Martial-arts movie tropes don’t get better, or more iconic, than this: A lone unarmed master, driven by rage and revenge, walks into a rival discipline’s dojo and demands to fight the master. It doesn’t happen. Instead, he finds himself surrounded by enemies, and he takes all of them out, one by one. Bruce Lee did that scene more famously and arguably better than anyone else in the 1972 movie best known to Americans as The Chinese Connection. (In Hong Kong, it’s Fist Of Fury.) But that trope can still be plenty exciting now; witness Donnie Yen in Ip Man.
The first time the world saw a scene like that, though, it was a couple of years before Bruce Lee’s iconic version, and the guy walking into the enemy dojo isn’t our hero. Instead, the 1970 Shaw Brothers kung fu movie The Chinese Boxer starts when a duplicitous judo expert barges into a kung fu school, radiating hostility in all directions. He’s pissed off because the school’s master ran him out of town years ago, and he’s back for revenge. But the teacher isn’t there, and he’s beaten up everyone in the school by the time the teacher finally shows up and sends him scurrying away. As he leaves, he promises that he’ll be back, and he’ll be bringing karate masters.
The Shaw Brothers studio had carved out a niche for itself, in Hong Kong and the rest of the world, by the time the writer-director-star Jimmy Wang Yu made The Chinese Boxer. In the mid-’60s the company found success with wuxia films—sweeping, romantic swordplay movies that were essentially the Hong Kong version of Westerns. (If I’d started this column with a year before 1968, 1966’s Shaw Brothers wuxia epic Come Drink With Me would’ve been a strong choice.) Wang Yu, a former Hong Kong swimming champion, had started out acting in massively successful wuxia movies like 1967’s One-Armed Swordsman and 1968’s Golden Swallow. But with The Chinese Boxer, he changed the entire game.
The Chinese Boxer is credited with being the first full-on kung fu movie, the first one based around hand-to-hand fighting choreography. And watching the movie today, Wang Yu had pretty much figured out every tenet of the genre the first time out. Its setting, an anonymous ancestral Chinese town, would become familiar from the countless Shaw Brothers movies and imitators that would follow. The plot mechanics—the dead teacher who must be avenged, the scheming Japanese interlopers who must be disposed of, the clashes of martial arts disciplines—are all there. Even the look and the sound of the fight scenes—fast and elaborate, with dubbed-in whooshes—wouldn’t change much in the years that followed.
There’s a great simplicity to all those movies that the Shaw Brothers pumped out over the ’70s. The Chinese Boxer has a story to tell, but it’s a stark and elemental one, the kind that can be retold again and again. Wang Yu plays Lei Ming, a kung fu student and quarry rock-breaker engaged to his teacher’s daughter. His life is great until those karate experts show up, leaving him in a coma and his teacher and all his friends dead. When he comes to, he takes what little he knows about karate and goes to work figuring out what he can do to defeat it. When he’s ready, he starts going out in town in a surgical mask and oven mitts. By then, he’s the guy walking into a room and beating everyone up, forcing a final standoff with the assholes who have taken over his town.
“Evil Japanese bastards” is a theme that comes up over and over in kung fu movies, and The Chinese Boxer has some of the all-time great evil Japanese bastards. Early in the movie, the kung fu teacher explains that kung fu is a discipline, a way of life. It’s about self-improvement. But karate is something different. Karate, he explains, “is directed only to kill, or if not to kill then to cripple.” When the karate fighters show up, they’re hard-faced motherfuckers with black cloaks. The leader, played by the Indonesian-born kung fu movie great Lo Leih, introduces himself by chopping a table in half, then jumping up and kicking a hole in a restaurant roof, just to express his displeasure.
When the karate fighters go to work, they gouge out eyes and pummel midsections until their dying opponents foam at the mouth with bright-red blood. Later on, a couple of samurai swordsmen show up as muscle, and they look, if anything, even cooler. The only outright detestable villain is that judo expert, who takes over the town, opening up a crooked casino. He also gets a gratuitous rape scene.
Compared to those guys, Wang Yu comes off looking like a gawky everyman, and it’s a bit hard to swallow when he plunges his hands into hot iron and is suddenly able to murder karate experts at will. (The movie features a very early prototype of the training montage, and we don’t find out until a tossed-off line of dialogue, late in the movie, that the vengeance goes down a year after the kung fu school massacre.) Wang Yu is never going to look good next to Bruce Lee, who made his movie debut a year after The Chinese Boxer, and who was, by many accounts, one of the world’s greatest fighters. Wang Yu had none of Lee’s power and fluidity, and he simply wasn’t nearly as believable a a screen fighter. Still, the fight scenes in The Chinese Boxer are still a lot of fun today, thanks to their frantic business and unexpected brutality. And if Wang Yu was Lee’s inferior as a screen fighter, he was also a strong storyteller and visual stylist. A final showdown, with snow falling everywhere, is especially memorable.
After The Chinese Boxer came out and became a sensation in Hong Kong, Wang Yu tried to get out of his Shaw Brothers contract and ended up getting himself banned from making movies in Hong Kong. He still managed to cobble together a pretty strong career. A year later, he went to Taiwan to make One-Armed Boxer, a twist on the one-armed swordsman character that had made him famous in the first place. He made some other notable movies, like the 1975 Australian flick The Man From Hong Kong (which co-starred the former Bond George Lazenby) and the surreal 1976 death-tournament classic Master Of The Flying Guillotine (which Wang Yu once again wrote and directed). He also allegedly rose up pretty high in the triad crime organization, dodging a murder charge in 1981. He’s still alive and still making movies. He played Donnie Yen’s father in 2011’s Dragon, and he’s supposedly very good in the 2013 demonic-possession thriller Soul. He didn’t turn out to be Bruce Lee’s equal, but then again, neither did the rest of us.
Other noteworthy 1970 action movies: If there’s a runner-up for 1970, it’s probably Ossie Davis’ Cotton Comes To Harlem, which I’d argue was the first real blaxploitation movie. Cotton Comes To Harlem has plenty of slapstick-comedy moments, and it’s also a work of sharp social commentary. It is, after all, a mystery built around a sham preacher, collecting money for a return voyage to Africa, and hiding it in a giant bale of cotton. But it has gunfights and car chases and a pair of badass detectives taking on the criminals, black and white, who are preying on the ordinary people of Harlem. It also has a deeply funky score.
Another great one from 1970 is French director Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Cercle Rouge, maybe the coolest and most atmospheric heist movie ever made; directors like Quentin Tarantino and John Woo name that one as a formative influence. Other early martial arts movies, like Vengeance and Brothers Five, also came out in 1970. With Violent City and Cold Sweat, Charles Bronson went from being a hard-faced supporting actor in Westerns and war movies to an action-movie star. And then there was Hercules In New York, a deeply shitty action-comedy notable only because it marked the feature-film debut of one Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Next time: It’s the showdown of the iconic loose-cannon urban-cop movies, with both The French Connection and Dirty Harry.