Note: this article also appears at Shaolinchamber36.com - if you want to be a disciple, enter the chamber!
I would argue that what makes Kung Fu fight scenes special are kicks, more so than weapons and hand techniques. Poles, halberds, soft swords, nunchaku are all spectacular to watch; and offer some dazzling conflict that is quite fantastic, in the old sense of the word - in other words not easy to relate to or think you can copy yourself. Brutal punch and block is fun too, but in this context suffer the opposite problem to weapons - the movements are familiar and hence are not spectacular enough. Wicked shapes (eagle claw, crane fist etc.) inject novelty into hand fighting, and lead to excellent training sequences, but the gravity-defying kicks have a special place: they are simultaneously far-removed from the average person's capabilities, and yet achievable using nothing more than the legs you were given and years of practice.
A spectacular kick is difficult to pull off, and a combo of multiple kicks even more so. Now, I say 'spectacular' because Kung Fu movies are about spectacular kicks, not necessarily effective ones. The same can be said of punches: John Wayne's 'all or nothing' haymaker was telegraphed to the point where you could have watched one of his other films before it landed, so it wouldn't have been as effective as a quick poke to the eyes, but by Jove it looked hard.
An effective kick is pretty simple: deliver the correct tool to the correct target area at speed. E.g., a snap kick to the charlies and it's game over, same goes for a well-placed shin, knee, or thigh kick. All of these are achieveable by most people with minimal training because the leg does not have to go particularly high, and hence average flexibility and strength is sufficient. But of course if Kung Fu movies simply had these kicks we would miss out on a terrific range of flying, jumping, spinning an shifting kicks; often delivered in brutal combos.
So who is/was the best? When comparing the Jade screen kickers I wanted to use the following criteria:
- variety of kicks: was it the same old boot time and again or did they mix it up?
- speed and execution: including balance, accuracy and apparent force
- combo ability: how did they string kicks together? The difficulty of a combo rises exponentially as more kicks are added, since the kicker has to recover to a stance each time, and make sure they can still aim for their victim whose target points have been moved by the previous kick.
- career: how many top-notch kicking performances have they given us over the years?
- 'kicking charisma': were the kicks ferocious and devastating, or just balletic and placed?
10. Whang in Sik 36/50
Variety: 7. Turning, reverse, jump reverse, side kicks and good flying side kicks which doubled-up (see Young Master)
Speed and Execution: 8. Fast, balanced, the Hapkido Grand Master is always in control
Combo ability: 7. Good on the turn, see his first fight in Golden Belt. Strings together turning and reverse turning nicely.
Kicking Career: 6. When Taekwondo Strikes, Young Master, Dragon Lord as good examples.
Kicking Charisma: 8. Amazing in Young Master, incredibly vicious!
9. Bruce Lee 37/50
Variety: 6. Bruce would tend to concentrate on side and turning kicks with the odd reverse, and off course the famous flying side kick. No leg shapes as such.
Speed and Execution: 8. Lightning fast, only loses a couple of marks for the occasional sloppy kick (leg just lifted up behind awkwardly for a supposedly devastating blow)
Combo ability: 6. The most famous being the chain of reverse turning kicks in Fist of Fury, but see Hwang Jang Lee's version of the same in Canton Viper as comparison. Bruce's style was more about savage blows than stylish combos.
Kicking Career: 7. Obviously we lost him too young, but he left behind excellent kicking footage.
Kicking Charisma: 10. Goes without say, you could almost feel the kick in his eyes.
8. Yuen Biao 39/50
Variety: 7. Turning, reverse, jump reverse, side kicks and good flying side kicks which doubled-up (see Young Master)
Speed and Execution: 8. One of the very best reverse turning kickers (where you turn you back on th eopponent and then spin, whipping the heel of the rear leg straight to the head)
Combo ability: 8, because he mixes the kicks up beautifully with tumbling and comic expressions
Kicking career: 9. Knockabout, Prodigal Son, Wheels on Meals, Dreadnaught...and that's just the old school stuff! Add in the modern day classics (Righting Wrongs, Dragons Forever, Wheels on Meals) and then left-field action (Iceman Cometh, Champions) and you have a great portfolio.
