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BEST KARATE FIGHTS IN CINEMA


The moment that changed my life was the first time I saw Bruce Lee in the TV series,
Longstreet (sorry folks, I don't even remember the Green Hornet!). The explosiveness of
his movements and the ability to use your whole body as a weapon, mesmerized this
skinny, often put upon kid. By the time Enter the Dragon came out (and Bruce Lee was
dead) I was a lifelong convert to the martial arts. Bruce Lee may have said in his
philosophical book, The Tao of Jeet Kune Do, that a punch is just a punch and a kick is
just a kick but for me the martial arts were far more. Nothing I do today, 35 years or so
later, is not influenced by the thousands of hours I put into this discipline. So now, as I
hit middle age hard, I sit back and analyze what others have done utilizing this spirit in
sports and popular culture.

Which brings me to this top ten list. Here are the
10 Best Karate Style Fights of the
movies. They have been chosen for their levels of action, innovativeness and cultural
impact. Obviously, even an after school special has martial arts in it but I can remember a
time when it was as alien as an Eskimo in the Sahara.
Soooo.... here we go.

1.        
Return of the Dragon. Bruce Lee faces off against Chuck Norris in the Roman
Coliseum. How can you possibly top that setting? Chuck Norris was at his peak as a
tournament fighter and Bruce Lee was just starting to explode in the Asian market when
this was filmed. Compared to other matches in cinema, this one was not the most
exciting but in terms of a more realistic depiction Return of the Dragon is pretty good.
The fighters keep the moves from being over the top (a daring move for a Chinese movie
where theatricality is more important than realism) and when they get hit they look hurt.
The legend of both men started to gain ground here.

Honorable Mention: Fists of Fury


2.        
Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon. This is simply one of the most beautiful films
in this genre ever filmed. It is as graceful as a ballet and as violent as a mob movie. The
women of the film are as heroic and as adept as the men and the fight that takes place
among the swinging trees is a testament to the creativity of the director (or writers). The
acting is award-worthy, again a rarity in this type of film. This spawned a whole slew of
imitators, some of them very good.

Honorable Mention: Hero


3.        
Rapid Fire/The Crow. Brandon Lee, cursed like his father Bruce, died way too
young. I included both movies as his body of work was so small. In Rapid Fire, you can
see some of the old man's skills in the various fights. But in The Crow, Brandon's
magnetism and charisma rip through the screen. You can feel his pain and you can feel
his menace. At times I felt sorry for the scum he was destroying. A career gone too early.

Honorable mention: The Dragon


4.        
Above the Law. It's unfortunate that a series of lawsuits, mediocre films, odd
behavior and a large weight gain have sullied Steven Seagal's image. But when this film
came out, with some parts loosely based on Seagal's past, it reverberated through the
martial arts community. Seagal used Aikido, a flowing, soft-styled Japanese martial art
that focused on holds and throws rather than strikes. When Niko (Seagal's policeman
character) tosses the bad guys around in the convenience store it is so different than
anything else up to that point that you can't help but be impressed.

Honorable mention: Under Siege.


5.         
First Blood. Sylvester Stallone rode the character of John Rambo through the
eighties and by the end of the run, had created a role almost a caricature of the original. In
this first, "Rambo" movie, Stallone plays a Vietnam vet suffering from post-traumatic
stress syndrome and a loneliness that is palatable. When arrested for vagrancy, the small
town sheriff's office tries to bully Rambo. He retaliates in a vicious, extremely effective
manner that mirrors his Green Beret status. This is a very realistic looking fight.

Honorable Mention: Copland.


6.        
Kill Bill 2. In my previous issue I chose Uma Thurman as one of the toughest
women in movies. This is her masterpiece. She is so tough, mean and skilled that any
man on this list would have to watch himself. And Darryl Hannah! What can you say
about a woman who played sweetheart roles (a mermaid for God's sake!) and here has a
fight with another woman that is so violent and realistic looking that you will never look at
a trailer park the same way again. I for one, am glad to see women kicking butt.

Honorable Mention: Kill Bill 1.


7.        
Ong Bak. Who the hell is Tony Jaa? Once you've seen this move you won't ever
ask again! This little (compared to me!) dynamo did his own stunts and fought a style of
Muay Thai called Muay Boran (the predecessor to Muay Thai). It looked great, appeared
to be very effective and ushered in a brand new hero of the martial arts. His flying knees
and elbows elevated this Thai art to new heights (literally). Tony Jaa's on the run fight
highlighted his fitness, his martial art and his agility (you have to see him dive through the
bale of barbed wire while on the run).

Honorable Mention: The Bodyguard.


8.        
Billy Jack. Tom Lauglin played the title role in this combination sixties
consciousness butt kicking film. As Billy Jack, Laughlin brought a stoic, native presence
to a role that saw him work for the rights of Native Americans in a racist, violent little
town. The best part of this film is when Billy Jack, surrounded by ten rednecks, slowly
takes off his boots and with scarcely a thought disposes of these yahoos with a series of
hapkido kicks, knife hand strikes and punches. How can you not love this guy?

Honorable Mention: Try a sequel.


9.        
Lethal Weapon 4. In the first Lethal Weapon, a young Mel Gibson demonstrates
his martial arts skills and continues to do so through the sequels. You would think that by
number four, the formula would peter out. Well.. .welcome Jet Li. In his first American
screen performance Jet Li rips apart his opponents and the screen. The fight at the dock
between Mel Gibson (with help from Danny Glover) and Jet Li is electrifying. It is a great
introduction to this fine Asian actor and a good accounting by Mel Gibson.

Honorable Mention: Unleashed


10.        
Rumble in the Bronx. Jackie Chan's introduction to North America is a
hilarious tribute to his martial arts and acrobat background. Set in New York (filmed in
Vancouver) this film personifies what I like to call, the environmental martial artist. This
is a fighter who will use anything in his immediate surroundings as a weapon. Chan's
fight in the gang clubhouse is a comedic opera as he works chairs, tables, bats, skis,
shopping carts and a pinball machine into his repertoire of fighting. A must see.

Honorable Mention: Shanghai Noon



And now for the best of the best.... Enter the Dragon

This movie is Bruce Lee's Sistine Chapel. It is a masterpiece of mayhem that highlights
Bruce Lee's prodigious skills. Other actors in the film look like children compared to him
and despite his small stature he towers over this movie like a Chinese emperor over his
troops. For western audiences this is the first real opportunity to see Bruce Lee at his
peak and it is a tragedy that no more was forthcoming (Game of Death is incomplete).
The fight through the caverns is the high point of a film filled with high points. We see
Bruce Lee use his skills in a variety of disciplines against dozens of opponents. The work
with the nunchakus (two sticks connected by rope or chain) holds up well today and is
still one of the most talked about scenes in martial arts. Buy this movie and watch some
of his moves in slow motion. You won't ever wonder again why he is considered the best!
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