The Early Movies of Corey Yuen

Corey Yuen gets much love here for his work with Jason Statham. Yet his earlier martial arts films are quite brilliant too.

Before reinventing Jason Statham in The Transporter and choreographing most of Jet Li’s breakthrough movies, Corey Yuen directed some of the maddest, most intense martial arts films of the 1980s. His history with martial arts goes back to his childhood. Having excelled under Master Yu Jim Yuen’s tutelage at the Chinese Drama Academy, the young Corey was a member of the Seven Little Fortunes troupe of child acrobats. Corey’s martial brothers include Jackie Chan (Yuen Lo), Sammo Hung (Yuen Lung), Yuen Biao and Yuen Wah, all of whom contributed significantly to the changing face of Chinese action cinema in the 1970s and 80s.

Corey’s film career began as an actor and stuntman at the height of the 1970s kung fu boom. Although not as prolific as the bigger names, Corey featured in classics like 7 GrandmastersSecret RivalsThe Invincible Armor, and Dance Of The Drunken Mantis to name a few. In 1975, director/producer Ng See-Yuen founded Seasonal Films, hoping to champion new talent, and he soon achieved major successes (and brought Jackie Chan to the world) with Drunken Master and Snake In Eagle’s Shadow. In 1982, Ng gave Corey his first shot at helming a movie – Ninja In The Dragon’s Den – and the result was incredible.

One of the opening lines is a warning that “Martial arts is not for showing off”; ironic considering that Ninja In The Dragon’s Den is one of the showiest, most flamboyant martial arts films ever made. Newcomer Conan Lee was cast in the lead as Sun Jing, a young fighter who loves using his skills in public places to humiliate his peers and impress girls.

Within the first few minutes of the film, he’s abseiled off a pagoda and challenged a festival stilt-walker – the troublesome ‘Bull Devil’ – to a kung fu fight ON STILTS. Yes, we get truly epic stilt fu before we’ve even met half the main characters and the action only builds from there.

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Seems Sun Jing’s beloved Uncle Foo has drawn unwanted attention from a rogue ninja warrior (Henry Sanada) who’s seeking vengeance on poor old Foo. However, this black-clad villain hasn’t banked on Sun Jing’s abilities and the two become locked in a mortal combat that spans much of the film. There are some great plot twists and, despite almost non-stop action, there’s also a balance of genuinely funny comedy and sentimental melodrama, all performed to perfection by the excellent cast.

What’s most impressive though is how creatively Corey Yuen directs the action. In addition to the stilt fu we get ladder fu, water wheel fu, about a dozen men duffing each other up while on fire, one guy diving into a lake of burning oil, some fighting while dangling from ropes off a giant pagoda, and the most amazing ‘Temple Full Of Traps’ scene I’ve ever seen. Combining fierce martial arts, elaborate sleight-of-hand ninja magic and daredevil stunt work, the action feels exciting and enormously fresh even now.

At the time, with the Shaw Brothers’ studio beginning its decline, films like this were groundbreaking; a plucky underdog roaring off the starting line and straight into first place. Ninja In The Dragon’s Den remains not just a first rate directorial debut but one of the all-time greatest ninja films.

Corey’s second film Yes Madam! (1985) (aka Police Assassins and, confusingly, also aka Police Assassins 2) doesn’t achieve quite the same heights but is nonetheless a pivotal release, launching the careers of both Cynthia Rothrock and Michelle Yeoh as well as forming a template for the female-led ‘battling beauties’ subgenre of the ’80s. The plot’s ridiculous, as a band of rubbish crooks named Aspirin, Strepsil and Panadol (John Sham, Hoi Mang and Tsui Hark) inadvertently steal a valuable microfilm belonging to top gangster Mr Tin (James Tien). Yeoh and Rothrock play the high-kicking no-nonsense cops on their trail. Mayhem ensues.

