Every Rap Nerd Needs to Watch These Martial Arts Movies
Kung Fu Kenny is just the latest rapper to embrace the mysteries of Shaolin.
By now, you probably have listened to DJ Kay Slay yelling out, "NEW KUNG FU KENNY!" all over Kendrick Lamar's DAMN., heard about Kendrick Lamar hitting the Coachella stage wearing a gi flanked by kung fu dancers, and watched Don Cheadle imitate Kendrick Lamar in the music video for "DNA." The name Kung Fu Kenny, Lamar told Cheadle (who relayed the message to Entertainment Weekly), is based on Kenny, a kung fu master Cheadle played in Rush Hour 2. This is all very fun and random, and, in addition to contradicting the narrative that Kendrick Lamar lacks a sense of humor, it provides me with the opportunity to write 2,600 words about hip-hop's kung fu canon.
When you peel back all the surface stuff, hip-hop and martial arts films have a lot in common. Just as hip-hop is about using one's innate skills––think a rapper drawing upon their cleverness or unique flow; a producer flipping a sample or using a laptop to program a beat big enough to fill a stadium––kung fu movies are ultimately stories of people who rely on their minds and bodies for the focus and ability to do what others can't. The stars of each artform are more often than not those who are at their absolute peak, regardless of whether that peak involves Young Thug effortlessly bending the English language to his will or Bruce Lee moving his body in ways that had never been seen before and would never be seen again. And because of the surface-level thrills each can offer, both hip-hop and martial arts films are often fetishized and misunderstood by those who don't make an effort to understand them within their own unique contexts.
What follows is a list of martial arts movies that every hip-hop fan needs to see. It is by no means complete, for I am but one nerd and cannot know everything there is to know about this sort of thing. To the absolute surprise of no one, it will feature a LOT of Wu-Tang Clan.
Shaw Brothers Films (Especially The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, Shaolin vs. The Wu-Tang, and The Eight Diagram Pole Fighter)
Obviously, the Wu-Tang Clan owe a lot to kung fu movies. Not only do kung fu samples dominate their music, but as anyone who's read The Wu-Tang Manual knows, the Clan's mythology is largely based on the films The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, Shaolin vs. The Wu-Tang, and The Eight Diagram Pole Fighter, all produced by the Shaw Brothers studio, which pumped out kung fu movies at a dizzying pace from the late 50s to the mid-80s. All three films take place in feudal China and star Gordon Liu and, in addition to serving as templates for an entire genre of martial arts films, are chock-full of life lessons that a teenaged Robert Diggs would internalize. Quoth The Wu-Tang Manual:
It breaks down like this: from The 36th Chamber , you get discipline and struggle. From Shaolin and Wu-Tang , you get the virtuosity, the invincible style, and technique––plus, the idea that sometimes the bad guys are the illest. And from Eight Diagram Pole Fighter , you get the brotherhood, the soul. [...] When we applied the spirit of kung fu to our lyrics, we became the Wu-Tang.
The RZA came to kung fu movies in the most New York way possible––by watching them in grubby 24-hour Times Square movie theaters when he needed a place to crash because he was too drunk and high to truck it all the way back home to Staten Island. As The Wu-Tang Clan cohered, The RZA took the Clan's initial structure––in which each member assumed a specific persona––from the archetypes presented in these films as well. This is kinda like how you and your friends probably played Power Rangers when you were growing up, except The RZA and his friends went on to become the greatest rap group of all time.
John Woo's The Killer first entered the Wu-Tang Clan's mythology on the intro to "Wu-Tang: 7th Chamber," when Raekwon berates an extremely stoned Method Man for losing his copy of the gun fu classic. The question of where the fuck Rae's Killer tape at is one for the ages, along with who shot J.R. and what the hell happened to The Dude's rug. Theory: The tape was NOT, as Method Man posits, taken the same guys who bucked Shameek from 212, but was in fact pilfered by The RZA, who later used Raekwon's beloved Killer tape as the source material for Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… Samples from The Killer pop up all over Rae's solo debut, helping to form a narrative that loosely mirrors that of the film itself. Just as Chow Yun Fat's noble contract killer must team up with a cop to shoot, punch, and otherwise destroy seemingly every amoral soul on both sides of the law, Raekwon and Ghostface Killah transcend the rivalry of their neighborhoods to move align in the hopes of doing a job so huge that neither has to sell drugs again. (RZA teased out the comparison to XXL in 2005, explaining, "[Each pair] have to become partners to work shit out.")
Just as Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… ushered in an era of mafioso rap, upon its 1989 release The Killer set the standard for action movies in both Hong Kong and Hollywood alike. John Woo's big idea was to combine gunfights and kung fu (hence the term "gun fu"), and then film it all with a sense of frenetic, hyper-dramatic style, an aesthetic that you can find replicated in films like The Matrix, John Wick, and Django Unchained, which borrows shots from The Killer wholesale.
