad comedy throughout. There are a few jewels here and there, but majorly the movie just stumbles along.
This changed vastly in the movie’s last portion. The movie soars with a brilliantly thrilling brawl involving dozens of people in a theater, and then follows this momentum into one of the best fights ever put to film at its climax. Johnny Wang plays the simple yet skillful Master Shan, who came from the north to study with some of the famous masters of the area, and who has found himself being used as a pawn by a local asshole master. Main character Wong Fei-hung (played by Gordon Liu) offers to resolve all these ambiguities by having a final duel with Shan in a local alley, so they can come to an understanding with their fists (what do you want, it’s a Kung Fu film, remember?). What follows is five minutes of the most brilliantly technical fighting I’ve seen.
It is impossible to say enough good things about this fight. The defining aspect of this match is space. The fight starts in a relatively open area, with the two demonstrating some perfectly thrilling speed and skill. But shit gets real when they move deeper into the alley, and its narrow pathways. With little more than three feet of space on either side, the battle becomes absurdly fast and pitched, with both fighters using all their skills and speed, while accounting for the reduced area of movement, making this fight seem incredibly intense and desperate, despite the fact that it’s just a friendly duel from the story perspective.
Bending and twisting their bodies, spending most of the fight pressed against walls, the two manage to contort and grapple around eachother while still whipping out some crazily intricate movements. This is even more impressive when you realize that Wang’s character is a kick-fighter, a style meant for usage of distance. Watch for the part where Shan positions himself perpendicular to the wall, basically doing a split against a completely vertical surface, while still weaving his upper-body to avoid Wong’s fists. Utterly jaw-dropping.
And that’s the best way to describe this fight. It’s not only one of the most technically impressive fights I’ve seen, with both combatants using multiple styles and skills to their fullest, but the environment provides a unique flavor that has never been replicated in any other fight. It is arguably the finest one on one duel ever filmed, and even if you don’t want to see the rest of the film (which is, again, decent), you owe it to yourself to see this fight. It’s that good.
Number 1: “Crippled Avengers aka Return of the Five Deadly Venoms”: PERFECTION (With Chiang Sheng, Kwok Choi, Lu Feng, Lo Meng, Johhny Wang Lung-wei, Sun Chien and Chen Kuan-tai)
So after all of this, after some of the greatest actors in Kung Fu history participating in some of the greatest fights in films made by the greatest directors, it’s fitting we end on a work by Chang Cheh, probably the godfather of the Kung Fu movie as we know it, and starring the Venoms, arguably his greatest discovery.
Chang Cheh, beyond his contributions to this list (he directed numbers 8, 9, 11, 16 and 18 as well as this one) is renowned for pretty much inventing the modern Kung Fu flick with The One Armed Swordsman, and then re-inventing in several times over the span of the 70’s. In addition to that, he can also be seen as the essential creator of the “Heroic Bloodshed” genre, which is characterized by manly, chivalrous men forming bonds of strong trust and brotherhood, and then dying by the truckfull by the time the credits roll (if this sounds familiar to any John Woo fans out there, it may interest you to know that Woo started his career as an assistant director to Chang Cheh, and was his protege in many ways). He is truly one of the all-time Gods of Kung Fu films.
So it may surprise those who know of the man’s work that I chose this one to highlight at the summit of my list. Crippled Avengers (released here as Return of the Five Deadly Venoms back in the day, despite having no relation to that movie in character or story, but sharing the same director and most of the actors) is not counted among his absolute classics, although it is considered one of the best “Venoms” films by many of his fans. Even with all his revered works that deserve to be counted as better “movies”, not many have better fights than this one. And the final battle, lasting almost 15 minutes in all, represents everything I love about Kung Fu movies in one glorious, borderline orgasmic explosion of hand to hand brilliance and acrobatic skill.
First, some scene setting. A renowned Kung Fu master, Dao Tian-du (played by an eminently dignified Chen Kuan-tai) comes home one night to find some assassins in his house. His wife is already dead and his son has had his arms forcibly amputated (so, a pretty normal night in the jianghu, really). After killing the assailants, he assures his ridiculously calm son (who, again, is currently armless and should be bleeding to death) that they will make him better arms, prosthetics through which he can continue Kung Fu training.
The years pass, and young Dao Chang grows into a fine young Kung Fu master (played by Lu Feng, doing that villain thing he does so well). Unfortunately, both father and son have been changed by the years. They have become embittered and vicious, killing or maiming anyone who even looks at them wrong. In particular, they ruin four people who are the setting of our story.
The first is Blacksmith Wei Jia-jie, played by Lo Meng. For insulting Du and his son, they force him to drink a poison that renders him mute. They then crush his eardrums so he can no longer hear (as a side note, this means that Lo Meng cannot talk in this movie, and can only act with his face and body. If you have seen other entries on the list involving him, you know why this is the best thing to happen in the history of anything).
Next we have wanderer Chen Shuen, who looks at them ascance, and therefore has his eyes taken from him (played by the always likeable Kwok Choi). Third is Hu Ah-kuei, a surly worker who makes the mistake of bumping into the angry pair, and has his legs cut off for his crimes (played by a rather drastically underutilized Sun Chien). And finally there’s Wang Yi, a wandering hero who sees the plights of the fthree young men and attempts to seek retribution for them. He does well, but is overwhelmed, at which point the movie’s strangest leap in logic takes place. They put his head in a vice, and squeeze it until he becomes mentally handicapped. No, I am really not kidding. He is played with borderline offensive aplomb by Chiang Sheng.
