The Boston Globe has described Ric Meyers as “America’s leading expert on martial art movies,” and the shoe fits. The writer of the indispensable tome Great Martial Art Movies, and his new follow-up Films of Fury: The Kung Fu Movie Book, is the reason why I myself love and respect the genre, and his books – and yearly presentations at San Diego Comic Con – have led me to discover hundreds of fascinating, important and kick-ass films of… well, fury.
The acclaimed author and martial artist took some time with me to share his love of the genre, explain the true importance (and failures) of Bruce Lee, and examine why American movies may have martial arts in them, but have – with one surprising exception – never actually been “kung fu movies.” If you’re interested in kung fu films at all, check out Films of Fury: The Kung Fu Movie Book, check out RicMeyers.com, and check out just about every single movie we talk about in our in-depth interview (unless we're saying it's crap).
CraveOnline: Actually, first off, and I don’t think I’ll even bother to transcribe this, I wanted to thank you because you, specifically, were the person who got me into martial arts movies in the first place.
Ric Meyers: Well, transcribe that!
[Laughs.] I will. I was at Comic Con when you showed ‘The Victim’ [starring Sammo Hung], and it was the first real martial arts movie [I'd seen]. I’d been stuck with crap like ‘Mortal Kombat’ or ‘Bloodsport’ my whole life, and I didn’t really see much in it aside from some neat fights. You shared not only the context but also your love of the medium, and that was infectious. Since then I’ve studied as much of the genre as I can.
Then my job is done.
So, okay, regarding the book. Actually, there’s something you’ve talked about in person before, but you didn’t really mention in Films of Fury. There aren’t many experts, certainly not famous experts in martial arts cinema in America. You’re kind of a trailblazer, and I was wondering if you’d share with our readers how you initially found the medium when no one else was really looking at it.
Well, I was in the same boat as everybody else and you, in fact. I’d been watching all these movies and I loved good fight scenes. As I say in the movie, The Kung Fu Movie Movie, when I saw the fight on the train in From Russia with Love in the 60s, I went “Oh…! Oh…” I was impressed with that, and then when I saw the fights in Darker Than Amber, which Robert Clouse directed prior to Enter the Dragon, and in fact pretty much got him the job on Enter the Dragon, I was galvanized. And I kept looking for something like that in everything I saw afterwards, and I never saw anything. Ultimately I got into comic books. That was one of my first professional jobs. I worked for Atlas Comics in New York, and I was always complaining that superheroes at that time were constantly being camped up. They weren’t being taken seriously. We play a little game now of what would it have been like if Hollywood had seen Superman or Batman, which were very famous comic books at that time, seriously? And what amazing movies they would have made in the studio system had they taken any of those things seriously, but they didn’t, and it was always relegated to bad, cheesy serials, and ultimately even when Batman came to television in the mid-sixties it was all campy.
So I complained bitterly throughout, and while I had seen Five Fingers of Death, aka King Boxer, while I was in college, I wasn’t galvanized by that. It was very staid, very Japanese, kind of, based action. And my friend Larry Hama, who created the G.I. Joe world that we still work in, in the new G.I. Joe movies, he brought me down to The Bleecker Street Cinema, which was a repertory house of movies. They were showing a Japanese film festival, and they were showing the Babycart series, known here as the Shogun Assassin series. I saw the fifth one, which I still feel is the best of the six that they made, called Babycart in the Land of Demons.
I totally agree with you. That movie kicks ass.
Yeah, it’s just incredible! And I thought, well, this is more like it. Even though it’s not exactly superhero stuff, it’s still beautifully filmed, taken seriously, done in a unique style and wasn’t just roundhouse punches. The action wasn’t nonsense. Most of the action in American movies, for a hundred years, has been essentially nonsense. No one who was a real fighter is going to do a roundhouse punch. They’re just not going to do it. And that’s the stock in trade; even in the latest James Bond movies, he’s still doing roundhouse punches! They don’t make sense, from a professional fighting standpoint.
Right, they’re so telegraphed.
