Wednesday, May 18, 2011


JOHNNY CHAZZ: This week we spin on our axis a bit and dive into the world of the martial arts. A discussion of whom I consider to be the top-five martial artists in cinema history is offered here in hopes to create a response from both Jer and our audience.

Perhaps the five (5) names that immediately come to mind are: Bruce Lee, Jet Li, Jackie Chan, Steven Segal and Zhang Ziyi. Keep in mind that I am focusing on the most impacting “film” kung-fu artists for the purpose of the screen, not necessarily in terms of whether they are considered actually “martial artists” or not. The truth is that they all constitute true artists through the work that they have painted on screen through their magnificent efforts.

Zhang Ziyi is the first topic of choice. Perhaps not a true “martial artist”, but her passion, energy and dramatic talents propel her skills to another level. Ziyi first caught my eye in Ang Lee's “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.” Stunningly convincing despite her lack of martial arts skills, Zhang's dramatic talents were equally impressive earning her the best supporting actress role that year. It was her dancing skills that she had learned in Beijing, China that assisted her in learning the basics of martial arts on the screen. Ang Lee even stated that Zhang Ziyi had to learn "Not only martial arts, but disposition, classic movement, calligraphy, etiquette, and voice.”

Tremendous martial-art films would follow in Ziyi’s career such as “Rush Hour 2”, “House of Flying Daggers” and “Memoirs of a Geisha.” To sum her career up is to say that she is not only a terrific actress who is looking for deeper and more meaningful roles, but also one where she is constantly showing us that she is a magnificent dancer who fights at the same time. On a final note, she has been considered by many to be one of the most beautifully stunning women in the world.

Steven Segal may seem like a surprising nomination for this category and there are those of you out there that might feel as though he does not belong on this list.
Highly trained in both Aikido and karate and has a 7th degree black belt, Steven Segal really carried martial arts films though the 80’s and 90’s in an exciting fashion. It worked so well since Steven Segal really is about ‘pure action.’ His early works were amazing for movie-goers. What we saw on the screen didn’t exactly remind us of kung fu per-se, but it was called Aikido. His subtle, yet quicker than lighting movements on screen are what hold our attention and curiosity.

“Under Siege” may have been my favorite of all Segal films and perhaps part of that is due to the similarities with the classic film “Die Hard”. Here we have the hero on the loose in a close-set and limited locale trying to save a military ship that has been hijacked.

Films such as “Hard to Kill”, “Marked for Death” and “Above the Law” also must be noted and are must-sees. A true Hollywood movie star and hero, Segal has fans worldwide and has fueled the fire for the action and martial arts genre over the years.
Now, it’s hard to talk about this genre (kung fu and martial arts) without incorporating some of the contemporary artists. I now pay homage to the work of Jackie Chan and Jet Li.

With films to his credit such as “Legend of Drunken Master” (some of his best fight and action scenes), “Shanghai Noon” and “Rush Hour” among many, many others in his repertoire, Chan has entertained audiences worldwide for the past 20 years with his cinematic and martial art techniques. The only argument rests with whether his films are improving with time (recent works such as “The Karate Kid” remake or “Kung Fu Panda” or if his style and films were more to people’s liking when they were less Americanized. Jackie Chan is seen today as a writer, director, actor and stuntman as well as an amazing martial artist. His unique blending of raw talent, creative acting and performance style as well as his element of humor make him a tremendous asset to the world of kung fu and martial arts. Chan performs all of his own stunts as well and that is what makes him so unique. Many audiences have tasked him with being the next Bruce Lee, but Chan is Chan – especially from an acting point of view.

Jet Li continues to amaze me. Audiences worldwide would likely testify to that as well considering how successful and dynamic his movies have been through the recent years. What is so fundamental to his performances is his ability to use various styles and forms of kung-fu and aikido while maintaining that necessary space at all times between himself and his competitor. It is that spacing that I just love in his films – a kind of patience which is truly virtuous and admirable. Being a champion fighter in China on a National level also lends credence and realism to his performances.

Three films immediately come to mind with one being a re-make of a Bruce Lee Classic – “Fist of Legend”. Although many changes were made from the original film with Lee, Jet Li’s performance in “Fist of Legend” in 1994 was spectacular. His fight scenes in the first portion of the film with the Japanese school during World War II and his final fight scene in the mountains were simply spectacular. “Hero” is another film Jet Li starred in (Zhang Ziyi as well) that immediately reminds you of the Japanese classic story “Rashomon”. Here we see Jet Li display master swordsmanship similar to the samurai style. “Once Upon A Time in China” must also be mentioned as some of Jet Li’s best work with a multitude of scenes that were beautifully built-up and filled with emotion creating that necessary tension prior to battle.