Kicking Charisma: 8. Two gears here: comedy, where the kicks are fast and so well acted that he's a joy to wash in full flow.; or for modern day, he comes over well as the young man pushed too far and venting his anger on the msicreants.
7. Tony Jaa 40/50
variety: 9. Knees, back heels, outrageous off-kilter twists; he's brought a whole new breed of kicking to the fans.
Speed and execution: 9. The lampost kick in Tom Yun Goong; the knee takedown in Ong Bak - good grief.
Combo ability: 8, to be fair the knees are so deadly that it's clear the first strike is enough! But can string them together very nicely when he has to.
Kicking career: 7, only three starring roles in though!!
Kicking Charisma: 7. He can look a bit too relaxed in fights, he needs to work on this to inject some fury (after all, those bad guys just stole his statue/elephant/childhood!!!)
6. Kwan Young Moon
Variety: 8 Lots of little jumping (bicycle) kicks, angular reverses showcasing his long limbs,
Speed and execution: 9. Superb sidekick, and cat like balance for a taller man
Combo ability: 8. Depending on the era, really: earlier on he would throw one at a time, but for the new wave movies he was chaining turning and jump-reverse turning kicks, doubling up on sidekicks and landing multiple mid-air blows.
Kicking career: 8. Excellent pedigree but more often as back-up, he really was a "super sub" that you were delighted to see, whether as the boss (The Loot) or merely credited as 'The Leg Fighter' (Rebellious Reign). A shame he only got major screen time in a few films (Death Fist for example).
Charisma: 9. "Blessed" with a really fierce, mean look; somewat mitigated by a choice of suspect threads in his modern age bashers (Death Fist, Kill the Ninja,
5. Angela Mao 44/50
Variety: 8. Makes good use of the most popular kicks but doesn't go for the more esoteric stuff.
Combo ability: 9. The 'mistress of spin', able to stitch together multiple reverse turning kicks, turning kicks, side kicks.
Speed and execution: 9. Fast, accurate, and vigorous. Once she gets going there's no stopping her!
Kicking career: 9. When Taekwondo Strikes, Hapkido, The Himalayan, Enter the Dragon to name but a few.
Kicking Charisma: 9. Eyes of a killer, face of an angel; looks terrific in full flow, whether winning easily or desperately fighting for her life.
4. John Liu 45/50
Variety: 9. Arcing downward kicks, the face-sweeping vertical kick, consecutive kicks off the front leg, and some great leg shapes (see Instant Kung Fu Man)
Speed and execution: 10. Extremely flexible, fast, graceful and balanced. Never looks out of control. He trained under Tan Tao Liang who brought out the best in his stretches (although I don't believe that he forced him into splits beyond his range - that would result in pulled adductors…). Note that at times he is as guilty of favouring his right leg as his mentor is his left.
Combo ability: 9: Can keep going with one leg for multiple kicks, then switch to a rear-leg reverse seamlessly. Not averse to throwing in a full splits on the ground before leaping up to continue!
Kicking career:9. Kick-centric throughout, obvious classics such as Secret Rivals, Secret Rivals 2, Invincible Armour, Mar's Villa, etc...
Kicking Charisma: 8. Loses out a little here, he's such a talented kicker that he rarely looks overstrained or like he's really trying. His trademark smile is good in the breaks in fights but he never looks as fierce as, say, Wong Tao in the key battles, Best playing 'cool companion' to a sidekick who can provide all the burning vengeance.
2=. Casanova Wong 48/50
Variety: 9. Huge range of Taekwon-do kicks, especially keen to showcase his flying, spinning and jumping kicks often with multiple hits.
Combo ability: 10. See Master Strikes for an incredible 3-hit mid air combo, 'South Shaolin vs North Shaolin' for long, flowing, irresistible combos. Quite possibly the 'king of spinning', rotating like a manic top at high speed, throwing a kick each time - amazing!
Speed and execution: 10. Rumoured to be nicknamed 'The Human Tornado' in the Korean army, which has long been the foundation for the very best Taekwon-Do fighters. His flying 360 back kick at the end of Warriors Two may be the best single kick I've seen.
Kicking career: 10. So many great moments from 1977 up to 1985, catch them all!
Kicking Charisma: 9. Flowing style great to watch but maybe lacks a bit of facial fierceness and presence to give the strikes that extra edge.
