Monkey Suit

King Kong (1976) isn’t the remake the great ape deserved. Since monsters as iconic as King Kong never truly die, a reimagining of the classic 1933 film wasn’t entirely out of the question. Kong remained relevant throughout the 60’s thanks to being licensed in Japan. Toho made King Kong vs. Godzilla and King Kong Escapes. Meanwhile, the rights to Kong in America were split between two seperate studios. The idea for a remake was pitched to both Paramount and Universal. Since RKO Pictures barely existed anymore, the rights were basically public domain.

There was apparently a big legal battle that allowed Paramount to make their version before Universal (29 years later in 2005). While I do have my mom to thank for introducing my brother and I to the original, I can’t say the same for the 1976 remake. I didn’t watch it because she warned me it wasn’t very good. King Kong (1976) is different, but bad is a strong word. 1933’s King Kong is an old fashioned larger than life adventure, while 1976’s King Kong is a contemporary light hearted romp. King Kong (1976) takes the basic structure we’re familiar with and changes it enough to be mostly memorable…

4. King Kong 1976

King Kong looks at Dwan

King Kong (1976) was developed by major Italian producer Dino De Laurentiis and directed by John Guillermin. Directing a movie that involved an enormous skyscraper wasn’t exactly new for him after The Towering Inferno. Their goal was always to make something different, but familiar to the original. It’s so different that you never know what iconic scenes will be kept, altered, or removed entirely. The biggest change was setting events in present day 1970’s. Rather than follow a film crew on a mysterious voyage to Skull Island, King Kong (1976) takes advantage of the current energy crisis. A decision that doesn’t always make as much sense as simply wanting to capture exotic wildlife. Carl Denham is replaced by Charles Grodin as equally reckless Petrox Oil executive Fred Wilson. He mounts an expedition to Skull Island with the belief that it’s rich with oil. Jack Driscoll is replaced by a very young Jeff Bridges as hippie primate paleontologist Jack Prescott. He stows away on the boat just to warn them against disturbing the giant creature that lives there. They ignore his pleas, but keep him aboard anyway as a photographer.

Since a Beast is only as good as his Beauty, a beautiful blonde woman literally drifts onto their ship. Ann Darrow is replaced by Jessica Lange in her very first film role. Although calling her Dwan instead of Dawn is dumb regardless of explanation, she is right about being memorable. Unlike the original crew, everybody loves Dwan’s fun loving personality. Despite being PG, I can’t blame them for giving her partially obscured nude scenes. Jack falls in love with Dwan and becomes her hero similar to the original. The build up to Kong is even longer, but it doesn’t drag too much. Skull Island natives are almost exactly the same with grand rituals and a desire to trade their women for Dwan. She’s quickly kidnapped and sacrificed nearly an hour into the 2 hour & 14 minute movie. Kong is slowly revealed with a signature chest pound, but his appearance is a mixed bag. Although often depicted as brown on posters or in Toho productions, black & white has always made him appear black.

This Kong stands upright with dark brown fur worn by a stunt performer. An ape suit can’t beat the meticulous effort of stop-motion, but he is expressive and it is impressive to see him in the same frame as the humans. Kong lumbers around at an even bigger 55 feet tall. A lot more attention is given to Kong’s love of Dwan. Their romance has less subtle sexual undertones shown when Kong bathes and undresses her. Dwan isn’t exactly afraid of Kong, but she doesn’t want to stay with him either. Their relationship feels like a screwball comedy at times. Kong protects Dwan by overturning a log like the original, but the remake’s lamest decision is leaving out all of the dinosaurs. The only creature Kong has to fight is a giant snake. Kong doesn’t even terrorize the native village when he crashes through their wall.

Another change is actually seeing Kong’s boat trip to New York. Wilson makes the unusual decision to use Kong as a promotional tool to sell oil. Dwan wants to be a star, but she and Jack can’t help but feel sorry for Kong. In fact, Dwan is actually split between her two loves. She comforts Kong when he gets rowdy, but still participates in the show. Kong is instead locked in a giant cage with a crown on his head. He escapes captivity and steps on Wilson. A train is destroyed and a woman thought to be Dwan is tossed aside, but the most major deviation is Kong scaling the World Trade Center instead of the Empire State Building. You can imagine the changes that were made to the poster after 9/11.