In the 1940’s a young child named Bruce Lee came running home to his mother complaining that he had just been beaten up in a street fight. So, he decided to learn martial arts. He would go on to perform for audiences in person and on film displaying his skill of balance and that tremendous one-inch punch and 2-finger push ups (we saw an homage to this Jet Li’s performance in the courtyard in “Fist of Legend”).

"Enter the Dragon" was the 1st time a U.S and Hong Kong film company had come together to make a film. This was the movie that not only made Lee world famous, but made him the first Asian movie star. He would go on to make numerous films including the original “Fist of Fury”, “The Big Boss” and “Game of Death” (parts I and II).

Lee developed a style of fighting for the screen known as: “jeet koon do” which was a new style of combat for martial artists. Translated, it relays that a fighter must stop, stem and intercept. Lee quoted “Any technique, however worthy and desirable, becomes a disease when the mind is obsessed with it.” Therefore, to Lee, fighting style was always a process of continual growth while abiding and dissolving by principles.

So many actors, performers and martial artists have tried to replicate and imitate the work and the style of Bruce Lee. It’s hard to see that there will ever be another like him.
Click and enjoy this Bruce Lee tribute!
Herein ends my segment and analysis of the most entertaining and visually impacting screen or film martial artists in history. I realize, Jer, that your selections and nominees will likely differ, but I must imagine that a few of these names will also pop-up on your list. What is important is that our audience chime in to tell us their thoughts and to give us their opinions as to who their favorites are. The martial-arts genre is real and still very much alive today. Cinema Counterpoint aims to keep it alive and kicking!

JER: The subject makes me want to inhibit the body of Christian Slater’s character from TRUE ROMANCE and look deep into the love he had for Sonny Sheba and martial arts films…but I am not an expert of such genre. I can, however, talk about what I know and what I have seen. On that note, let me make something perfectly clear… I am a MOVIE/ FILM FAN and pretty proud of it and the knowledge I have gathered within a period of roughly 30 years. I don’t know ALL films or claim to…so, because of that, I do not bullshit about things I know nothing about!

I will begin with an actor that made an impact on me at a very early age, he is Tomisaburo Wakayama. For the cult, action or deep Asian film fans, Mr. Wakayama will always be recognized as Ogami Itto in the popular Japanese film series “Lone Wolf and Cub” in the early 1970’s. In America, however, my discovery came in the way of a mashed version of a few of these movies with a renamed title of SHOGUN ASSASSIN released in 1980.
Click and enjoy the 1980 American trailer for SHOGUN ASSASSIN!
The “Lone Wolf” character was a man of few words, like Clint Eastwood’s ‘The Man With No Name’ he was more action and a wanderer who stood for whatever he felt was needed in order to survive. For a big man, he moved swiftly and could be compared to the slower pace and technique of Steven Seagal, as pointed out by JC. Hands, feet, swords, grappling hooks and poles were just a few of the weapons used to take down legions of anyone who dared cross his path. Because the films have centered during the times of the shogun, we are taken back to a time and culture where honor and respect meant everything. Revenge for the wrongful death of his wife, Ogami roams the streets aimlessly with his toddler son (‘Cub’) in tow, in search of assignment to shelter and feed the two while hunting those that have done him wrong. If you are not familiar with the underground popularity of these films, may I recommend SHOGUN ASSASSIN as an entrĂ©e before diving into the six original Japanese films, to which the entire series is now available on DVD.

The film’s opening in the States didn’t cause much stir or recognition for Tomisaburo Wakayama by way of box office dollars, but attention was definitely focused on the extreme and graphic violence portrayed! So much so that in it’s early VHS video release, the film was banned in the States and were removed from the shelves quickly thereafter! It wasn’t until 2006 that the film earned its rightful place with a beautiful high-definition transfer and surround sound release. It is also now available on blu- ray as well.

Mr. Wakayama would also appear in some American films. The two sides of the spectrum include his role as Coach Shimizu in 1978’s THE BAD NEWS BEARS GO TO JAPAN and as Sugai in Ridley Scott’s 1989 film BLACK RAIN.
Looking at the list submitted by JC, I must agree with the choices made as some of these actors making their individual and respective marks in the world of martial arts entertainment...

I will always remember the first time I saw Jet Li and that was as the evil Ku in LETHAL WEAPON 4! We had seen Detective martin Riggs (Mel Gibson) go through many personal demons as well as fight off some real bad-asses in the previous films within the series…but no one had come close to really cleaning his clock as Jet Li did with his lightning- fast and precise counterpoints and martial arts techniques! I became an instant fan and looked to seeing more of his work in the years to come. As mentioned previously by JC, one of the most impactful and highly impressive roles to date would be (yet another nameless character) the role he portrayed in 2002’s HERO. The suspended and high-flying techniques we had seen in CROUTCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON had already made a huge impact in both Eastern and Western film making, but HERO would take full advantage of the new expressionist method of taking martial arts to a whole new level! Jet Li is able to use his body as well as weapons to defend and protect in times of need. His skills and timing is quick and accurate…often times blurring to the naked eye!

