Bruce Lee may be dead, but the martial arts action films he helped popularize with American moviegoers are alive and--you'll pardon the pun--kicking. On TV, in the movies and on home video, a small but fanatically hard-core audience of "chop socky" fans (a term coined by the trade paper Variety), mostly male, young and urban, is keeping the martial arts flame alive:
"Black Belt Theater," a syndicated package of mostly Hong Kong-produced martial arts films, is now in its fifth year on TV, seen in 88 markets nationwide. It's been pulling in strong ratings and demographics from the start. ("Black Belt Theater" airs locally on KTTV Channel 11 on Saturdays at noon, unless pre-empted; KHJ-TV quit showing its "Kung Fu Theater" in September because of declining ratings.)
Ninja films, featuring black-clad, masked Japanese assassins who fight with exotic weapons like throwing stars and fans, are proving to be highly successful at the box office. Pictures such as "Revenge of the Ninja" and "Ninja III: The Domination," produced on slim, $2-million budgets, are taking in five to 10 times their production costs at the box office. At least three Ninja pictures that are sequels to proven successes--or that star martial arts superstar Sho Kosugi--are due for release this year or erly next: "Night Hunter" (from Cannon Films, starring Michael Dudikoff, from "American Ninja"); "Rage of Honor" (with Kosugi); and "Akira: Pray for Death II" (also with Kosugi).
Martial arts films are flooding the home video stores. Major corporations like Sony Home Video are even releasing their own martial arts lines, under such names as Fighting Fury Video and Sho Kosugi Ninja Theater.
And the major box-office success of "The Karate Kid" has helped the martial arts mystique cross over to a larger, more mainstream audience. Due out in June are both Columbia's "Karate Kid Part II" (Ralph Macchio and Noriyuki Pat Morita return) and John Carpenter's "Big Trouble in Little China" from 20th Century Fox, the director's homage to the martial arts action film.
"There is a built-in martial arts market," says Dan Brookshire of Saturn Productions, a manufacturer of martial arts software. "It's a hungry monster waiting to be re-fed all the time."
"There's a martial arts audience that practices it (the martial arts) and goes to the movies to see the new moves and routines," adds Sam Firstenberg, who has directed three Ninja movies for Cannon Films. "But the action crowd will also go to see these pictures."
These upbeat comments may come as a surprise to many people, since conventional thinking says that when Bruce Lee died in Hong Kong in 1973 (as the result of an accident during filming), the whole martial arts genre went down the tubes.
Lee had, of course, practically created the martial arts movement singlehandedly, thanks to the major box-office successes of such films as "Fists of Fury" and "Enter the Dragon" (which is considered the "Gone With the Wind" of martial arts films). Moreover, the charismatic Lee helped bring the martial arts field out of the dark night of Asian cultism into the bright light of big bucks money-making.
Although no martial arts star has since duplicated his success, such actors as Chuck Norris and Sho Kosugi have benefited from it, helping to fit the martial arts film into the same niche as horror and science fiction: It has a strong following that keeps coming back for more.
That following is, however, limited. "It's a very young, action-oriented audience," says Jerry Frebowitz of Philadelphia's Movies Unlimited, a video store which has one of the nation's largest mail order businesses. "It's more of a blue-collar kind of thing. I don't think it has a color line, but it may be stronger in the black and Hispanic markets." Adds John O'Donnell of Sony Video Software, "The audience consists of a lot of young males, black males, running from the teens into the early 30s, and practicing martial arts sportsmen."
Among this mainly urban audience the appeal is basic: the more action the better. "The audiences just go for the mindless violence," says Bill Groak, editor of Fighting Stars Ninja, a magazine based in Burbank. "Ninja movies are the top martial arts movies right now, and the appeal is like playing army, except it's a 'cooler' kind of thing."
It's a "vicarious thrill," adds O'Donnell, "that skill can make up for lack of physical size, that the underdog can win. You want enough of a story to keep your interest, but it's important to keep the action going."
In this respect, martial arts films have been formularized almost like porno movies: If there isn't a fight scene every 10 minutes or so (in the case of porno, a sex scene), the film is practically worthless. These action sequences can involve anywhere from two to hundreds of participants.
Also, since the overwhelming majority of martial arts pictures are churned out from Hong Kong and Taiwan, plot conventions have, over the years, been highly formularized. There are two basic types: ones with a contemporary look--many of which feature a lone martial arts hero up against a gang of kung fu thugs; and those which cannibalize Chinese history (particularly the 13th, 14th and 15th Centuries), featuring princesses fighting Zen monks, etc., up against wicked warlords and their ilk.
"These films are like fantasy," says Lou Israel of WW Entertainment, which syndicates Black Belt Theater; "the violence is choreographed, and you won't find any better choreography in the world. But the plots are also real fantasy-laden. A lot of the appeal is an escape from realism."
Most of these pictures are colorfully, if cheaply, produced. Most also have no artistic pretensions, although at least one key martial arts film, a 1976 Taiwanese feature called "A Touch of Zen," actually played the New York Film Festival, and garnered respectable reviews.
But artistry is not what martial arts movies are about, and neither, for that matter, is star power. Although there are dominant performers in the genre--Jackie Chan, Dragon Lee and others--they are relatively unimportant in terms of box-office gross or tape rentals. "Martial arts," says Cathy Clinton of All Seasons Video, a software manufacturer, "has a following for the art itself. It's a market where the audience is there."
It is also a market subject to internal trends. Currently red-hot are Ninja films, with their hooded masked assassins and exotic weapons. The first Ninja movie to make it big in this country was "Enter the Ninja," released by Cannon in 1982.
The hands-down superstar of the genre is Sho Kosugi, a Japanese martial arts expert whose body language is a lot better than his English. But no matter: "These guys (Ninja) are very mysterious," says Firstenberg, who has directed Kosugi in "Revenge of the Ninja" and "Ninja III." "They have secret-type weapons, and they operate at night.
"This is the feeling we want to maintain, the super-power feel with weapons. We don't really know how (historically) accurate we are with this, but that's the feel we want."
That "feel" must be the right one, for all the Ninja movies have made money. And the genre may, in fact, be heating up for a new surge of popularity. In addition to the aforementioned "Karate Kid II" and "Big Trouble in Little China," CBS recently aired "Kung Fu: The Movie," a follow-up to the successful 1972-75 TV series starring David Carradine. "The Master," a failed TV series starring Lee Van Cleef about an American Ninja and his apprentice, has been repackaged successfully for home video.