Distributed by Dimension Home Video

When 5 FINGERS OF DEATH premiered in the U.S., the grand tradition of “chopsocky” (as Variety called it) had seemed inexhaustible. Followed by Bruce Lee’s FISTS OF FURY, it has never died out, even when the lineage grew exceedingly thin. Just who could replace Bruce Lee, anyway? Chuck Norris’ thumb-headed karate completely lacked style, and his lack of personality was no help either. Jean-Claude Van Damme had some good moves, but was basically Arnold squeezed into a sleeker Ken doll. Jackie Chan was certainly amazing, but closer to Jerry Lewis than a real action hero (will I suffer for that remark?). With the advent of THE MATRIX, the world became aware of the fighting choreography of Woo-Ping Yuen. So when CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON came out, also using Woo-Ping Yuen, it seemed there was no stopping the revitalized genre of the martial arts film. Had CROUCHING TIGER come out before THE MATRIX, and before Jet Li’s first Western appearance in LETHAL WEAPON 4 (which opened up interest in his Hong Kong BLACK MASK and led to the later American-made ROMEO MUST DIE), I doubt public enthusiasm for CROUCHING TIGER would have been so widespread. It is interesting that CROUCHING TIGER was not a big success in Hong Kong, for reasons I will attempt to explore later. Adding CHARLIE’S ANGELS’ use of Woo-Ping Yuen’s brother (Cheung-Yan Yuen) as trainer and choreographer seems to have currently cinched a long-term run of Kung Fu big influence in the Western action market.

Let us know praise Jet Li.

It all began by surfing the cable and landing on LETHAL WEAPON 4. I am not a fan of these LETHAL films, which seem to blur into one another like a pizza dream. But I did find Li immediately interesting, and his fighting was dazzling. It is also an indication of the effect of a good publicist, because I first noted him due to my guilty pleasure “Entertainment Tonight”. So I stayed and watched ’til the end. Li has even surfaced on one of the Sci Fi channel promos – he catches an atom and crushes it. It makes you want to see him in a full-out space opera. Somehow BLACK MASK was recommended to me, a 10 million dollar Hong Kong film (read “very big budget”) that featured Woo-Ping Yuen ‘s choreography, now already known for THE MATRIX by mainstream audiences. BLACK MASK was a great deal of fun, and I was suddenly aware of what Yuen could do with real martial artists. I later saw Andrzej Barkowiak’s ROMEO MUST DIE, which was dreary, aside from an excellent prison break (maybe another director’s work, it was so unlike the rest of the film). This was Barkowiak’s first film, formerly cinematographer on LETHAL 4, but I was impressed to see that Li could act, in addition to his charisma. In fact, he acted everyone else off the screen, including the American actors (venerable Delroy Lindo for one). Jet Li was working hard to actually have an intention behind his lines.

On one of my many rambling side notes, it was also interesting to see how a love interest was implied between Jet Li and rap star Aaliyah but no on-screen kiss was permitted. In the same way, THE LONG KISS GOODNIGHT with Geena Davis and Samuel L. Jackson was even more sanitized, providing a sociological mirror that we have actually gone back before the 60’s in terms of reactionary popular cinema. My gods, it’s even in FINDING FORRESTER.

Dimension Home Video has released “The Jet Li Collection” which includes 5 films: FIST OF LEGEND, JET LI’S THE ENFORCER, THE LEGEND, THE DEFENDER and TWIN WARRIORS. I will review the last 2 films. JET LI’S THE ENFORCER (which he neither directed nor wrote) has had some cable play. I assume his name is part of the title as a last-minute thought that THE ENFORCER was too generic (other titles for it include LETTER TO DADDY, which sounds just plain creepy). FIST OF LEGEND and TWIN WARRIORS have some buzz with the martial arts fans as being among the better efforts. THE DEFENDER is directed by Corey Yuen, who attended the Peking Opera school along with Jackie Chan for childhood martial arts training. To the best of my research, he and Tak Yuen, fighting choreographer, do not appear to be members of Woo Ping’s family. Instead, I have learned that it was quite common to take the name of your teacher in this school. Corey went on to do the uncredited choreography for LETHAL 4 , but did get credit for X-MEN. Jet Li is great in THE DEFENDER, which is one of the two basic sub-genres of these Hong Kong martial arts pictures – the contemporary crime thriller (sometimes with a sci-fi and/or superhero edge) – the other being the Shao-lin costume drama. This is by no means John Woo, however, and things get tedious – certainly not enough to sustain my interest (these DVDs were thrust upon me, my dear). It is unfortunate that even within the easy medium of DVD, TWIN WARRIORS did not have the option of the original soundtrack with subtitles. So we have the usual bad dubbing (worse than THE DEFENDER, believe me).

As anyone familiar with these Shao-lin films knows, the acting is usually on the level of mediocre silent cinema – bad mugging worsened by that flat recording booth ambiance of phrases like “Huh?”. If you’re into these pictures, I assume this is part of the charm, like the bizarre gun shots and foleys of spaghetti westerns – you know, boot heels going clomp clomp clomp and wooden spoons scraping soup bowls as if the audience has been slipped acid.

Meanwhile, Michelle Yeoh has such amazing presence and dignity that we really have a sense of her throughout all of this as leader of a gang of tax rebels – directed by Woo-Ping Yuen himself by the way. Jet Li is not unwatchable – but he has long since developed a minimalist style of presentation, the Bronson school of acting, that works much better for him than these anime-like eye poppings.

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