How ninja turtles changed America's view of kung-fu movies

DELAYED ATTRACTION 

How ninja turtles changed America's view of kung-fu movies

You wouldn't have seen a movie like The Warrior's Way in the multiplexes a generation or two ago. The film — which opens all over the place on Friday — is a martial-arts extravaganza starring Dong-gun Jang, a South Korean actor who's appeared in some of his country's biggest blockbusters.

Before Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon crashed into mainstream theaters a decade ago, kung-fu flicks (or chopsocky pictures, or whatever you want to call them) had a reputation as utter crap in this country.

Back in the day, they were considered grindhouse trash — unworthy of critical respect or coverage. They played almost exclusively in theaters you would never take your kids to. In fact, more often than not, you wouldn't want to be caught dead or alive in them.

Even 20 years ago, when Hark Tsui (the Steven Spielberg of Cantonese cinema) unleashed Once Upon a Time in China, many reviewers called it garbage — at least those who bothered to see it. Most of them did not. That movie is now hailed as a classic.

Cantonese quickies were often shot in slapdash fashion, with lots of editing done during filming. Mad magazine pretty much nailed it in a classic cartoon that showed a stuntman crashing out of a window from one kung-fu movie and into the scene of a different movie.

Still, the widespread rejection of martial-arts films — from the cheapies right on up to lavish costumed sword fantasies — is unfair. Japanese samurai epics got a pass, saluted as brilliant tributes to old-school westerns. But studios shooting variations on these movies in Korea, Taiwan, Indonesia, and, most of all, Hong Kong were looked down upon.

Only 1973's Enter the Dragon (which boasted a U.S. co-production credit) received some grudging critical recognition at the time it was created. But the movie hedged its racial bets, employing American actors John Saxon and Jim Kelly. Had Bruce Lee lived longer, maybe martial-arts sagas would have earned respect sooner.

Unfortunately, he died, and they were ignored, and some great movies have gone unheralded over the years. Golden Swallow (from 1968) introduced an action heroine years before Hollywood got around to creating one. A Touch of Zen was a hit at the Cannes Film Festival in 1975. The Spiritual Boxer was the first (intentional) kung-fu comedy in 1975. And almost everything Jackie Chan did in his prime — including 1978's breakthrough Drunken Master and the breathtaking Project A from 1983 — needs to be seen to be believed.

Kung-fu flicks like The Warrior's Way (which also stars Kate Bosworth and Geoffrey Rush) are finally being accepted on mall movie screens. And you can thank actors like Chuck Norris and David Carradine for paving the way. Over the years, home-video bootlegs, fanzines, and Quentin Tarantino kept them alive on their long path to mainstream acceptance.

But here's a crackpot theory for you: The real reason kung-fu movies resonate so strongly with filmmakers and moviegoers today is because of the success of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles back in the mid '80s. Think about it. If savvy businessmen could make millions off the kiddie market with four reptiles who kicked ass, imagine the possibilities when you put real people in those roles. That's the real warrior's way.

Send feedback to film@clevescene.com.

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