I could go on and on with recognizing the works of Steven Segal and Jackie Chan, respectfully, but it would simply be redundant to what JC has already spoken of. Well said!
I will highlight one person in particular who started it all…Mr. Bruce Lee. I had already been a fan of Mr. Lee’s work including my personal favorite, FISTS OF FURY…but something happened in 1993 after seeing the biographical telling of his life in the film DRAGON: THE BRUCE LEE STORY. As I sat in the theatre watching this larger-than-life story unfold before me, I couldn’t help but shake my head in bewilderment questioning what was fact or fiction. Had Hollywood yet again taken a story line and injected it with its own bloated magical tricks to make this man some kind of super hero living a life as grandiose as the characters he played in his own films? About a year or two later, I had the pleasure of meeting actress Lauren Holly, who portrayed Linda Lee (Bruce’s wife) in the film. In doing so, my burning question needed to be asked… was the film accurate, it seemed very ‘comic book-like’ and was very hard to accept as a true biography telling of this man’s life! Ms. Holly confirmed that she worked very closely with Linda Lee, in both the accurateness of the story telling and in the character development of the Lees and laid my worries to rest by comforting me with the news that the film represented his life story as close as possible onto the silver screen. With my new found discovery of the truth, I relished at the idea of how amazing Bruce Lee was in real life as well as a martial artist, visionary and actor.
Here is the official trailer from the biographic film DRAGON: THE BRUCE LEE STORY

With that said, thank you Mr. Bruce Lee for opening the door to your culture and allowing a whole new world of entertainment and knowledge into our western world!

Thank you to all of the artists named and not mentioned for your continued efforts of bringing a variety of different techniques, styles and methods into our culture! It is obvious that we wouldn’t have the UFC or even the WWF as other levels of entertainment if it weren’t for what we have been offered. Let’s not forget the many different classes available throughout the nation teaching generations how to defend themselves …who knows, the next Bruce Lee might be earning his White Belt at this time even as we speak!
Until next time, when it will be Jer’s turn behind the wheel…we say always feel free to comment and give us your thoughts and ideas and we will SEE YOU NEXT WEDNESDAY!
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  1. hi Counterpoint: awesome blog this week and I am a true fan of martial art films. Some of the names you mentioned here are great ones, but I would like to tack on a few others to be considered. Chuck Norris and Tony Jaa should also be included. They are both masters in their work and art. thanks - Owen, Raleigh NC

  2. Hi Owen and thank you for bringing up two very exclusive names into the world of martial art films! Who can forget Chuck Norris? GOOD GUYS WEAR BLACK comes into my head right away! I start thinking of more of his action- ttype films he did in the mid 80's like INVASION USA and MISSING IN ACTION! Thank you once again!

  3. Zhang Ziyi is very underrated and I am really glad to see that you guys nominated her in your top 5 choices. Bruce Lee is the best too! (Derek - DAVENPORT, IA)

  4. Hi Derek, credit goes to JC on the call on Zhang Ziyi! On top of all of the films JC mentioned...I have to mention her role in the 3rd MUMMY film! I'm just sayin'... :)

  5. Hi, I posted a while back and saw yours topic this week! I always liked Bruce Lee and Jet Li movies and rank them as some of my favorites. @@@@ Mallory - Fontana,CALIFORNIA.

  6. Welcome back, Mallory... It is hard to pin-point a favorite star when there have been several great artists who have brought us so much in the last 40 years or so! Thanks for coming back and sharing!

  7. Awesome blog this week guys - I totally admire all the work that goes into the making of the martial art movies and 'films' as you say. The movies are high action but have great charACTER building moments as well.

  8. Thank you for your comments...alot can be said for the work that goes into a movie of this keeps getting more sophisticated every time one comes rolling out!

  9. ''Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon'' is cinematically the most beautiful martial art film that has been produced. With Chow Yun Fat, Michelle Yeoh and Ziyi Zhang, we see an emotional compelling story and martial arts in the style of the old kung-fu theater works. This movie / film is hard to top. LEON - NORFOLK, VIRGINIA

  10. Leon, I agree with you completely! I do not think I have ever seen a film bring such cinematic beauty to a this kind of genre before it! It deserved the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film without a doubt!
    Thank you for letting us know your thoughts on this classic!