The Legend of Drunken Master
If we're being honest, Jackie Chan sucks now, on both a professional and personal level. He's older and not able to do the same physical stunts that once made him famous; meanwhile, fame and fortune have turned him into a bitter old man who essentially works as a shill for the Chinese government––he's spoken out against democracy in China, and a couple years ago publicly shamed his son for smoking weed. But in 1994, years before he revealed himself to be an anti-freedom weed-hater, he starred in The Legend of Drunken Master, a movie about how it's dope to fight people when you're drunk. Jackie Chan plays a practitioner of "drunken boxing," stumbling around seemingly at random but secretly rendering it nearly impossible for his opponent to hit him. Except––surprise!––he gets deadlier with every drink he takes. By the end of the movie, Jackie's chugging turpentine and beating ass in the name of liberating the proletariat. If Chan's fighting style in the movie reminds you of Ol' Dirty Bastard, that's good because that's where I was going with all of this. Though the "drunken master" archetype that ODB partially modeled his style upon spreads across the kung fu canon––confusingly, The Legend of Drunken Master is a quasi-remake of a 1978 movie that also starred Jackie Chan––you should watch this one because it ends with Jackie Chan beating a man to death and then throwing up. I would also like to use this space as an opportunity to shout out Jackie Chain, pride of Huntsville, Alabama.
In general, Japan has produced some of the most violent, goofy, and flat insane movies in the history of cinema. As a blood-soaked hip-hop martial arts musical narrated by a rapping grandma whose most normal scene involves a dude going to the bathroom of a Denny's to jack off, Tokyo Tribe represents the apex of the violent/goofy/insane trifecta. I can't even begin to describe the vibe of this movie, but it's sort of like director Sion Sono tried to adapt The Warriors into a West Side Story-esque musical, filmed it in the style of Baz Lurhman's Romeo + Juliet, made it so violent and sexual that it would never be able to be theatrically released in America, and had all of the actors rap their lines. As someone who knows very little about Japan's rap scene I wouldn't be able to tell you whether or not Tokyo Tribe's actors are genuinely skilled rappers, but I can tell you that it does feature a dude with bleach-blonde hair stabbing people with samurai swords while wearing a man-thong, so that's good enough for me and should be good for everybody else.
The Protector 2
Right now, the two biggest stars in martial arts films are probably Donnie Yen and Tony Jaa. Where Donnie Yen is so great because he carries himself like he's ready to beat the shit out of literally anybody, Tony Jaa is great because he's skinny and always looks like he's about to lose before he owns everyone within a 500-foot radius. His fighting style combines Muay Thai with parkour and breakdancing (this sounds lame, but, trust me, it is extremely not lame), along with a total willingness to risk life and limb for a cool shot. My favorite Tony Jaa moment happens in Ong Bok: The Thai Warrior, where he leaps out of an exploding shed with his feet on fire and kicks a guy in the face. It's such a cool stunt that director Prachya Pinkaew does an instant replay so you can watch it again, and he has Jaa repeat the feat in The Protector 2, except this time Jaa's fighting a bunch of dudes in a room where the walls are on fire for no discernible reason except it seemed cool.
While The Protector 2 is by no means Jaa's best film––that would be Ong Bak––it's the only Tony Jaa movie where The RZA plays the villain, so it's the one that we're focusing on here. In the film, The RZA (who composed the score for the first Protector's US release) plays a fedora-wearing evildoer who kidnaps the greatest fighters in the world and then has them carry out all sorts of dastardly plots. He conscripts Tony Jaa into this totally realistic gang by kidnapping his pet elephant and searing "01" into Jaa's flesh to denote the fact that Tony Jaa is the best fighter in his gang. But once Tony Jaa breaks free and tries to stop RZA from engineering a war, he takes off his fedora to reveal the number "00" on his head to imply that HE is secretly the best fighter in all the land. While The RZA's certainly a credible martial artist, he's no match for Tony Jaa, and eventually he has his head blown up onscreen by a bomb that he hid in the tusks of Tony Jaa's pet elephant. (While this might technically be considered a spoiler, the knowledge that you will eventually see The RZA's head engulfed in the flames of an elephant-bomb will help you power through The Protector 2's plot, which is not, if we're being completely honest, that coherent.)
Kung Fu Killer
Going into this list, I knew I had to figure out a way to write about Donnie Yen because he's totally badass. American audiences probably know Yen from his appearance in Star Wars: Rogue One opposite confirmed good rapper Riz Ahmed and as the villain in xXX: Return of Xander Cage, the sequel to the original xXx a.k.a. the best movie since Citizen Kane. Neither of those movies are actual martial arts movies, so I'm not gonna write about them here, and until Donnie Yen teams up with Drake or whoever for a remake of Cradle 2 the Grave, the best connection between his actual martial arts movies and hip-hop that I could find is the following Styles P tweet:
It's easy to see why Styles P would see similarities between himself and Donnie Yen: Both are stoic tough guys who are ruthlessly efficient when they do their thing. Donnie Yen is good enough at acting to occasionally appear in non-martial arts films, while Style P is good enough at business to have his own chain of juice places. Now that we have established that Donnie Yen is Styles P and Styles P is Donnie Yen, let's move on to Kung Fu Killer.
