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"Iron Fists and Kung Fu Kicks" Review

The first thing you see when watching Blade Runner is the studio logo header (only one of them compared to the half-dozen today's patchwork-financed films have) for The Ladd Company and underneath it added, "in association with Sir Run Run Shaw." I always thought it was an odd name, though much later learned that Run Run was one of the Shaw Brothers, purveyors of a massive quantity of the movies that came out of Hong Kong up thru the mid-1980s. The culture-changing output of the Shaw Brothers and others is covered in Iron Fists and Kung Fu Kicks, a fast-paced, informative, but somewhat incomplete documentary on the rise and cultural impact of kung fu cinema.

 Illustrated with countless clips (perhaps too many edited too quickly) from their output, IFaKFK begins with the Shaw Brothers, who cranked out a movie per week from their studio system which had cast members and crews living in company dormitories and working on as many as a half-dozen pictures simultaneously. Looking to bolster their box office, they begin to branch into more violent and bloody martial arts fare, finding much success.

However, for all that success, Run Run had some serious blind spots including passing on signing Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan, leaving them free to go to competitor studio Golden Harvest which had been formed by a bunch of Shaw Brothers executives who bridled at the boss's iron-fisted control. 

Naturally, Bruce Lee gets substantial coverage as the first breakout international Kung Fu star. Disgusted at being passed over for the lead in Kung Fu (in favor of David Carradine due to network's concerns over Lee's Elmer Fudd-ish accent), he returned to Hong Kong, signed with Golden Harvest, and became a legend before suddenly dying at only 32 years of age. The "Bruceploitation" films that were rushed out afterwards are covered as well. 

Moving along to the arrival of Jackie Chan (also signed to Golden Harvest) and his stunt-driven comedic films and the influences on the nascent hip-hop culture of the last-Seventies/early-Eighties with moves from the films being translated into breakdance moves, IFaKFK really packs a lot of content, but begins to rapidly glide over the turn-of-the-Millennium resurgence in interest in Asian cinema prompted by the massive success of The Matrix and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

Despite having the director of the Ip Man films and the cinematographer of Hero as talking heads, neither film is showcased. There's no sign of Jet Li, bare acknowledgement of Michelle Yeoh, no acknowledgement of Quentin Tarantino's massive homages to 5 Fingers of Death and Game of Death in his Kill Bill films. In the last few minutes they spotlight new countries making breakout movies like Indonesia (The Raid - Redemption) and Thailand (Ong-Bak), but the more time is given to Americans Cynthia Rothrock and Billy Blanks - who went on to invent the Tae Bo fitness system and had the highest-selling videotape ever - at the expense of the past 25-30 years.

 While glaringly incomplete in areas, Iron Fists and Kung Fu Kicks is still a good primer on the history and cultural influence of chop-socky movies.

Score: 7/10. Catch it on cable. (Currently on Netflix.)


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