Of all the post-death Bruce Lee cash-ins — and Lordy, there are many — Bruce Lee Fights Back from the Grave is among the most notorious, all likely because of its title. That and the 15 seconds that open the movie are all it has going for it. In that quarter of a minute, a lightning bolt strikes the grave of “Bruce Lee,” who then leaps out of it, looking remarkably fit, trim and non-rotting for a dead guy. The title comes up and thus ends any and all connections, references and insinuations related to the deceased screen legend.
What follows is a cheap and tired story of Bruce Lee Wong Han (L.A. Streetfighters’ Jun Chong, credited as Bruce K.L. Lea), who travels from China to L.A. to visit his kung-fu instructor friend. Arriving to find his pal has been killed, Wong does what any one of us would do: Drape a box around his neck bearing a handsome headshot of his slain chum and walk all over town with it, vowing to avenge his death.
During his stroll of vengeance, Wong meets, befriends and romances a skank in a tube top (Deborah Dutch, 976-EVIL II), and kicks the asses of countless white guys, very few of whom wear shirts. Although credited to one Lee Doo-yong, this mess reportedly was directed by Italian sleaze magnate Umberto Lenzi, renowned for the controversial, vomitous Cannibal Ferox. The mind aches for a crossover. —Rod Lott
Roving good guy Iron Umbrella gets his name from the umbrella he uses not only as a weapon, but also as a method of flight. Repeat: a method of flight. Even without all that, viewers learn right away he is a badass because, in the first scene, he flicks one finger to hurl sword tips into the skulls of a few ruffians at a local inn.
Iron Umbrella is out to avenge the death of his parents and teacher. His chief nemesis is a scar-faced baddie who dons a black hood for most of the movie, but there is no shortage of enemies! They are everywhere, including the man known as Poison Dragon.
You know exactly how Swordsman with an Umbrella gets from Point A to Point B, but with all the bloody swordplay action at, um, play, martial-arts fans will have a lot of fun getting there. Of particular greatness is the end battle, in which the two foes laughably attempt to make you they’re kung-fu fighting in midair and slow motion! They’re not. Did no one on the crew teach first-time director Hung Shih about wires and undercranking? —Rod Lott
• Holy crap, did I really just see Sammo Hung punch a woman square in the vagina?
• Regardless, Sammo’s suspenders crack me up.
• Dude, that chick just plunged a knife right in that guy’s taint!
• Benny “The Jet” Urquidez has the freaky eyes of a coked-up carny.
• Seriously, did I really just see Sammo Hung punch a woman square in the vagina again?
• Cynthia Rothrock may kick ass, but she looks like the cashier at an Interstate 35 truck stop.
• In general, American kung-fu films suck.
• When you show scenes from NBC’s short-lived ninja TV series The Master (aka Master Ninja I and Master Ninja II), starring Lee Van Cleef, you’ve officially scraped the proverbial bottom of the barrel.
• And while even martial-arts virgins may learn little from it, The Deadliest Art — assembled by Sandra Weintraub, producer of Rothrock’s China O’Brien movies and daughter of the producer of the legendary Enter the Dragon — is a lot of fun to watch. —Rod Lott
Upfront, there is something you should know about Furious, lest you become just that in baffled frustration. For as little dialogue as this indie rarity holds, it contains even less of another critical storytelling element: sense. More than 16 percent of the movie passes before a single line is uttered; once they do emerge, the words confound with mystical hokum like, “You are now between anvil and hammer. The dove is a gentle creature, full of good. … Wisdom must come from within.”
You’re not (necessarily) high. Watching Furious just makes you feel that way.
In a showcase for his considerable martial-arts talents, Showdown in Little Tokyo supporting player Simon Rhee stars as — stretttttttttch — Simon. His sister (Arlene Montano, L.A. Streetfighters) seeks … well, something; I forget exactly what — such is a side effect of the Furious experience — but she uses a compass in which the needle has been swapped with some sort of tusk or tooth. Whatever it is, the damn thing still works … assuming she wanted to be pointed toward the astral plane of certain doom. Meanwhile, taking a break from teaching karate to half-pints, Simon embarks on a quest of his own and runs afoul of … well, everybody.
The first of Furious‘ many all-feet-on-deck fight sequences erupts in the atrium of an office park — aka Bad Guy Headquarters — where a woman kicks nuts and rakes her nails across men’s eyes, and where one guy looks like the chef hero of the arcade classic BurgerTime. Another rock-’em-sock-’em altercation — this one fought with twirling swords — is waged inside a Chinese restaurant frequented by old ladies eating chicken ordered off menus the size of stone tablets on which God displayed his Ten Commandments.