Yeah, they don’t make sense from a human standpoint. Yeah, if you want to hurt yourself, telegraph your punch. Do a roundhouse punch. That’s fine. But again in the movies, just the way they don’t do guns properly, they don’t do car crashes properly, it’s all kind of fantasy. But anyway, immediately after Babycart in the Land of Demons I was impressed enough, and I figured that’s all I needed. [Larry Hama] said, “No, no, no.” We literally went from a matinee performance of that down to Canal Street Cinema in Chinatown in New York – neither of these cinemas exist any longer – and saw Drunken Monkey in a Tiger’s Eye, which was Drunken Master. Jackie Chan’s second big hit. And at that point, as I’ve often said, I did the whole Tex Avery thing: my eyes bulged out, my jaw hit the floor. I couldn’t believe that this was… This was a comic book come to life. This was, as far as I was concerned, was an Asian Daredevil movie. And in fact, you can imagine how cathartically disappointed I was in the Daredevil movie. I’m happy they’re rebooting it…
Yeah, me too.
If [your website] reaches the rebooters of Daredevil: Please, guys, all you need to do is understand kung fu, which is what Daredevil will be doing, has to do. There’s all sorts of moments in all sorts of movies like Heart of the Dragon, where it’s clear, Daredevil-style action. But please, also take the lesson from Zatoichi, which is the blind swordsman of Japan. Which was the other series that I saw after Babycart. Because you have to understand, when there’s a hero – I’m digressing – when there’s a hero who’s blind, the movie should be about blindness. Not necessarily the hero’s blindness, but the villain’s blindness. They’re blinded by rage. They’re blinded by greed. They’re blinded by lust. Whatever they’re blinded by, that’s what the movie should be about. And that’s what all the Zatoichi movies were about: the blindness of the samurai code. Bushido. Anyway, I digress…
No, it’s okay. The passion is always amazing.
Yeah, I go into Jackie Chan astonished and amazed. I was very lucky to have written several books for a film book publisher called Citadel Press. I had done The Great Science Fiction Films, and for A.F. Barnes, another film book company, I had done The World of Fantasy Films. And I went to both of them and I said, “Can I do a book on martial arts movies?” And Citadel was first, they said, “Here.” They literally said, “Go ahead! We’ll give you the same deal we gave you on the last book. Just go ahead and do it.” And my timing was perfect. Ocean Shores was trying to break into America. Black Belt Theater, which was created by World Northal, was trying to break into television, and they loved the idea of me going into a book which would educate their viewers as well as their buyers. So, the doors were open to me. I went to Hong Kong for the first time. I met Jackie Chan for the first time. This was back in 1978, yeah, right after Drunken Master, so I was ahead of the curve there, and ever since I have remained ahead of the curve because I’ve found that Americans, as I say in the American chapter in the book, don’t like kung fu. They like taekwondo. They like karate. They like stuff that’s angry, that’s aggressive, where you can look cool and use your muscles and your emotions. While kung fu is very, you know, Kung Fu Panda [and] Shaolin Soccer. It’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, where you don’t necessarily look cool or badass, badass and awesome. You look kind of funny, you look kind of weird, but you never hurt yourself. You always use the other person’s energy against them. You know, I went public on the Comedy Film Nerds podcast, that the Weinsteins, through Miramax and now The Weinstein Company are doing, apparently, everything they possibly can to slow the progress of kung fu in America.
Well, they are releasing them now. There was a time when they had all the rights and weren’t releasing anything.
Right, and I credit… Although I’m not a huge fan of Kill Bill, as you know from the book… I’m not a hater of Kill Bill, I just don’t think it accomplished what Shaolin Soccer and Hero and Kung Fu Panda accomplished. But now everyone’s taking a step back. Zhang Yimou’s follow-up to Hero, Stephen Chow’s follow-ups to Shaolin Soccer, although Kung Fu Hustle is great, but most of it lost on American audiences. And certainly Kung Fu Panda 2 has taken steps back from the huge advances their predecessor made.
