Not long ago, I posted about how much fun I had reading Grady Hendrix‘s latest novel, How To Sell A Haunted House. As I often do after digging a book so much, I looked around at his other books. In Hendrix’s case, I’ve read most of them, but I did notice one I hadn’t: These Fists Break Bricks. Co-written by Chris Poggiali for Mondo Books, this coffee table book of sorts (it’s that size, but softcover) chronicles the presence of the martial arts on the big screen in the U.S. and abroad. If you’ve read Paperbacks From Hell by Hendrix and Will Errickson, you know that Grady has a real knack for conveying quirky histories with a fun, conversational tone that immediately draws you in, giving lots of information and specific details, but also hinting at much deeper stories for the reader to explore.
In a weird way, the classic kung fu movies remind me of the original run of The Muppets. Both were super-influential to a certain age group, but I totally missed out on them by growing to pop culture consciousness in the late 80s and early 90s. Sure, I’ve seen Bruce Lee‘s movies and a few other random fight flicks from the 70s, but most of my action movie exploits have revolved around U.S. releases of the 80s and 90s with healthy doses of Jackie Chan thrown in for good measure. But, my experience with studios like Shaw Bros. and Golden Harvest, not to mention all of the other movie makers around the world, is super limited.
So, with These Fists Break Bricks, the authors go all the way back to the first time martial arts appeared on screen in the States– in 1935’s Jimmy Cagney flick G-Men — up through Bruce Lee’s breakthrough, tragic demise and the gross practice of making movies based on the man and his death (many of which featured actual footage taken of his funeral). Hendrix and Poggiali trace the martial arts of half a world away and their journey to the U.S. where they were played as double and triple features in the minor theaters of major cities, often to Black and Latino audiences. I knew about that in a general way, but the authors do a great job of contextualizing that by noting that the audiences saw themselves in these underdogs fighting against the powers working to hold them down. Some of that spirit was even carried over into the world of hip hop, as exemplified by RZA, founder of the Wu-Tang Clan, director of The Man With The Iron Fists and writer of the book’s Forward.
I also didn’t quite realized just how popular these showings were for so long or the dozens of operations that sprung up to cash in on the craze. But like most things, it wouldn’t last and, with Bruce Lee gone, the moviemakers needed to find new talent that could bring people back to the theaters (which were often in sketchy parts of town and closing down because of robust TV packages that allowed new viewers to enjoy from their own homes). This lead to films starring the likes of Jim Kelly, Chuck Norris, Jackie Chan, Sonny Chiba, Ron van Clief, Taima, the awesomely named Warhawk Tanzania (I can’t believe I didn’t write about his movie Devil’s Express when I watched it years ago!) and SO many others.
No one will ever be what Bruce Lee was, or the near god-like figure he’s become since his passing, none of those actors came close to filling his shoes. Grady and Chris also make an interesting point that movie audiences no longer wanted to see the little guy fight against corruption after training for years, but instead wanted the immediate gratification of explosive action as the Me Decade fully took over in the 80s. Of course, movies were still being made with plenty of punching and kicking around the world, but they were even more difficult to catch on this side of the pond. Besides, that same decade kicked U.S. action films into high gear with stars like Jean-Claude Van Damme (who is mentioned a few times in the book), Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger and the like.
I absolutely love a book like this about a subject I’ve always been curious about, but don’t really know much about. Much like with Please Kill Me (the punk rock oral history) and the aforementioned Paperbacks From Hell, I read these tomes with my phone nearby and the Notes app open because I’m constantly writing down titles I want to check out. In this case, I have a checklist of 87 movies, TV shows and books that piqued my interest. Sure, I included a few flicks I already had and added a bunch of classic Toshiro Mifune movies after watching Red Sun (which was, in fact, included in These Fists, I just hadn’t gotten to that part yet). Luckily, we live in an age where even the most obscure of these titles can still be watched! I haven’t looked up every one of them, but between painstakingly crafted Blu-rays, cheapo DVD sets and one-offs, a variety of streaming platforms (I’m looking at you, Tubi) and fan-posted flicks on YouTube, I think it’s likely that I can check off the majority of movies on my list. And I’m excited to go on that journey.
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