The History of Kung-Fu film with Ric Meyers

Ric Myers tells us everything we always wanted to know about Kung-Fu films but were too lazy to look up.

Fred Topelby Fred Topel

Ric Meyers wrote the book on martial arts movies. Films of Fury: The Kung Fu Movie Book, is now available. If you order from Ricmeyers.com, he’ll sign it for you. I met him at ActionFest where he showed a rough cut of the film documentary, Films of Fury: The Kung Fu Movie Movie. That is still in the works but the book is available now, and Meyers has plenty of tips for Kung Fu movie fans.

Films of Fury: The Kung Fu Movie Book

 

Crave Online: When Jackie Chan came to Hollywood, we lamented that we can’t have 10 minute long fight scenes.

Ric Meyers: On the DVD you can.

 

Crave Online: But do we have to come to accept that Hollywood can’t legally allow artists to shoot as long as he could in Hong Kong, or take the risks he could?

Ric Meyers: As Jet Li says in the book, if they have three months to film the movie, in Hong Kong they do two months on the action and one month on the drama. In America they do two months on the drama and one month on the action. He says no matter how we do it we don’t have enough time. It’s just like stunting. If you talk to any of the stunt men, you don’t have to do that. All you need to do is understand kung fu. If you understand kung fu, you can show cinematically what they do. The greatest kung fu guys don’t do this fancy stuff. They do very simple stuff but you have to know how it works in order to make it right. You don’t have to do something where a guy is falling off a building. That’s not kung fu, that’s a stunt. If you’re going to show kung fu, understand what kung fu is and then show it in a clever, cinematic way.

 

Crave Online: So I gave up too early. They could do it in Hollywood.

Ric Meyers: Of course they could. They choose not to. Raymond Chow, the guy who ran Golden Harvest for decades, I had a meeting with him at the beginning. He said, “We’re not going to do anything for America. Americans only like chop suey.” My reply was, “Americans only know chop suey. You give them authentic Chinese cuisine, they’ll want it.” A lot of guys in Hollywood do not want the American audience to get authentic Chinese cuisine because they know they’ll want it. They don’t want to put their guys out of work. They want to keep doing the roundhouse punches and they don’t want to spend the time it takes to do it properly.

 

Crave Online: And they use the Jackie Chan re-releases as evidence that those movies don’t do well. Well, they released 10 year old movies like Drunken Master II! We’ve seen them already!

Ric Meyers: Not only do you release 10 year old movies, you cut them, you rescore them, you dub them and you delayed them. Then you tried to sell them. When Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon came out, the American filmmaking industry just went insane to do anything they could to keep that from taking root. Even Roger Ebert, somebody asked him, “Crouching Tiger was the first kung fu movie I’ve ever seen. I loved it, what else should I see?” Roger Ebert told them Seven Samurai. I said, “Great, they ask you for baseball movies, you give them football films. You didn’t say Hero, you didn’t say Once Upon a Time in China, you didn’t say any of these great movies.” Even Shaolin Soccer, which certain companies delayed and ruined and played and they tried to sell them to the market. You look at the kung fu movies that succeeded here, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, $200 million. The new Karate Kid which of course is The Kung Fu Kid, $300 million. Kung Fu Panda $600 million. And they’re selling them to the urban audience still? You should be selling this to the family audience, to the adult audience.

 

Crave Online: What do you think of Jackie Chan using wires now? I’m okay with it, give him a break.

Ric Meyers: He’s 57-years-old! It takes him 45 minutes to get up. He can’t get out of bed for 45 minutes. He did an impersonation of what it’s like for him to brush his teeth in the morning which is his assistant holds her finger up like this, holding his head up while he’s brushing his teeth. He’s 57-years-old, leave him alone.

 

Crave Online: And it’s still his creative ideas doing the movement.

Ric Meyers: And as I keep telling him, he keeps thinking he has to be as fast as he used to be, I’m going, “Jackie, Americans don’t care. Just do what you do. You don’t have to do something spectacular.” He gives me the same stuff that he’s been handed which was, “Oh, Americans only want special effects.” I’m saying that’s what the producers are telling you. Remember when the producers said they wouldn’t accept you? Remember that all those years ago? What makes you think that what they’re telling you now is true? Do what you do. It’s better than anyone else. The big thing I told him was, “Let me ask you something. You love Gene Kelly, right? Let’s say at the end of a Gene Kelly movie, he decides that he’s going to do a song instead of a dance. Maybe he does the song really, really well. Now as a Gene Kelly fan, would you be satisfied? Would you be happy?” He looked at me and went, “No, I want him to dance.” I said, “Jackie, dance!”

