“Was Bruce Lee actually any good at martial arts?” wonders Robert Twigger at the Guardian. It’s a fair question — how can non-martial artists know how to evaluate the impressive-looking stuff in fight scenes? The answer turns out to be, of course, yes, yes, yes, and Twigger unearths some good anecdotes and facts about Lee, including the fact that Steve McQueen and James Coburn (!) were amongst his Hollywood pupils.
It made me think about how much I miss old-school fight vehicles. Champions of Hong Kong martial arts flicks tend to focus on the Shaw Brothers ’70s movies (thanks to the Wu-Tang Clan, the infinitely entertaining “The 36 Chambers of Shaolin” can be quoted from by almost every white person under 35, whether or not they’ve seen it) and showy ’80s auteurs like Tsui Hark (“Once Upon A Time In China”), who imposed a whole new level of visual discipline upon a genre that was (unfairly) chastised as generally cheap-looking and shoddy.
But what I’m fondest of is that weird moment in the mid to late ’90s when Jackie Chan started blowing up in a small way. “Rumble in the Bronx” was successfully brought to American audiences, and for a while it seemed like there was a new Chan movie coming out every six months, with zero regard for when the movie had actually been made or its original form. I particularly like “Twin Dragons,” a sprightly comic vehicle with Chan as — yup — twins connected by a psychic link, a premise made even more surreal by some truly atrocious dubbing. The fights were always great, even in a truly second-rate movie like 1997’s “Mr. Nice Guy.”
It’s not that I hate wire-work or anything; I just miss how “martial arts” (as a generic lump classification) used to intersect with American culture at odd tangents, the way that ’70s fare made sure a permanent impression the Wu-Tang, or when young Jet Li performed for Richard Nixon at the White House (this is actually true; Nixon asked Li to think about becoming his personal bodyguard). Fight scenes have become something that can be imposed onto any action movie, the same way a few car chases or explosions used to be de rigeur — the idea of the all-martial-arts film seems all but dead on the ground. And I miss it.
[Photo: “Mr. Nice Guy,” New Line Cinema, 1997]