Some of the juvenile comedy is more miss than hit (not to mention at odds with the hugely downbeat ending) but you can’t argue with what we’re all here for: the action. It’s shot in an innovative, fast-cutting style that’s high on energy and about ten years ahead of its time in terms of style. There are car chases, shoot-outs and crazy stunts every few minutes and the all-star ensemble cast is one of the best you’ll see.

It’s funny to see Tsui Hark – already a successful producer but about to become a superstar one with A Better Tomorrow – playing the comic relief to the comic relief, dressed basically as a Minion and goofing off like a good’un. His scenes definitely get the bigger laughs.

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What makes Yes Madam! essential though is the finalé, pitting Rothrock and Yeoh against an endless parade of sword-swinging bad guys (led by the legendary Dick Wei) in Mr Tin’s mansion. It’s a frenetic, flawlessly choreographed slice of eye-popping legwork and bone-breaking stunts (wooden floors look like they REALLY hurt) that makes Tarantino’s Crazy 88 scenes look like the derivative substandard rubbish they are.

In 1986, hot on Yes Madam!‘s high-heels, came Corey’s second Cynthia Rothrock collaboration, Righting Wrongs (aka Above The Law). Yuen Biao plays a frustrated city prosecutor taking the law into his own hands. He pursues a notorious criminal overlord by any means necessary while Rothrock (reprising her role as ‘Inspector Cindy’) tries to maintain some sense of order…

Despite a cool premise, the plot is pretty much nonsense in this one. Even for Hong Kong cinema, it’s all over the place tonally (key characters get brutally murdered in between toilet jokes) and it’s convoluted beyond all rationality but the action is off the scale.

Rothrock’s fights are incredible. She’s easily one of the best martial arts stars of the 80s and these early HK films showcase her craft as well as anything. Yuen Biao too is a great actor and gifted martial artist who rarely got the recognition he deserved. Here, he does stunts that will blow even the most jaded viewer’s mind, including an eye-popping scene where he fights CARS (yes, a troupe of cars!) and a climax in which he dangles 4,000 ft off the ground from a plane after being dragged down a runway.

It’s all ‘I can’t believe what I’m seeing!’ stuff of the highest order (Biao claims the plane stunt – which nearly broke his spine – was the most dangerous he ever attempted) and directed to perfection by Corey Yuen, who brings innovation and class to the chaos. He also ingeniously casts himself as ‘Bad Egg’ – Rothrock’s incompetent comic relief partner – and gets almost all the movie’s most genuine laughs.

The same year, Corey reuinted with producer See-Yuen Ng and they made their first American film: No Retreat No Surrender, a movie which helped bring an authentic eastern action style to the west and also marks the first major onscreen appearance of Jean-Claude Van Damme. I’m sure I’m not alone in saying that I loved this movie so much as a kid I rented it a dozen times over just to keep rewatching and, as an adult, it’s easy to see why it appealed so much.

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It stars Kurt McKinney as Jason, a nerdy white teenager obsessed with Bruce Lee. He keeps falling victim to bullies (as do his friends and family – there are, clearly, a lot of bullies about) and, while he’s been learning karate from his dad for a couple of years, he isn’t very good. However, one day he prays at Bruce Lee’s grave and the ghost of Bruce Lee materialises to him and teaches him real Chinese kung fu! Severe bully asskicking occurs.

No Retreat almost sits within the Bruceploitation canon, even if it did come about ten years after its peak (See-Yuen Ng was also the man responsible for Bruce Lee: The Man, The Myth so no stranger to this genre). Like the best Bruceploitation though, it’s poignant at times in its adoration of Bruce and the sheer force of its sincerity, which allows you to overlook some of its clanging shortcomings. The message may be simple but it’s got so much heart that it’s hard not to feel something, especially as most of its audience can no doubt relate to Jason.

Although rough around the edges (the final fight with JCVD is weirdly disappointing after such a huge build-up) and perhaps more comedic than intended (the notoriously homo-erotic training montage has an internet fame all of its own!), it’s still a fun, colourful martial arts film that serves as a great introduction for younger viewers.