 

Crave Online: He says he wants to do drama.

Ric Meyers: He does now but he’s been saying that for 30 years.

 

Crave Online: And I’d let him, as long as he doesn’t STOP doing what is so special about him.

Ric Meyers: But now of course he’s dealing with China, he’s dealing with Hong Kong and kung Fu is out again. It’s not in anymore. He produced House of Fury which was his protégé Stephen Fung’s movie which was adorable. House of Fury is great and Yuen Wu-ping choreographed it, just a terrific little movie. When that didn’t do well, he just said, “All right, they don’t want it.” He’s supposedly doing two more to end his career and then I said, “Give it to other people.”

 

Crave Online: Jet Li’s directorial effort Born to Defense was a low point for him. Were there other rough spots in Jet’s career before Once Upon a Time in China?

Ric Meyers: No, not really. After Born to Defense, he stopped. He stopped making films for a while until Tsui Hark pulled him back to do The Master and one more minor one until Tsui Hark realized he would be perfect as Wong Fei-hung.

 

Crave Online: In John Woo’s Hollywood period, do you think Windtalkers was a case of it had the right themes and the language barrier, he didn’t realize how bad that script was?

Ric Meyers: No, that was a war. What happened with John Woo was it doesn’t make any sense at all that when he left Hong Kong, he was considered the greatest action director in the world and one of the great auteurs. He was lauded everywhere. Within three films in America he was a joke. That is not an accident. He didn’t suddenly lose his ability to make films. As soon as he went back to Hong Kong, suddenly he was a great filmmaker again. I know people who are very close to John, very good friends. The nightmare of Windtalkers was something that is for the record books but John is a good man, an honest man. He is not going to go on record about what was done to him on that film.

 

Crave Online: Face/Off doesn’t make him a joke.

Ric Meyers: That was the last decent film, but by Mission: Impossible II he had been rendered into a satire of himself.

 


Crave Online: Sammo Hung had the same training as Jackie Chan, but he was always heavy?

Ric Meyers: He was always heavy. He was facially scarred by the time he got out of the Peking Opera school, all in the book.

 

Crave Online: I sort of think that no matter how much I work out, I could still be big like Sammo Hung, and he did intensive martial arts.

Ric Meyers: You could but he has very healthy appetites in every imaginable way, and he has a very interesting relationship with himself. He has a certain attitude. I go into detail in the book about how self-sabotaging he is.

 

Crave Online: Are all of the greats predicated on a torturous life, like the Peking Opera school or Bruce Lee’s struggles?

Ric Meyers: That’s true of all actors. It’s not unusual for every performer to come from a torturous background.

 

Crave Online: In Tomorrow Never Dies, there’s a scene where Michelle Yeoh gets to fight off her attackers, and they keep cutting to Bond beating up some guys. I don’t know who they are or where they’re coming from. Did they just have to have him do something because it was too threatening if it were just Michelle?

Ric Meyers: I tolerated that movie because I understood. I was with Michelle when she got the part. The whole movie was a mess because originally it was supposed to be Teri Hatcher who was going to be the Bond Girl. But she behaved so abominably that they fired her. You have to wonder, here she is a major star and she’s dead within 15 minutes of her introduction. She was supposed to make it all the way to the end of the film. So the rest of the film they had to make up as they went along. On a film of that size, that’s unbelievable so I was telling them all along, you have to have a scene where Michelle is teaching him some kung fu and he’s teaching her some gadgetry and they could switch off. They were lucky to get it out the way they did it.

 

Crave Online: Of the Brosnan ones, I think that’s the one that holds up the best.

Ric Meyers: I disagree. I think Goldeneye is the superior film in almost every way. Even the martial arts is superior in Goldeneye.

 

Crave Online: I think Goldeneye tries to have it both ways, as a postmodern comment on Bond and a retro Cold War Bond.