The physical pièce de résistance, however, pits Simon agains the evil Master Chan (Rhee’s real-life brother Phillip, the common thread woven through all four installments of the Best of the Best franchise), who possesses the power to zap his opponents into poultry — and uses it unsparingly, because c’mon, like you wouldn’t? Simon reigns supreme by ducking underneath one of Chan’s power-finger bolts, which then bounces off a mirror and back onto the power-finger bolter himself, transforming him into a pig. One might say Chan gets a taste of his own medicine, and it sure ain’t kosher!
Sound strange? Just think, I skipped over the magic demonstration doubling as the opening credits, the whispering waterfall, the talking dog, the guy whose hands spurt flames, the giant dragon head that may have been made for a church carnival, the Devo-esque New Wave rock band or the alien invasion. Yes, the alien invasion. While that nugget of info should clear up any narrative questions, it instead succeeds only in stirring more confusion into the plot pot. The oddball flick is a kung-fu extravaganza as directed by Upstream Color wunderkind Shane Carruth (but actually comes from the team of Tim Everitt and Tom Sartori): nonstop action rendered as a semi-lucid, stream-of-consciousness mindfuck. Its bizarre operatic quality is something to behold … or beware, depending upon your ability to suspend disbelief of your disbelief. —Rod Lott
A summary of Severin Films’ Kung Fu Trailers of Fury compilation can be found in the superimposed titles from the opening coming attraction for 1978’s The Ways of Kung-Fu: “There are fights! There are laughs! There are surprises! … We are not afraid of imitators, because we are the real deal!”
Comprised of a full two hours of trailers, the program presents martial-arts mayhem at its 1970s pop-culture peak, when public fascination with superstar Bruce Lee extended far beyond his untimely death to a flooded market of “chopsocky” imitations. Aside from the same “whoosh” sound effect to indicate appendages and/or limbs in motion, on their way to making contact with an opponent, the 31 clips collected here share another element in common: hyperbole.
Often rendered in broken English, the genre’s peculiar brand of ballyhoo is responsible for half the fun. When you have projects as insignificant as 1978’s Shaolin Iron Claws calling itself “a stunning production in Chinese cinema history” or as transparently money-grubbing as the same year’s Bruce Le’s Greatest Revenge claiming that it “reinvents action cinema,” one thing is undeniable: Embellishment and exaggeration are all over this like snot on a salad bar sneeze guard during flu season.
Think about the Don Draper pitches that resulted in these indelible ad lines:
• “Intrigue! Mystery! Intrigue and mystery!” —Fists of Bruce Lee (1978)
• “He must fight the YIN YANG SHEMALE!” —Kung Fu vs. Yoga (1979)
• “100 minutes of pure, nonstop sensory explosion!” —The Happenings (1980)
• “It has both the fights and the laughs! … It’s hardcore! It’s Ring vs Pole like you’ve never seen before!” —Enter the Fat Dragon (1978)
• “More exciting than the Western! More suspenseful than European films!” —Blacklist (1972)
• “A COMEDY WITH ACTON [sic] … GOLDEN NEEDLE PEERING [sic]” —Chinese Kung Fu (1973)
• “Chinese bumpkin wreaks havoc in Europe!” —Chinese Kung Fu Against Godfather (1974)
So from where does the other half of the fun come? The visuals, coward! Primarily, I speak of the fights that utilize bamboo poles, rice bowls, playground equipment, baby powder, Q-tips, flying logs, legs wrapped behind one’s head, sewing supplies, ramen noodles, human urine, erect nipples, Dutch windmills, firecrackers, yo-yos, slippers with pop-out saw blades, stolen 007 scores, and something called the Golden Turtle Fist — just not all at once.
And “all at once” is not how I recommend taking in Trailers of Fury, however kick-ass (literally and figuratively) it may be. While the promo for Lee’s 1972 film, The Way of the Dragon, may be the only spot the average viewer is likely to have seen before, martial arts pictures are not known for variety. You have to sit through, say, several punched testicles before getting to the novelty of, say, an earlobe getting torn. Or a snake doing battle with a pussycat (from the ’78 Jackie Chan vehicle Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow). Or acupuncture needles stuck into a dude’s eyes — a cringe-inducing feat worth more exclamation points than I’m willing to type! —Rod Lott