After about the third or fourth film I watched — either 5 Pattern Dragon Claws or 18 Fatal Strikes, I can’t be sure — I noticed how similar the movies were to another. I wasn't exactly surprised, having digesting so many of these cheap chopsocky efforts over the years, but never in such close proximity. Basically, each title followed a strict regimen of story, to the point where they were indistinguishable from one another:
Step 1: Protagonist suffers some event of humiliation and/or tragedy.
Step 2: From a wizened old master, protagonist learns a specific style of kung fu that likely would have prevented Step 1.
Step 3: Protagonist tries to use that specific style of kung fu to best the person or persons responsible for committing the event of humiliation and/or tragedy, but it’s quite ready.
Step 4: After a little more practicing, protagonist is successful at using that specific style of kung fu to best the person or persons responsible for committing the event of humiliation and/or tragedy.
Step 5: Freeze-frame! And the more awkward, the better — a device Quentin Tarantino parodied and paid homage to this in his ending to Grindhouse.
The best way to experience these adventures of guys and gals in silk robes, bamboo hats and bad attitudes is as background. Put them on and just let ’em play. Give them more attention when you’re, say, eating a brick of ramen noodles (shrimp flavor preferred), then move on to do other things; their stock library of a select few sound effects happily will high-kick their way into your brain. Having a party or small get-together? Let these dudes set the mood.
That’s not to say there aren’t highlights, particularly on Flying Fists of Kung Fu, the better of the two bunches. In particular, Dragon’s Donnie Yen debuts in 1984’s Drunken Tai Chi, a funny and inventive riff on Jackie Chan’s Drunken Master movies that proves to be the finest of the lot. As for the rest? Play remote-control roulette. —Rod Lott
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• Dragon Blu-ray review