Ric Meyers: And I think they were eminently successful at both. But Tomorrow Never Dies is my second favorite.

 

Crave Online: Besides Righting Wrongs, what are the good Yuen Biao movies?

Ric Meyers: Of course the Three Brothers films, Winners and Sinners, My Lucky Stars. Of course the best one of all, The Prodigal Son. Also his earlier stuff, Dreadnaught, his Wong Fei-hung movie, Knockabout which Sammo directed is the major one. One of his few films of his own was Kickboxer where he played the same character he played in Once Upon A Time in China. Those are probably his best films but he never thought of himself as a filmmaker. I liked his performance in that supernatural one where they’re trying to seal up the holes to hell. It’s not a great movie but he was good, Peacock King. I enjoyed that and I enjoyed his performance but it wasn’t a great movie. Of course, Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain he’s terrific in, the original one, 1983.

 

Crave Online: Were they ever really pristine? I’ve seen Blu-rays that still look rough, as restored as they are.

Ric Meyers: That’s because they didn’t get the proper print because of their own reasons. There’s a certain company who I will not mention who has done more to hold back the Chinese movie in America than any other company. They seem to have actively worked toward damaging the reputation of these films in this country.

 

Crave Online: Is the Thai cinema where it’s at now?

Ric Meyers: No, no, no. Thai cinema is not where it’s at. Ong Bak was relatively successful. Nothing that has come out since has been anywhere close to it.

 

Crave Online: Not financially successful, but as fans to watch new performers.

Ric Meyers: Yeah, but those are fast forward specials. The plots are terrible. The dialogue is awful. The comedy is lame. What you do is fast forward to the fights. If they make a movie that works as a movie and not just a series of fights, they might have something but they’re never going to take hold until they do that. You have to do the whole movie. It’s the movies that work as an entire movie that are classics and that take root. The Thais have not made a single one yet.

 

Crave Online: They’re new, they might get there.

Ric Meyers: They won’t. Look at the culture. I won’t say never. Never say never but it’s unlikely.

 

Crave Online: Do you think Tony Jaa really won’t come back?

Ric Meyers: I’m pretty sure. He will come back eventually but it’s not going to be the same thing. Did you see the last two Ong Baks? Both Ong Bak 2 and Ong Bak 3 I said should have had the Itchy & Scratchy theme. “They fight and fight, and fight and fight and fight. Fight fight fight, fight fight fight. Ong Bak twoooo and threeeee.” It has no texture.

 

Crave Online: At least 2 has Tony in it.

Ric Meyers: It does and he moves around a bit but again, the fights are empty movement for the most part. When you were a kid, did you ever play cowboys and Indians or spies or cops and robbers? I used to do that all the time. Tony Jaas movies remind me of the way I used to fight with my friends back in the yard because we’d go pfsh, and we’d wait for the other guy to react but the other guy wouldn’t know how to do it so they would never react. I would hit them and then they would hit me right back. I’m going no, you have to react to the hit. That’s what Tony Jaa’s last two movies were like. No reaction, no pain, no effort. It’s all one note. Not good.

 

Crave Online: Is one of the benefits of the British period that most of those great films have English subtitles?

Ric Meyers: Right, but it’s funny. Most people in America, including Quentin Tarantino in Kill Bill, they always remember these movies as grindhouse movies. I saw them in Chinatown in all their widescreen subtitled pristine glory. So whenever I see them translating this in stuff like Kill Bill as scratchy film and bad dubbing, that’s not the way I first saw them. I always see them as these glorious examples of widescreen martial art poetic historical beauty. It infuriates me when people like Roger Ebert and Quentin Tarantino and to a degree Leonard Maltin but not really Leonard Maltin, reduce these things to grindhouse pieces of crap. They weren’t. They were the epics of their country that had been in the aftermath of the Bruce Lee stuff been reduced to crap. It’s kind of like if the Chinese took all the great John Wayne movies and showed them pan and scanned on television with bad dubbing and scratchy film. All the Chinese would think those were crap too. The fact that Ebert refuses to learn anything about them, because he wants to reduce them to stinkers of the week…

 

Crave Online: He won’t learn anything about video games either.

Ric Meyers: That’s it, so it’s very frustrating.