Feeling guilty for Wang Yi’s plight, and knowing they can’t stay in town anyway, they set out to bring the now infantile Wang back to his master. Upon doing so, the master agrees to teach them how to fight, using styles suited to their particular disablities. Chen learns to focus on his hearing, to cooperate with Wei through a series of hand-touch signs, and uses an acrobatics-flavored staff style. Wei learns how to focus on his sight, and use reflective surfaces in the environment to help him keep track of opponents. And Hu has a set of iron legs forged for him by Wei, and learns to use them to deliver absolutely devestating blows. Luckily, Wang Yi’s mental state has not affected his skills, if anything, his whimsical and unpredictable approach to combat make him even more of a terror in a fight.
But all that setup now out of the way, we can get to the glory. At the films climax, after a bunch of planning and skirmishing with the minions, the time has finally come for the gang to seek their revenge. They attack the Du mansion during his birthday bash, but unfortunately, the soldiers are ready for them…
The fight can be divided into three parts. The first part involves Wei and Chen entering a courtyard to find that Du’s number one attendent, Wan (played by, yet again, Johhny Wang) has set up a collection of items specifically chosen to screw with them: a set of light-reflecting mirrors to mess up Wei, and a large amount of drums to ruin Chen’s hearing. This looks like it’s going to work, until Wang Yi shows up and throws a wrench into things.
This segment is wonderful. Everyone has a chance to shine. Kwok Choi shows his incredible flexiblity and speed, dodging and weaving out of his opponents weapons when he isn’t countering with his own. It’s a glorious example of weapons combat. On the other end, we have Lo Meng showing those lightning punches and kicks of his on any unfortunate mook to come across him, and his final showdown with Johhny Wang, and his ball and chain, is a great display of athleticism and sharp fighting. Finally, Chiang Sheng shows why he was considered the best acrobat of the group, jumping and flipping around his opponents while throwing in some great strikes here and there.
That done, Wei and Chen go into the courtyard, where they encounter the father and son. While Wei goes to take on the elder Dao, Chen takes on the son. We get flashes to the epic brawl going on between Du and Wei, where although holding his own Wei is clearly outmatched, but it’s the son and Chen, and later Wang Yi, who take center stage here.
Holy mother of bacon loving Christ, look at this. This is easily the standout sequence of the movie, and is the reason this film takes the Number 1 spot. The fight starts out impressive enough, with Lu Feng and Kwok Choi showing their incredible combat skills, and throwing in some great moving action just for kicks. The metal pole against the metal arms makes for a very parry-heavy confrontation, and the flexibility on display is just marvelous.
But when Chiang Sheng enters, that’s when things get sent into overdrive. Earlier in the movie, Chen and Wang Yi had engaged in a sort of game using a bunch of iron rings, flipping and jumping around eachother in a sort of acrobatics competition. And this seemingly throw-away scene comes back in glorious form here. The sheer complexity and precision of their movements, as they go from jumping, flipping and tumbling right back to fighting all in the same take, is purely transcendent. Chiang Sheng and Kwok Choi show every last bit of their stuff, while Lu Feng keeps up wonderfully and continues to show his combat prowess. It cannot be overstated how awe-inspiring this sequence is, as the movements get more and more elaborate and the cuts ever longer, and if your heart is not pounding by the end of it, you are dead inside. The only regret I have is that it eventually ends.
Eventually, the son is dealt with, and we move to the grand finale. Chen moves in to help Wei, but both of them are helpless against Du’s Godlike skills. Chen Kuan-tai is one of the most veteran guys in the business, and was actually a nationals-level martial artist back before he started acting, and it shows. His movements are precise and powerful, and you can really buy that he is utterly overwhelming his two younger counterparts. Actually, it almost feels like a genuine “young vs. old” battle, seeing these young Venoms guys going at a man who emerged back when the Golden Age was just starting.
The fight really is great, with the three-way battle being handled spectacularly. And it only gets better when Hu, who snuck into the compound back a ways, joins the battle, bringing Sun Chien’s great kicks to bear against the titan. The complexity here is mind-boggling, I have no clue how they did this without hitting eachother repeatedly, but they did, and the result is a fight that truly feels like the epic confrontation all the film has been building toward. The fact that it takes all of them to finally finish him is a great final touch.
As they leave, and that fantastic music kicks in, you realize that you have just seen everything good about the old days of Kung Fu. The campy effects and characters, the incredible stunts and acrobatics, and the thrillingly precise and blindingly fast fighting. It is 15 minutes of absolute heaven, and is without a doubt the single best fight I have yet seen.
And there you have it. Looking at this list, I am hurt by how incomplete it is. Just off the top of my head, I can think of upwards of 50 movies that I would like to highlight. Movies with grand, mindblowing battles and incredible stunts. Even from the films on this list, there are fights that were truly great that you didn’t see here. And beyond that, there is the mountain of films I simply haven’t seen. By this time next year, I can assure you that this list would be different, as I rewatch other films and see new ones.
But that’s the best part about Kung Fu, isn’t it? It’s infinitely rewatchable, and because of that, infinitely enjoyable. When Kung Fu is bad, like all things, it is a mind-numbing and boring experience, unless of course you have a sense of humor. But when it is good, when everything comes together in that perfect combination of performance, direction and creativity, like it did in these 24 examples, then it is very, very, very good…