God, there’s so much to expand on there…
Yeah, of course. That’s why I always say, you know, consider a two-parter or four-parter or twenty four-parter. I talk [like] this about all the ge… I talk this way about exploitation films as well, science fiction films, fantasy films. I’ve always been a big supporter of the genres that I feel have been denigrated. I was really galvanized as a kid by reading the reviews for movies like From Russia with Love, which was one of my favorite movies and still is, and how all these big-time critics would dismiss it. Not even say it’s bad, they would just dismiss it! Literally, these movies saved my life, so I’m not… But that’s my goal in life, not to dismiss… When I got to kung fu, even the Chinese would dismiss these movies. Their own movies! I mean, there were great Westerns, so Americans didn’t completely dismiss… They didn’t even dismiss “B” Westerns, like the Roy Rogers movies. But everyone, including the Easterners, would dismiss kung fu films! I would go, “Are you insane?!”
You actually even call Siskel and Ebert out a bit for their, quote, “sheer stubborn unwillingness to learn more about the medium.”
Yeah, they purposely kept themselves… It was the same thing that happened with Kung Fu Panda 2! They had their own points of view. They had an easy target for their “Stinker of the Week,” or their “Turkey of the Week.” I’m not going to say that they were nationalistic about this, in terms of it was harder to find bad American films, and to condemn American films might get them with their viewers. So they found an easy target, which were kung fu movies. And whenever a kung fu movie came out, they would just, “Well, I don’t understand this. This is stupid.” It was like, what?! It was like, again, a Chinese reviewer watching baseball or football films, you know, great historic sports movies, and going “I don’t understand it. This is stupid.” It’s like, you’re doing the same thing! I mean, I didn’t call out Leonard Maltin, because I talked with Leonard Maltin. I said, “You should put kung movies in your movie book. In your Movies on TV book.” And he was not ignorant, and he also was not mean-spirited the way Siskel and Ebert seemed to be, although they’re not mean-spirited people. He didn’t want to use kung fu movies as a whipping boy, but what he told me was, “I’ve got to draw the line somewhere.” Basically, “I really don’t think I can put every movie ever made in this book.” And I kind of understand where you’re coming from, but still…
But at the same time, that was even better for me. It’s kind of like, “You want to know about this stuff, you [have to] come to me.”
One thing I’ve had trouble with, in introducing people to what I think you and I would call “real” martial arts movies, is that a lot of Chinese kung fu films have cultural differences beyond the kung fu that Americans… Even some of the best ones often have elements of sexism or even racism, particularly in some of Sammo Hung’s movies…
Well, there you go. Sammo’s the king of homophobia, xenophobia and macho chauvinism.
Yeah, absolutely. ‘Tiger on Beat’ [not one of Sammo Hung’s movies] has this amazing climax that I show people all the time to go, “Look how cool this can be,” but I don’t show them the rest of the movie because it’s actually a little uncomfortable.
Right. It’s silly, and that’s by the greatest kung fu filmmaker of all time.
Yeah! Lau Kar-leung, is that how you pronounce it…?
“Low Kar-Lee-Ung,” yeah.
Yeah, he’s incredible, but there’s this element of misogyny, particularly in this one sequence with Chow Yun-fat interrogating that woman, it’s just a little uncomfortable.
Oh yeah, but at the same time some feminists react well to it because they like that even though the women are oftentimes portrayed as putzes, in the Girls with Guns films and the other actions films, they like the fact that they are treated the same way the men are treated. And they give back. They’re not just victims. But in Karl Maka’s movies, Sammo Hung’s movies, in the latter day […] Women have always been an interesting issue in Hong Kong, especially in Chinese kung fu movies. Especially since women, as I also say in the book, were originally playing all the parts!
Yeah, that’s such an unusual thing. It’s actually so alien to us here.
Right, but it’s based on Peking Opera. In Peking Opera, there was a period of time, like Peking Opera Blues, which takes place in the period of time when women weren’t allowed to be in Peking Opera, and men played all the female roles. And then suddenly women played all the male roles when movies started. So if people have a problem culturally, simply give them my book. [Laughs.] Makes a great Christmas and birthday gift.
It is, actually, I’m going to get this for a few friends of mine. Actually, that brings me back to the book. Now, the new book covers a lot of similar material as Great Martial Arts Films…
But one thing I noticed that doesn’t make an appearance in this book… You don’t talk a lot about Japanese films.
