Black Fist (1975)

Exactly 40 years ago last Saturday, Bruce Lee passed away. In retrospect, Lee’s sudden and dramatic death (he died unexpectedly just after the completion of his first Hollywood production, Enter the Dragon) immediately gave him a “legend” status. No-one can tell, but perhaps Lee would not have achieved the huge fame that he did had he lived on. Such is the irony of stardom.

Bruce Lee’s death opened the doors for a flood of imitators. Many were Chinese, picked because they looked vaguely like Lee and could imitate some of his body language. Their acting was almost as mediocre as their kung fu, and most were quickly forgotten. For some embarrassing examples, take a look at the so-called “documentary” The Real Bruce Lee (1979). Just don’t come and say I did not warn you.

Bruce Lee’s rising popularity in the early 1970s coincided with the emergence of the blaxploitation movement: movies which were made to appeal to a black audience. The heroes and most of the cast were coloured, and many whites in supporting roles were either crooked or incompetent. (The money made from these films went directly into the pockets of the white financers, of course.)

Richard Lawson in Black Fist (1975)

It was not a far leap for these two genres on the rise to merge, and a number of blaxplo martial arts films were made as a result. One good example is Black Fist. The story is about the young streetfighter Leroy, who starts to participate in illegal fights for money. The fights allow him and his girfriend a life in luxury, but he soon finds that the crime boss and the cops will not let him have his success without paying the price.

This movie is not worth watching because of the martial arts (the fight coreography is almost laughable in some moments, brutally unsophisticated in others), but because it delivers everything you would expect from a good blaxploitation: close-ups of the shady aspects of society, dirty 70s street slang, funky music, and a total lack of sentimentality that almost hurts.

The best thing about Black Fist is that, even though it is a child of the Bruce Lee boom, it does not try to copy the master. Therefore, it is a much better film than many of the Hong Kong “bruceploitation” movies.

This film is best enjoyed on your mobile phone or iPad, since the resolution of the best copy on the Internet Archive is inadequate for viewing on a large screen.

Carolyn Calcote and Philip Michael Thomas in Black Fist (1975)

Black Fist
Download link
Year: 1975
Running time: 1 h 32 min
Directors: Timothy Galfas, Richard Kaye
Stars: Richard Lawson
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Low (416×320)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: MPEG2 (699 M)

Mr. Moto’s Last Warning (1939)

Sometimes you wonder just why you do a certain thing. As I write this, for example, I have just spent most of last week in a make-shift dojo, training ju-jutsu at the annual Swedish summer camp. I was very much out of practice before the week started, and come Friday I felt like I was going to die, or at least fall apart.

Ju-jutsu (which can also be spelled “jujitsu,” “jiu jitsu”, or a great many other variants; but never “jujutsi” or “jui-jitsu”) is a martial art that had its peak way before the martial arts became popular on film in the 1970s. Consequently, there are only a handful of movies where ju-jutsu is an important element. Mostly it is only mentioned in passing in dialogue.

Such mentionings can be very interesting, however. They tell us something about how ju-jutsu is and has been perceived in popular media. It turns out that the most common movie usage of the word “ju-jutsu” (regardless of spelling) is to explain someone’s expert fighting skills, but it is almost as common that another martial art is mistakenly identified as ju-jutsu (implicitly suggesting the other art’s superiority). The oldest example I have found of this latter use is in Mr. Moto’s Last Warning, in this piece of dialogue after having rescued a man from being beaten up:

“I’m deeply grateful. It was wonderful!”
“Being very simple. Judo, often miscalled by foreigners ‘jiujitsu’.”

Peter Lorre and Robert Coote in Mr. Moto's Last Warning (1939)

Mr. Moto was originally a character in a series of novels. In the 1930s, the character became a series of films, although quite different from the books. Peter Lorre, an excellent actor who was often given roles much below his ability, here plays a Japanese agent of the International Police – an early James Bond of sorts. Caucasians who play Asians are very rarely convincing, but Lorre does a good act.

The film begins as Mr. Moto arrives at Port Said, Egypt. He soon becomes involved in trying to reveal a plot to start a world war between England and France(!). The story is full of logical holes (in particular in the light of later historical events), but thanks to good dialogue, some charming supporting characters and Lorre’s splendid acting it nevertheless turns into a pleasant little mystery, well worth watching if you enjoy 30s mystery films. (But of course you do!)

The martial arts in the Mr. Moto series should not be compared with those seen in the later martial arts boom, or in more recent high-budget ventures such as The Matrix (1999). It consists chiefly of spectacular but poorly executed judo throws such as seoi nage, tomoe nage, or the odd kata guruma (see the image below).

So what about other uses of the word “ju-jutsu” in films? Turns out there are very few. I have seen a couple of cases where it is used to emptily boast that someone is a good fighter, and once as a deliberately bad pun (Not Another Teen Movie (2001)). On film, ju-jutsu is essentially only available to the good guys. The only exception to that rule that I am aware of is in the strange and unique propaganda movie Stage Door Canteen (1943), wherein we find the following wonderful line:

“They can talk all they want about the Jap jujitsu, but a marine will tell you it doesn’t work against a roundhouse right to the jaw.”

Concerning Mr. Moto’s Last Warning, this film is best enjoyed if you have an hour and a quarter to kill and need some light entertainment.

Peter Lorre's stunt double executes a kata guruma in Mr. Moto's Last Warning (1939)

Mr. Moto’s Last Warning
Download link
Year: 1939
Running time: 1 h 16 min
Director: Norman Foster
Stars: Peter Lorre
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (720×540)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: MPEG4 (505 M)