I think it’s safe to say that martial arts movies have never been a major box office draw here in the US, but that doesn’t mean that there have some been some classic film released in that particular genre. The closest we ever got to complete acceptance of the martial arts movie, came in the 70’s when Bruce Lee exploded upon the scene, transcending the character he portrayed on screen, and becoming a major pop culture icon. Not only were his movies a huge success, but during that era it was virtually impossible to walk into the bedroom of the average teenage kid and not see his face staring back at you from a poster, and lets not forget how we all loved to imitate Lee’s trademark vocalizations, uttered as he stomped on the bad guys.
Bruce Lee’s popularity soared to a point where, in 1973, Warner Bros. became the first Hollywood Studio to make a martial arts movie, and it became an instant classic. “Enter The Dragon,” saw Lee head to a mysterious island to take part in a brutal tournament where he uncovers a large drug and prostitution ring. The fight sequences are, to this day, some of the best ever put on screen. Early in that movie, if you look closely enough, you’ll catch a glimpse of a future martial arts moviemaker, Jackie Chan, who went on to make a name for himself in Hong Kong cinema before making the jump to more commercial fare on this side of the pond.
Jackie’s movies are famous for their elaborate, brilliantly choreographed, fight scenes with, arguably, the best of those coming in his 1995 hit, “Rumble in the Bronx,” which went on to be a modest box office success here in the US and led to him being cast in the Rush Hour movies alongside Chris Tucker. The success of Jackie Chan and, to a lesser degree, Jet Li, led to something of a resurgence in the martial arts genre, and it may have been that which led to the success of, “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.” American audiences were quick to latch onto the beautiful cinematography, as well as the gravity defying, treetop fight scenes that were just one of the highlights of the film. It went on to win an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, and was nominated for 6 others.
As successful as some of these movies have become, they pale in comparison to the one movie in the genre that tops the rest. “The Seven Samurai,” by Akira Kurosawa is now over 50 years old, yet is still talked about in reverent tones, and is frequently found on “greatest films of all time” type lists. The plot of the film, which featured seven swordsmen hired to combat bandits who were stealing the harvests of a small village, went on to become the basis for the Hollywood blockbuster, “The Magnificent Seven.”
If I had to choose a personal favorite, I’d have to go with “Shogun Assassin,” a brutally violent take on the genre that featured a sword wielding warrior and his child, in a baby carriage with blades on the wheels no less, doling out a wicked style of justice. The movie was digitally remastered in 2006 and released on DVD here in the US, so if you haven’t seen it before, and are a fan of the martial arts, I definitely recommend giving it a look, you won’t be disappointed.