Kung Fu Killer finds Donnie Yen playing a convicted murderer who gets recruited by the cops to catch a serial killer whose life goal is to murder the best martial artists in whatever their specialty happens to be, and if you couldn't figure out that his final target is Donnie Yen then you've never seen a motherfucking kung fu movie before. Director Teddy Chan is very much of the John Woo school of filmmaking, which jettisons coherence in favor of random shots of birds, opera music, and throwing all types of gels and filters and shit on his camera lens. While most people's favorite Donnie Yen movie is Ip Man, I think we can all agree that the climax of Kung Fu Killer finds Donnie Yen fighting the bad guy in the middle of a busy interstate, and Ip Man's climax involves something slightly less cool.
Cradle 2 the Grave
In the early 2000s, Andrzej Bartkowiak was a man with a dream. With all of his heart and soul, he believed that if someone put hip-hop artists in martial arts movies and had a Polish guy with an unpronounceable last name (a.k.a. him) direct them, enough people would see them to justify him continuing to make them. In the year 2000, he made Romeo Must Die, starring Jet Li and Aaliyah, with DMX in a supporting role, and it made money. In the year 2002, he made Exit Wounds, starring DMX and Steven Seagal, and it too made money. In the year 2003, he boldly paired DMX and Jet Li to make Cradle 2 the Grave, which also made money but not enough to justify a studio letting him make another movie like the three he'd already made.
Cradle 2 the Grave asks the age-old question, "What if Rush Hour were serious?" It turns out the answer to this age-old question is: "It wouldn't be very good." But you should never let the fact that a movie isn't very good stop you from watching it, especially when it stars Jet Li and DMX. After his daughter gets kidnapped, DMX––a jewel thief who's got such a good heart he'll make a motherfucker think he did it––teams up with nonspecific law enforcement professional Jet Li to get his daughter back and also prevent nuclear war. Throughout the course of the film, you will watch DMX screaming while wearing a variety of all-leather outfits, Jet Li doing kung fu on some motherfuckers, Anthony Anderson and Tom Arnold bantering with each other, and Drag-On reprising his role as DMX's real-life weed carrier except holding a sniper rifle instead of weed. Like many good bad action movies, the first half of Cradle 2 the Grave is unconscionably boring, but that's fine because eventually you get to watch Jet Li fighting like five MMA guys interspersed with shots of DMX evading cops on a four-wheeler. The ending features one really good explosion, Jet Li going toe to toe with a dude inside a ring of fire while it's raining, and Drag-On shooting a guy's hand with his sniper rifle, so I think it's safe to say this one's a five-mic classic.
The Man with the Iron Fists
"I got this theory about magnetism and metal and mercury and all that shit," The RZA told Noisey's Benjamin Shapiro while promoting The Man with the Iron Fists. "In the movie I'm able to use that theory to forge the greatest weapon ever." I, too, have a theory, and it's that if you give The RZA 20 million dollars, he will use it to make The Man with the Iron Fists every single time. The movie, which stars The RZA as a man with fists made out of iron and Russell Crowe as a man with a beard made out of hair, feels like a trip through RZA's brain as curated by producer Eli Roth––in other words, a delirious homage to the Shaw Brothers films that fascinated RZA as a teen, cut with the B-movie excess that defines Roth's films such as Cabin Fever and Hostel.
According to one interview, RZA's original cut of the movie was four hours long, which seems about right––after all, the entire thing is an exercise in The RZA going full Bobby Digital on everybody's ass, indulging his wildest fantasies and emerging with a triumph of old-school, over-the-top filmmaking. A character's limbs getting splayed between four trees and then evading certain death by killing a bunch of guys with the spring-loaded knives that were hidden in his clothes the whole time? Sure, why not? Lucy Liu decapitating someone with a fold-up fan and then kicking his head off his shoulders? #Jeah, because this is RZA and Roth, not Rodgers and Hammerstein. The RZA getting his hands chopped off onscreen, Russell Crowe helping him them with new hands powered by magnetism and metal and mercury and all that shit, and eventually using them to punch a dude so hard he explodes? Fuck it dawg, life's a risk and so is filmmaking.
It's funny to read Amazon reviews of this movie written by people who have no idea who The RZA is, because those people seem really confused about why the fuck The Man with the Iron Fists is the way it is, when it should be clear that it exists to please an audience of one, and that person is The RZA. "The studio told me that they would see me at the premiere, basically," he told Shapiro. "This was my vision." With The Man with the Iron Fists, The RZA succeeded where few artists have––using other people's money to make something the teenage version of himself would think was sick as hell.
Future Days is a weekly column by Drew Millard. If you agree or disagree with what he writes, feel free to text him at 828-675-8574.
Drew Millard used to work at Noisey, but now he doesn't, so now he has this column. He lives in North Carolina with his dog. Follow him on Twitter.