Right, because Japanese isn’t kung fu. It’s called The Kung Fu Movie Book, the other books were called “martial arts” books. Martial implies all martial arts, which would have included – had I done it – Muay Thai movies [like] Ong-Bak and all the rest of it, and everything else that’s being done that’s Korean and all the rest. But with this book I decided I’m just going to do kung fu, and kung fu is Chinese martial arts. I mentioned it in the introduction that I’m not going to be dwelling on [or] that I’m not going to be talking about ninja that much, if at all – certainly if I can avoid it – and, yeah, when you look [for] ninja movies you don’t see them. Actually, they're not there. Noooo!
Anyway, I dwell on some of it in the American stuff to put stuff in context, but there’s very little actual “American” kung fu movies, outside of Kung Fu Panda. There’s the Japanese aikido of Steven Seagal, there’s the nothing of Jean-Claude Van Damme, and there’s the karate of Chuck Norris. And all that is Japanese. And all of that is martial arts, not kung fu. So I wanted to do a book just on kung fu films this time.
You dedicate your second chapter to Bruce Lee. Is it possible – and I’m not saying this ironically, I’m serious – is it possible to overstate his importance to kung fu, at least as a film genre?
No. I mean, it’s “possible” of course. You can make like, “Bruce Lee can flyyyy!” but there’s certain things that… He’s still a human being. My biggest issue is not with Bruce Lee in any way, shape or form. I mean, he is vitally important to the history of kung fu as well as to the history of kung fu film. He was a great actor, a great filmmaker, not the greatest person at the end there, apparently, but…
Well, he was young. You make your point [in the book] that he was still growing.
Right. The problem is that he didn’t have a chance to mature. He didn’t have a chance… I mean my favorite thing in the book is my quoting Lau Kar-leung, since Lau Kar-leung was friends with Bruce Lee when they were both young actors in the business, before Bruce came to America, about how Bruce was all western. One of the reasons why he was successful is that he was more western than eastern. He was able to take these concepts, bring in Japanese martial arts, bring in American boxing, bring an American attitude, and that way… But he didn’t have martial chivalry. He didn’t understand the soft powering the hard, which is the very heart of real kung fu. He didn’t have the chance to find his balance, and that both blessed the martial arts industry but also cursed it to years of stupid nonsense.
Actually, this is a little tidbit that I’m sure was in your last book, but I didn’t really notice it until now… I never realized how little of the footage Bruce Lee shot for ‘Game of Death’ was actually in that film.
Again, that, as I said, was far worse – I see it in the film as well – was far worse… Him dying was bad enough, but what they did to him afterwards was worse. Taking his extensive notes, his 45 minutes of footage, including two major co-stars – who are not in the American abomination that carries the name, Game of Death, any longer – and taking that, and knowingly taking that, and turning it into what they turned it into, I feel is a cinematic crime. Now, everybody can see what he had in that edition of Enter the Dragon, “The Red Box,” I call it, that has the Warrior’s Journey documentary on it that shows you all the footage he had.
I was actually about to ask where I could find all that footage, so that’s good.
It’s readily available, and it’s an amazing documentary. You get to watch all the footage. It just makes me heartsick.
Obviously, the book is called Films of Fury, so you didn’t need to talk about this, but you do touch upon, a couple of times, the popularity of martial arts videogames.
But you don’t go much into their impact. I actually feel, and if you have a different opinion on this let me know, I think there’s a certain degree of respect even in some of the sillier ones. Because success in those games is based on adapting to different styles, and learning how to confront different opponents using different skill sets.
