The Greats: Westerns, Samurai & Kung-fu

Posted: November 30, 2010 in Top Lists
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For a long time, I’ve had the idea that Kung-Fu movies, Westerns and Samurai movies were all essentially the same thing just for different cultures. Each dated back to the beginning of filmmaking, each looked back to a Golden Age that might never have really existed, and each fell out of favor for a long time only to see a resurgence in recent years. As a result, I decided to cast a wide net and get one great from each of the areas that these movies exist in. Since this is the last day, we’re going to have three from each genre.


Samurai

The Hidden Blade
This is one of the slower pace, more mature model. It’s actually very good though and has a hell of an ending. The title is taken from a secret technique that everyone is in awe of, but no one has ever seen. We get to see it before the movie is out though, and it’s cooler than you’d think.


Zatoichi
You’ve got to include one of these in here, so I’m going with the newest one. Yeah, it’s formulaic, but deliberately so. There is an undercurrent of parody here, that skates just below the surface and only comes up for air a few times and then only just enough for you to notice it.


Yojimbo
One of the most formative movies of the 20th century. This movie is the mold for so many strong silent types, for the less than white knights who are good almost in spite of themselves. This movie is such a template it’s not even funny. Never mind the direct remakes, it’s had so many indirect remakes as well that you can pretty much point and say that it was here that the modern bad-ass was born.


Seppuku
While it’s called Harakiri in the Criterion Collection, I’ve used the actual title. A tale told in a way you wouldn’t ordinarily expect, with an ending that seems to jump out at you despite the fact that they told you this is how it would end. A great movie about the difference between honor and hypocrisy. A very good movie, but not one you want to pull out and watch once a week.


Samurai Fiction
Got to have one parody for each section, and this is the one for this. A fairly clever take on the Jidaigeki movies of the past, while telling its own interesting story. The plot itself is fairly simple, but the execution gives room for comedy that is both broad and clever. And of course it’s filled with in-jokes and references for clever people like me who are in the know.

Kung-Fu

Drunken Master
Probably the movie most responsible for launching Jackie Chan to stardom, this kung-fu comedy is a brilliant piece of work. I know a lot of people would want me to put Drunken Master II here, but I’m not gonna. It’s not just out of contrariness though, there is a good reason for this. Drunken Master II doesn’t really fit in with me for the old school kung fu movies. It’s not that the movie isn’t good, or that I think it has too high of a production value, because other points on this list are far more guilty of that. No, it’s because DM2 just feels too much like a love note to all the historical kung-fu Jackie Chan has ever done. It’s a tribute to a by-gone era. So instead, I feel inclined to go with the original, which is a genuinely great movie in its own right anyway.


Hero
Wait, you mean to tell me there’s a Jet Li movie that leans quite heavily on the notion of Chinese Nationalism. Get out of town! Really? Jet Li? Nationalist? Okay, I’m done with that joke, but some people sure do get their panties in a twist over the nationalism in this movie. I get why, because China can be a wee bit oppressive at times, but decrying every Chinese person who ever declares a patriotic statement is stupid as well. That said, this is the movie that convinced me to watch things with Wire-Fu. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon didn’t do it for me and previous movies barely made a blip on my radar. Hero was interesting enough though that I got into the stylization of it and was hooked before the first wire fight came along. The Rashamon style storytelling is interesting, if hardly inventive, but it gets the job done. The fighting in this is quite good, and the story that backs it up is also good, so that’s a win-win right there that is. Besides, anytime you get to see Jet Li and Donnie Yen face off, a good time is had.


36th Chamber of Shaolin
You know how there is a training sequence in most Kung Fu movies? Well, instead of a three-minute rock montage, this movie is 60% training sequence. There’s more to the movie than that, but the training is a large part of it. This is one of the better movies of that time period and the style in which it was made. I should have more to say about this, but as we’re running towards the end and I’ve written so many of these I find myself fighting the urge to just say “Remember when he was jumping on the logs? That was cool.”


Royal Tramp
I’m going to go ahead and suggest both Royal Tramp movies, because I watched them as a double feature on the current dvd that’s out now. These are a fairly broad comedy, although they contain many clever jokes that are lost on me. I’ve listened to the commentaries, so I’ve had some explained, but it’s not the same. The problem with some of the jokes is that they exist as gags on then current TV shows, movies or commercials. However, it still works as a parody of the genre, and that’s what I’m looking for here.


