Call it cheese. Call it shlock. Call it bad, and call me a hipster for loving the hell out of it. Actually, don’t do that. There isn’t an ounce of irony to my abiding adoration of old kung-fu, monster, and kung-fu monster movies. You might ask why this is, and you’d be right to do so. Watching these movies is a window into one of the most abundantly creative times in cinematic history, and you don’t need to look all that closely to see what some of the movies we consider to be classics have borrowed, stolen, repurposed, and improved upon.
But let’s start at the beginning. Gojira (1954) likely started the man-in-the-rubber-suit phenomenon, and how! The technology for fusing man and rubber monster was so primitive that the guy inside the suit occasionally passed out from heat exhaustion.
Over the course of the Godzilla movies, the rubber suit became more wearable, but looked more and more human as it went on. This allowed for some awesome knock-down-drag-out fights, as in The Terror of Mechagodzilla (1975). As soon as we needed to have Godzilla express consternation, amusement, and other emotions relevant to beating ass, technology improved. This made Godzilla’s purpose less the divine punishment for man’s hubris to something more akin to the guy you tag in when the saucer men from Planet X try to steal your women folk. Laudable, but not quite the same message–unless you’re from Planet X. Eventually, when technology allowed it, we kicked out the guy in the suit and replaced him with a computer-generated version of the beasts we wanted destroying our cities. The change allowed us to bring back a more lizard-like form, and allowed for greater destruction, but at the same time, the message of these films became more self-centered. While modern monster movies focus on survival and the triumph of the human spirit, Gojira asked if either of those two things are worth having. Maybe we’ll get it right again some day, but don’t hold your breath.
At the same time guys in rubber suits were clumsily duking it out, Hong Kong was producing some of the best martial arts movies ever made. Bruce Lee dazzled us with his lightning speed and “waaahhhh!”s and “wooooo!”s. But we also had guys like Sonny Chiba putting his fists in people’s faces as a less sympathetic, Yojimbo-type character. This was also the era of the style battles. Tiger! Mantis! Iron Monkey! Will anything defeat the Wu-Tang style? I hear it’s not to be trifled with. These movies are also on YouTube. Check out Deadly Mantis (1978) if you like watching guys learn the art of ass kicking from insects.
Generally, this genre evolved in two directions. Taking the fantasy path, one branch of kung-fu films bought up all the wires and harnesses available and allowed its characters to fly across rooftops and balance on the ends of swords. Notable examples are Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) and Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame (2010). From this category, following from movies like Dance of Death (1976), directors like Quentin Tarantino found an excellent villain in the aged mentor.
The other branch steeped itself in realism, focusing less on the importance of style and more on the end result. In that category, we ended up with Drunken Master (1978) and Ong Bak (2003). In spirit, we also ended up with The Raid: Redemption (2011), which you can see almost scene for scene in Dredd (2012).
Speaking of superheroes, a day came in 1975 when someone asked, “Hey, couldn’t we mix kung-fu with rubber monsters and insanely overpowered superheroes to make a pastiche of ’70s Hong Kong for the benefit of future generations?”
And they totally did.
Infra-Man was awesome not only because it blended all of these things into a great big cheese puff of a movie, but because it is essentially the model for the Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers. Except that it’s only one dude. And he can shoot lasers from his
All of this, together with Voltron, we now have the family tree that produced Pacific Rim (2013). As a movie, it accomplished exactly what it set out to, and if we want to argue about its nonsensicalness (why build giant robots to punch things?), we only need refer back to it’s lineage to see that its gaping plot holes are the product of generations of Bene Gesserit breeding.