Yeah, well it’s interesting. I love kung fu games. I will go, at the various conventions I [go to], when they have a game room I will go and talk about… The one area I haven’t worked in, in all of media, is videogames. And I really want to, because I want to help make an authentic kung fu videogame. The thing is that the guys, obviously, have done an enormous amount of research. A lot of the things that I look for in a good kung fu film, I find in kung fu games: which is good stances, valid techniques. So they know what they’re talking about, but there’s no real kind of background. In other words, the person who is playing the game isn’t aware of how the person they’re controlling is doing the right stuff. All they’re really doing is hitting “A, B, A, B,” whatever. I want a little more, because kung fu is both: mental/physical, internal/external. And all they have in these games is the external. The physical. And that’s not complete kung fu yet. And that’s fine, but to talk about the influence on film? There’s none. There’s no influence on films. The kung fu games… One of the complaints [when] I go to the studio, and whichever filmmaker I can find, and in my column certainly… I am reviewing things like the Mortal Kombat movies, or the Street Fighter movies, I gesticulate passionate with tears in my eyes, going, “Look at the game! LOOK AT THE GAME!!!”
I know! I wrote a huge thing, just recently, about how every videogame movie neglects this, and why, out of two live-action ‘Street Fighter’ movies, none of them have even been about a fighting tournament. They always feel the need to make it bigger and stupider than it even already was.
Yeah, and then they edit with a shredder! They edit it with a lawnmower!
Yeah. I mean, I doubt the woman who played Chun Li, Kristin Kreuk, was much of a martial artist, but…
Also, she didn’t have enough direction… As I said in my review, she was acting her head off, every second, and it ultimately was just exhausting [in] every shot. That’s neither here nor there, but the movie itself… And these guys, these filmmakers use this ludicrous excuse that this the way, that they’re trying to “attract” the videogame market, they say, because that’s the largest market there is. So I’m saying, “Look at the game!” Because you’re not attracting that market, because in the game the action is clear! You can see what’s going on, and in the movies… never.
There’s this frustrating thing, this attitude I feel like a lot of filmmakers have towards videogames, like videogames are this sort of precocious child that needs to be taught the “right” way to do it.
Well, as Orson Welles said many years ago, Hollywood’s not about money. It’s about ego. And he’s absolutely right. They’re treating videogames exactly the way they treated comic books back in the day.
Yeah, I just made this argument. We need a ‘Batman Begins,’ where someone takes it seriously, just like martial arts movies. Take it seriously, and people will be attracted to it.
But again, Hollywood has never been about pleasing the audience. Well, it has been, back in the past. Back during the studio system they had a level of quality that was higher, but…
It’s a side effect of what they’re already doing.
Right. They’re playing producer games now. Everybody’s just playing producer games, and marketing games. And marketers needs to… I’ve heard this from more film executives than I’d care to remember, which is, “Quality is the least important thing.” They want to play their marketing and production games.
No, I’ve heard that too. It’s frustrating as hell.
Yeah, it’s very frustrating. If audience members got to make these things, which by the way we can now, with our Flip Cameras and the internet, and if you want to do it… I’m friends with, at my show this year at the San Diego Comic Con, I had five previews from four different independent, amateur filmmakers. And I keep on trying to tell them, as I tell the Thai filmmakers, which is, you need story! Fighting is not enough. You need story. You need character.
As we’ve discussed before, over the last few years some of the better Shaw Brothers movies have started finally becoming available in the United States. Two of them I never thought I’d see [on DVD in America]: ‘The Kid with the Golden Arm’ and ‘Executioner from Shaolin’ finally came out. I was wondering what you think, as someone who’s seen more of them than myself – or just about anyone – what’s the biggest stuff that we haven’t got over here that we need to seek out?
It’s interesting, a lot of my younger… I have kung fu movie night every week, or every other week depending on what all our schedules are, and I’ve found that a lot of my younger friends really aren’t impressed or amazed by or enjoy all the Shaw Brothers stuff. It’s too staged for them. It’s straightforward. They far prefer the New Wave Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung, et cetera stuff. And they would far more… I mean, last week we had a choice between 5 Shaolin Masters and Mad Monkey Kung Fu or New Chinese Ghost Story and Just Call Me Nobody, and they wanted the newer ones. And I appreciate that. I understand that now. Basically, we pretty much have everything that we need since Dragon Dynasty just put out Mad Monkey Kung Fu, Martials Arts of Shaolin, 5 Shaolin Masters, Executioner from Shaolin, and they’ll be putting out more of the best of the Shaw Brothers material. But The 36th Chamber is already out, Return to the 36th Chamber is already out, The Shaolin Masters…
Are the ‘Shaolin Temple’ movies out yet?
