Where are my dragons! The joys and catharsis of Kung Fu movies.

January 27, 2016

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Bruce Lee. Nobody did it better…

Growing up in the Lake View neighborhood of Chicago, there was a grindhouse on Clark street called the Parkway Cinema. It showed nothing but Z-grade movies, usually three at a time, for a couple bucks. Go in at noon and stumble out at 7PM. Ingest gobs of bad popcorn, horror and Kung Fu. And, God willing, a smattering of naked ladies. Heaven for a 15-year old boy.

My fascination with horror began here but martial arts flicks also have a place in my heart. Obviously Bruce Lee was the penultimate star of this genre. Yet, he made only a few movies before his untimely and controversial death. Jackie Chan appeared in a great many more. Seeing him, super young, lithe and kicking ass, was sweet. Mostly, however, you got knock-offs like Bruce Le and Bruce Li. Nobody was fooled but for two dollars who cared? A flying kick is a flying kick.

Kung Fu movies were a catharsis. Same as “Death Wish” or “Dirty Harry.” But in almost every martial arts movie you never, ever saw a gun.  Every slight, every indignity and humiliation, is met with fists, feet and the occasional “silver spear of death.”

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A broom, a kitchen knife and a big bamboo!

Stranger walks into a bar and forgets to bow to the local don. Massive brawl. Drifter asks for directions. Massive brawl. The best was when the star pupil or “dragon” saves (or more likely avenges) the village idiot, blind child or helpless waitress unfairly brutalized by local thugs. One after another, in a predictable pecking order, the bad guys are dispatched until only the most skilled and evil perpetrator is left standing. Cue the dramatic 70’s era horns. Snap zoom to the eyes. Begin the bloody, fantastic finale. Like Rocky, the hero nearly dies from punishment before inflicting the Iron Fist or some other unique technique that Master had taught him for just such an occasion.

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Now that’s a headline…

Despite (or because of) terrible acting, ridiculously dubbed voices and myriad directorial issues, these pictures are freaking awesome. They hit a primordial nerve. They got the right part right. Evil is obvious. It does bad things. Good is noble and righteous. It also does bad things. Very bad things. Can you say “Iron Fist?”

As a kid, the ceaseless torments I had endured in the schoolyards the previous week would suddenly evaporate in the red mist of a dragon defending my honor.

I’m a father now. A husband. I’m a worker among workers. But I still get off on that fantasy. To protect, avenge and fight like a dragon.

5 Responses to “Where are my dragons! The joys and catharsis of Kung Fu movies.”

  1. If Bruce Lee was the penultimate, who was the ultimate? Jackie Chan?

  2. Seriously, though, I somehow completely missed the whole martial arts movies in my youth. It wasn’t until the ’80s that my wife introduced me to them. At first I was completely puzzled by her fascination, but soon learned to appreciate them for what they were — whatever, exactly, that was. I think the turning point for me was the movie in which the apprentice learns martial arts while working on the scaffolding in a monastery, thereby developing his own unique fighting style. Damned if I can remember the name of it, though.

  3. […] Where are my dragons! The joys and catharsis of Kung Fu movies. […]

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