Fist of Fury
I mean you’re practically talking about the number one historical kung-fu movie that everyone knows. Is it as good as the others? That’s a matter of opinion. It is very good, but it has certain things that either hold it back or are an example of a talent that had yet to fully blossom. However, this is a good movie and you should watch it to say that you have. This movie is set in a particular time period that you actually don’t see very often in kung-fu movies, and Jackie Chan is a stuntman in it, so that’s an extra bit of interest for you there.

I’m getting a little tired, so I’m going to just bust out a shorter bit for each of these westerns. You probably know all about them anyway. You should, if not, go to Netflix right now, start an account if you don’t have one and put these in your queue this instant. Really, you should have been doing this all month, but with these five, I really mean it. Watch these things.

Westerns

High Noon
The Classic One. It’s about McCarthyism and what a douche everyone was during that time. If you only watch one old B&W Western, let it be this one.


Wild Bunch
The Violent One. Probably Peckinpah’s Best. This is one of those tough guys being tough movies that puts pansy movies like 300 to shame. True, there is less homoeroticism in this picture and WAY less slow-mo, but it’s about 30 times more interesting and 50 times tougher.


Blazing Saddles
The Comic One. We all know about this one. There is almost nothing else to say about it. In some ways, I should have picked a different movie. These lists are about giving you suggestions, and I think everyone has either seen Blazing Saddles or knows enough about it to know they don’t want to see it.


Once Upon a Time in the West
The Awesome Spaghetti Western One. This one is good, but a bit long. As far as I can tell, this hits all the great Western motifs all in one film. It’s got the railroad, the revenge, the woman making it on her own… everything. It’s as if Leone was trying to make a final definitive statement about The Western with this one. Whether he made it or not is probably a matter for debate, but he did make a great movie.


Unforgiven
The Revisionist One. I think Eastwood was also trying to make a final statement with this movie. That actually became a problem, because after this, everyone was trying to make some kind of final statement. No one wanted to make a Western after this, everyone wanted to make THE Western. The problem is that there is no single final answer to the genre. Westerns can be anything and can cover any ground you want to cover. All of these guy movie genres are endlessly adaptable, so long as someone decides to adapt them.

Before we go though, let’s have a look at four movies that mixed up these iconic groups a bit.

Genre Benders

Red Sun
Samurai Western… which was made by the French of all people. Well, a French company got an Englishman to direct the American and the Japanese dude in it. I’ve only seen this once on cable, but it made an impression on me and I’m going to suggest it.


Shanghai Noon
Kung-Fu Western. Actually, I quite like the sequel too. These aren’t serious movies, but they’re fairly enjoyable in a “Eh, it’s harmless enough.” sort of way. In some ways, these are the best of Jackie Chan’s American movies. I know a lot of people will boggle and claim Rush Hour was better, but I’m not so sure. It calls back to the fun of Chan’s 80s movies in a way that I like. When it comes to the sidekicks, the Shanghai movies totally win out. Frankly, Chris Tucker is way more annoying than Owen Wilson as a performer and I like Roy O’Bannon better as a character.


Shogun’s Ninja
There is a synthesis of Kung-Fu and Samurai in this picture. Unless I’m thinking of the wrong movie. I hope I’m not.


Kill Bill All three and more are represented here.


Honorable mention – The Good, the Bad, the Weird A Korean answer to the Spaghetti Western. While not as genre bending as the other suggestions here, it is totally worth your time.

Final Note: Okay, so there are The Greats. If you decide to watch every movie that I talked about, you’ve got about and around 130 flicks in your future.

I know what you’re dying to ask though, “Where was Seven Samurai? Don’t you call that the best movie ever?”

I’ll answer it if I may with a cryptic comment: Wait until New Year’s.

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Comments
  1. Zack Johnson says:

    Where is Ong Bak? That should definitely make it on “The Greats” list?

  2. Citind despre The Greats: Westerns, Samurai & Kung-fu mi-a dat seama cate mai am de stiut.

  3. Hi! This is my 1st comment here so I just wanted to give a quick shout out and say I really enjoy reading through
    your blog posts. Can you recommmend any other blogs/websites/forums that cover the
    same topics? Many thanks!

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