Top Fighter

  • 1994
  • 1 HR 36 MIN

This third martial arts documentary (after CINEMA OF VENGEANCE and DEATH BY MISADVENTURE) from director Toby Russell of Eastern Heroes (the magazine, which spawned a London store and a British video label) is a roundup of the genre's biggest and most influential stars. Scant on biographical detail, it's largely a compilation of clips, many of them obscure. Beginning...read more

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This third martial arts documentary (after CINEMA OF VENGEANCE and DEATH BY MISADVENTURE) from director Toby Russell of Eastern Heroes (the magazine, which spawned a London store and a British video label) is a roundup of the genre's biggest and most influential stars. Scant on

biographical detail, it's largely a compilation of clips, many of them obscure.

Beginning with a brief overview of Chinese martial-arts history, the film moves on to profile Gordon Liu, who achieved fame portraying legendary monk San Te in MASTER KILLER (1978), and Jet Li, mainland China's wushu master and its first cinema superstar with the SHAOLIN TEMPLE series (1981-1986).

The original kung fu icon, Jimmy Wang Yu, is interviewed, followed by a segment on Bruce Lee and his immediate descendants. Moving on to Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung and numerous lesser-knowns, it takes a look at some of the great leg fighters before winding with the blaxploitation crossovers of Jim

Kelly and Ron Van Clief.

The biggest problem by far is the lack of identification for the clips--some of which don't even get credited in the closing crawl. It's a surprising and annoying oversight, and one the often hyperbolic narration neglects to address. As for the clips themselves, some are absolutely terrific,

others flat-out stink. The bulk are somewhere in between, a good many of them frankly not that interesting. Clearly it all comes down to finance, with most if not all of the excerpts taken from independent films, meaning for example that Jackie Chan's later, much better action-comedies are absent,

but his earlier features are represented; at certain points, there are even overlaps with Russell's CINEMA OF VENGEANCE (1993). Likewise in the interviews, Jimmy Wang Yu is still holding the same pose from the prior documentary, and Sammo Hung and Gordon Liu are still standing on same movie sets,

meaning that here Russell utilizes the footage he discarded in the previous documentaries.

On the other hand, segments on less-profiled fighters are a real treat for the martial-arts film fan. A lengthy segment on superkicker Tan Tao Liang is interesting for its explanation of how he developed his astonishing abilities in Taekwondo competition; it goes on to detail his literally

torturing student John Liu until he was capable of his amazing feats. Rounding out the quartet of kickers are the incredible Casanova Wong and Hwang Jang Lee. Jim Kelly and Ron Van Clief then fill in their own autobiographical detail. Jimmy Wang Yu's bad-boy street-fighter reputation gets a

passing nod, and he and Tan Tao Liang agree that being a martial arts star today is easier than it used to be, what with athletic competitions now fragmented into multiple divisions, and camera tricks, special effects, and editing making even mediocre fighters look like champs on film; in the old

days, it was all talent and technique and let the best man win. They definitely have a point, as the best of these clips amply illustrate. (Incidentally, among the uncredited scenes is Jean-Claude Van Damme from his film debut playing a gay kickboxer, although all references to the character's

sexual proclivities have been neatly excised.) (Violence.)

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