I’ve been writing about martial arts movies for 31 years and have seen 10,000+ films (collected 7000+), and the one thing I’ve discovered is that every film has its moments. Though a movie might not be a game-crashing carnival, if there’s a few instances of glorious genius, then that film is a worthy watch just to see those snippets. It’s like an old favorite TV show (original Star Trek series re-runs come to mind) where if you’re channel surfing and stumble upon the show, you’ll wait for that one-line, body posture, musical byte, facial expression, sound effect, or visual image to appear. It’s these small things that often make you remember that TV episode or movie forever. To me, kung fu films like Crazy Fist (aka The King of Fighters) hold this same nuanced value.
In Moon Warriors (1992), one of the most demented scenes I’ve seen in a kung fu film occurs near the end, where just as the evil vagabond is about to eviscerate the brave hero into sliced-meat Chinese spam, from freaking nowhere, a real (not a special effect) adult killer whale in slow-motion explodingly leaps up out of the water to fin-ish off the vile villain. Crazy Fist (CF) goes a little further with their rendition of beast-saves-man intervention. It’s not a wild bull, yet something much more damaging. But wait, there’s more. There’s another far-out outlandish shot that you must see to believe. It’s not part of a fight, yet it’s probably the most ridiculous girl-boy, eyes-meet, fall-in-love moment in cinema history. I still can’t get these CF visuals out of my mind.
Set somewhere in contemporary Southeast Asia, in Crazy Fist, Shang Hai (Guo Qing; who’s also the director), a retired champion of the Flying Tigers MMA Tournament, where combatants dangerously fight on a round raised stage surrounded by a murky-watered pond filled with hungry creatures, comes out of retirement to avenge the suspicious death of his protégé during the championship bout against the now new, herculean-built champion Mai Wen (Steve Yoo)..
Yet to call CF an MMA film, doesn’t do it justice because it’s inspired by da lei tai (DLT), a Chinese traditional combative sport originating during the Qin dynasty (221 BC-206 BC), which by the Song dynasty (960-1279) was perfected into a no weight classes, fully-fledged, combative tournament. At that point, depending on the era and circumstance, a champion could fight 50+ differently trained martial artists, one after the other without a rest, on a raised circular or square stage where defeat arose from knocking an opponent out, pushing the foe off the stage or mercilessly crippling or killing the rival. The prize? Becoming the emperor’s bodyguard, an Imperial Army martial instructor, or to prove one was worthy to open a kung fu school in a village or town.
The ultimate reason for DLT was to find which martial art was the best fighting art. DLT is the ancestor of Gracie jiu-jitsu students challenging and defeating martial artists of various disciplines to prove BJJ was the ultimate fighting art. This also makes DLT the progenitor of UFC that today has nothing to do with what’s the best fighting style anymore but who can create the best fighting combinations of mostly five styles: wrestling; BJJ; boxing; muay Thai; and taekwondo.
However, when an MMA athlete says they’ve fought kung fu and karate experts, it’s misleading. At last count, there are 400+ known styles of kung fu and 75+ styles of karate in the world today. Have they fought at least one of each of these stylists? Of course not. I know a man who in the mid-1970s was a DLT champion in the Republic of China. He fought 30 different martial art stylists (Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Thai fighters) for five hours straight, no rest between bouts and defeated most by tossing them off the platform or knocking them out with a single blow. Yet for some, he broke their bones because they disrespectfully snuck up on stage and blindsided him without announcing who they were. There was no prize money, it was all about proving in that moment of time, which art was the best combative art.
On the surface, one might think that CF is brandishing a copy-cat mentality to make an American-like MMA film that overuses the genre tropes of a fighter needing the money for whatever reason, or training to defeat a sadistic bully champion who has a WWF wrestling-type caricature. No way. CF not only upsets the apple cart, but they also crush it to make the best apple cider in town.
Taking place in a city infiltrated by a foreign drug cartel, the film thrives on the unexpected, and nimbly treads on thin ice with a lot of heat as Shang Hai and Mai Wen are forced into untoward undercover circumstances that pushes the genre envelope with more double-crossing and triple-crossing than the father of genetics Gregor Mendel’s landmark genetic manipulation of pea plants from 1856-1863. They literally push the envelope to go beyond the ring or octagon to deliver unique fighting spectacles with theatrical combat that a typical MMA film can’t do, because the nature of the art limits the use of savvy fight and camera choreography.
Director Guo Qing exploits the athleticism and the intrigue of histrionics to keep the audience engaged by creating many flashes of wow. When one sees these guys pulling off the sheer wackiness of crazy fist fights, you can’t help but to appreciate their athletic ability especially when they battle baton and short sword wielding thugs, and hooligans and evil villains, oh my!
It’s a film that Oz-ilates between the outrageous and sublime. Even during the MMA-ish bouts of DLT delight, they’re partially shot using a roaming bird-POV swooping camera, which beautifully adds to the fluidity of the bouts. Be on the lookout for two special guests, retired professional bodybuilder Kai Greene as one of the fighters in a mass DLT competition and the indomitable Collin Chou known for fighting Jet Li in Forbidden Kingdom (2008) and as Seraph taking on Keanu Reeves in Matrix: Reloaded (2003). CF is perhaps nuttier than if dinosaurs celebrated Halloween, where the scariest costume a reptilian kid could wear would be a meteor. And let’s not forget, there’s a pool of murky water filled with creatures waiting for supper…I mean losers.