2=. Tan Tao Liang 48/50
Variety: 8. Usually favours side/turning/reverse-turning with occasional flying kicks and low sweeps.
Combo ability: 10. low/high, low/medium/high turning kick followed by the reverse; also turning kick, then hooking across the face with the heel and following up with the reverse being some highlights.
Speed and execution: 10. Outstanding, he may be a little bit slower than some but there's a gravity about him that makes everything graceful and vicious. Favours the left leg a bit but that makes for unusual consecutive kick-combos because the camera can capture everything from one side.
Kicking career: 10. Always delivers in spades: The Himalayan, Shaolin Deadly Kicks, The Hot the Cool and the Vicious, Showdown at the Cotton Mill...
Kicking Charisma: 10. Spaghetti-Western cool, his powerful but relaxed stance always makes him look in charge.
1. Hwang Jang Lee 50/50
Variety: 10. Uses every part of the foot (or boot) to devastating effect: twisting kicks, flying back kicks, and everything else from his TKD training (plus a few more he appears to have invented)
Combo ability: 10. Outrageous mid-air multiple front kicks; flying sidekick into flying back kick; mid-air twisting/sidekick; spinning reverse against multiple opponents...and let's not forget the brutal slap-slap-slap across the face as he lays in with turning & hooking kicks (see Canton Viper's 17-hit combo!)
Speed and execution: 10. So good he made The Art of High Impact Kicking - the opening sequence says it all as he delivers his varied armoury with perfection. And in Five Fingers of Steel, he trains by kicking down trees!
Kicking career: 10. Let's just say that even if he's in an otherwise dodgy film as a cameo (I'm looking at you , Eagle's Killer) then you have to catch it. And when you do get a better film chance's are you'll get some juicy Eagle Claw thrown in for good measure. Of course, Invincible Armour, Hellz Windstaff, Dance of the Drunk Mantis, Secret Rivals, Tiger Over Wall are essential - and I could just keep adding to this list!
Kicking Charisma: 10. He's The Silver Fox - 'nuff said. That stare - that manic laugh - the FURY in his eyes as he boots 'em senseless. Possibly the only man to look terrifying in a ludicrous blonde wig, or when dubbed like a Hanna Barbera villain. I'm still trying to create a machine that will take me to the parallel universe where Bruce and Hwang in their prime had a staring contest...
Honourable mentions who did not make my 10:
Jackie Chan - his panicky hyper-kickboxing has delivered some cracking boot moments over the years.
Lily Li - Balletic stances and great novelty kicks
Ken Lo Kwai Wong - Tall, leggy and brutal Muay Thai, the final fight in Drunken Master II is essential.
Ron Smoorenburg - outstanding flexibility and technique, cracking fight in "Who am I?". Just needs more films!
Jet Li - some terrific kicks in Fist of Legend but has too much wirework to be a serious contender for my list (although we all love the No-Shadow kick from Fu-Shan :)
Donnie Yen - comes across as really powerful (see Flashpoint) and is a terrific all-rounder, just to my mind edged out in the modern kicking stakes to Tony Jaa.
Bill 'Superfoot' Wallace - surely Hollywood's finest ever kicker, and apparently nicknamed after a Hot Dog! His 60 mph left leg was devastating. His competitive career took precedence over his films otherwise I'm sure he would have made my list.
Chloe Bruce - 18 years Tang Soo Do expertise, staggering flexibility, amazing speed (see www.chloebruce.co.uk); HK and Hollywood directors need to give her the starring role she deserves (hint hint)
Oh, and I love Chen Singh kicking - not as graceful as others, but that's one beefy hoof he packs!
This article was my attempt to come up with a way of ranking the great kickers. For further history and background, check out the following:
Albert Valentin's four-part http://www.kungfucinema.com/the-art-of-kicking-part-1-the-kickers-of-classic-kung-fu-3346 looking at eras in kicking history from early Kung Fu through to New Wave and Hollywood.
From 2003 but worth a look: the bootmasters page http://www.bootmasters.btinternet.co.uk/text/introduction.htm
You Tube has a wealth of kicking clips - just search for the kicker or film, and dig out montages like this:
The kicker's biographies may be found at www.flkcinema.com