Not so much its sequel, No Retreat No Surrender 2: Raging Thunder (1987) which, although (in my opinion) a far better film, is strictly adults only. For the first time since Ninja In The Dragon’s DenRaging Thunder shows Corey Yuen completely off-leash and out of his mind with some of the most extreme action footage and death-defying stunt work in the history of cinema.

Related in name alone (originally McKinney and Van Damme were to return but allegedly dropped out due to concerns about the Cambodian location), this one blends gun-worshipping post-Rambo ultraviolence and Cold War paranoia with traditional martial arts tropes to explosive effect. When you realise that all the guns used were actually firing live ammo (something to do with not being able to source prop guns on the Cambodian border apparently!?), it only makes the whole thing more reckless and mad. I’m genuinely astonished that no one died – the fact they didn’t is surely a great testament to Corey Yuen’s professionalism!

Besides the first rate action in the movie, it actually has a reasonably decent story with a Tae Kwon Do prodigy (Loren Avedon) needing to rescue his fiancé from bad dudes. He gets his two awesome buddies to help him: hard-ass ‘Nam vet Mac (Max Thayer, who is many cuts above the usual acting calibre for this genre) and kickboxing chopper pilot Terry (Cynthia Rothrock). They square up against comic-book-villain Russians and a gratuitous but always-welcome Hwang Jang Lee, an axis of evil who have their headquarters on the subtly-named trail of traps that is Death Mountain.

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There’s so much to love about this film; the streamlined script, the stunning choreography, charismatic performances and cracking one-liners… it all just works. Its seedy Cambodian locations give it a sweaty atmosphere of real danger, aided by the more exploitative elements, like the scene in which Max Thayer drinks four shots of actual snake’s blood. It’s a much more serious and adult film than the original NRNSbut never loses track of the visceral, juvenile excitement of (say) seeing a Russian bad guy twatted with a portrait of Lenin, wrapped in a Soviet flag, fed to crocodiles and set on fire.

Returning to Hong Kong, Corey helmed maybe his first bonafide A-Movie in 1988 with Dragons Forever (co-directed with Sammo Hung). This reunites several of the Seven Little Fortunes and combines comedy, action, romance and martial arts to dizzying – sometimes a little too dizzying – effect. Brother Wah (Yuen Wah) is a baddie who styles himself like John Waters, smokes cigars, dumps toxic waste and runs a giant drug factory. Lawyer Lung (Jackie Chan) is representing him in a civil case against a woman who claims the waste is ruining her fish farm. But will Lung, a man with a cavalier approach to the law (“I lose one, I win the next one, I still get paid!”), find that his newfound love for an expert oceanographer (Pauline Yeung) assigned to the case changes everything?

There are three distinct threads to Dragons Forever and, although all are entertaining, they never quite cohere as they should. The Three Stooges style antics of Chan and his buddies (Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao) are amusing and evoke the earlier ‘Three Brothers’ movies (despite all three playing against their usual types); the romance is surprisingly sweet and Sammo Hung’s harborside serenade is an unforgettable scene; but of course the action – when it hits – is phenomenal, full of jaw-dropping stunts and fight choreography to make your brain pop out.

The last fifteen minutes – a massive brawl in the factory – are as immaculate as 1980s pure martial arts cinema ever got. Watching Biao, Hung, Chan and Wah all go at it under the watchful eye of Corey Yuen is pretty much a dream come true and even those who aren’t into the genre at all would appreciate the sheer acrobatic brilliance involved here.

Soon after Dragons Forever, Corey’s friendship with Jet Li would lead to the next phase of his career and the rest is history. However these early films – in particular Dragon’s Den and Raging Thunder – demonstrate the incredible energy, imagination and talent of an action director who was operating at the very fringes of what was possible in the genre at the time. Sure, he would polish his style as time went on but there’s something about these raw, ferocious movies that still burns hottest. The fact that some of them are a little difficult to find now is a shame as they should be studied and appreciated by a far wider audience.

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