No, but I don’t think they’ve held up very well. Are you talking about the Jet Li ones or the Chang Cheh ones?
The Jet Li ones.
No, the Jet Li ones… No, only the third one, directed by Lau Kar-leung. That just came out in August. [It’s called] Martial Arts of Shaolin. It just came out, still a crackerjack movie. Still has some best kung fu ever put on film. But the first two have not been out. The second one suffers enormously. The first one is still not out officially, although it’s easily gotten on Amazon in an authentic, what is called “parallel” import. You don’t have to get a bootleg. But basically, in terms of kung fu, most of the great Lau Kar-leung movies, which are the Shaw Brothers movies, are out. There are some Sun Chun movies… Fistful of Talons is not out officially. Avenging Eagle I think came out officially, legally. But for the most part, yeah, those are all available. The best of the best is out now. They have to keep on making better and better ones in the new age. I’m waiting for an official, legal version of Wu xia [aka Dragon], which is the new Peter Chan movie starring Donnie Yen. Hopefully that’s going to be the next big jump. I’m waiting of course for The Man with the Iron Fists, which is a new movie with Russell Crowe. I’m hoping that he makes the leap that Kill Bill was not able to make. I’m also very anxiously awaiting the premiere of the Kung Fu Panda television show, which I’ve been involved in from just a creative consultant standpoint. And I believe they’re getting the kung fu right, which Kung Fu Panda 2 did not. And I’m [hopeful] that Kung Fu Panda 3, now that Kung Fu Panda 2 is the most successful movie ever directed by a woman, I’m [hopeful] that if the director there [Jennifer] Yuh, who was the story editor on the first Kung Fu Panda… She decided to do the same thing that other guys did, which is completely ignore the truth of kung fu, to put over whatever she wanted to put over, for whatever reason she wanted to put it over. Which is really a shame, since having as authentic kung fu as was in the first movie in the second movie, only would have made the second movie better. It wouldn’t have hurt the second movie in any way had she been internally accurate.
Speaking of martial arts animation, did you ever get a chance to watch ‘Avatar: The Last Airbender?’
Oh yeah. I loved it. In fact, I commiserated at the San Diego Comic Con with the creators of the television show [Michael Dante DiMartino and Brian Konietzko], where we all sort of went, “Why did they do this to the movie…?!”
I know! That movie killed me!
I just felt horrible for them, because they took a certain amount of… I won’t say “great pride,” because pride is of course one of the Seven Deadly Sins, right? So I don’t want to make them sinful. But they took justifiable pride in their show in terms of how accurate it was from a kung fu standpoint, and I gave them full thumbs up and kudos and, you know, honor and respect for what they did. [Laughs.] Then to have the movie come out that way, it must have been awful for them.
It was awful for me…
Yeah, well, you didn’t create the show!
I know, but I loved it.
But you didn’t make the show!
That’s my point! If I hated it, I can only imagine how much they did…
Poor guys. Poor guys. So I thought the show was tremendous, and I’m hoping that Kung Fu Panda, the show, is tremendous and I hope that if Ms. Yuh is the director of the third Kung Fu Panda movie… It didn’t do as well as they hoped in America, but it did spectacularly well in the rest of the world… That she will… I did a seminar for Dreamworks and Nickelodeon two years ago [at] San Diego Comic Con, and left them a mimeographed, stapled, copied piece of paper with all the straightforward rules of kung fu. And she purposely didn’t… If she read it, she ignored and didn’t do any of it. And I went, “Why?! Why aren’t you trying… You know, the movie’s called ‘Kung Fu Panda,’ and you’re trying to ignore the first two… You want to call it Martial Arts Panda. It’s not. It’s Kung Fu Panda. There is a difference.” Again, the point I always make with people is: you’re making a baseball film, and you’re watching football movies. She’s doing a movie called Baseball Panda, and she wanted to turn it into Football Panda. And I’m going, “It’s as simple as that.” “Well, it’s a sport with a ball, isn’t it?” “Yes, it is, but they’re not the same. As any American knows.”