Kong takes Dwan to the Twin Towers where Jack thinks he’ll be netted by helicopters. Little does he know they plan to shoot him down. The change in venue only succeeds in giving Kong 2 buildings to jump from. Otherwise, Kong meets an even bloodier fate after barely defending himself at all. Dwan cries for Kong since an attempt was made to make him more sympathetic. The iconic final line is replaced by Jack unable to approach Dwan in a sea of photographers. Although critics were split, King Kong (1976) was a rare successful remake with another Special Achievement Academy Award for Best Visual Effects. King Kong (1976) left its footprint on cinema regardless of quality or personal opinion.

5. King Kong 1976

King Kong prepares to climb the Twin Towers

Remake of: King Kong (1933) & Followed by: King Kong Lives

The Chase Continues

French Connection II kept the train going a little longer. After the success of The Godfather Part II, a sequel to Best Picture winner The French Connection seemed like a good idea. Even though I never heard of it beforehand. It’s a strong follow up, but it does take away from the ambiguity of the first film’s ending. New York police officer Popeye Doyle never caught his French assailant Alain Charnier.

French Connection II continues the chase and gives Gene Hackman more time to shine in his Oscar winning role. Directing reigns were handed over to John Frankenheimer, while Roy Schneider was too busy making Jaws. Popeye is now all by himself in Marseille, France. He deals with the language barrier, has trouble ordering drinks, fails to pick up French women, and can’t carry a gun. All while attempting to work with the French police department in order to catch his Frog.

Fernando Rey is the only other returning cast member. Charnier is still a sophisticated drug trafficker who proves increasingly difficult to catch. The pacing is a lot slower with more time dedicated to Popeye being forced into a heroin addiction. It’s only after he gets clean that Popeye becomes the violent cop in desperate pursuit again. The sequel ends with a decent chase from the streets to a rail bus. Popeye loses Charnier once more on a yacht, but I knew they wouldn’t end another movie without a resolution. French Connection II offers closure to an already perfect crime thriller.

French Connection II

Popeye Doyle gives chase

Preceded by: The French Connection

Missing the Train

The French Connection changed the rules in Hollywood. Considered to be one of the greatest movies of all time, The French Connection feels realistic with documentary style filmmaking, flawed protagonists, and a real life drug smuggling case at the center. Based on a 1969 book about two police detectives involved in the titular case. Before The Exorcist, Superman, or Jaws, director William Friedkin and stars Gene Hackman and Roy Schneider hit the mean streets of New York. Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle is an iconic police officer distinguished by his pork pie hat. Even his entrance dressed as Santa Claus is iconic.

Popeye Doyle isn’t exactly a crooked cop, but he does drink, sleep around, disobey orders, and show many racist tendencies. Seeing him shakedown a bar full of narcotics is when I knew he meant business. Popeyes actually got its name from Doyle. Although he faced stiff competition, Hackman was the best casting choice. Just as good is Schneider as his more cautious partner Buddy “Cloudy” Russo. Together they perform stakeouts in order to track a drug smuggling ring with a French connection. I don’t always understand police procedurals, but I gathered that it was all about stopping the flow of heroin into the U.S. Alain Charnier is a dapper French criminal with multiple hitmen under his thumb.

The French Connection is best known for its exciting chase scenes. Popeye pursuing Charnier in a subway is tense, but it’s a later car chase that really steals the show. Popeye in a civilian car pursuing a sniper on a train concludes with an exhausted Doyle shooting the assailant in the back. His almost obsessive need to catch the criminal ends on a suitably ambiguous note where the chase never truly ends. The French Connection is a Best Picture winner I knew I had to prioritize. No matter how many cop movies I’ve seen. It also won Best Director, Actor, Screenplay, Film Editing, and was nominated for Best Supporting Actor, Cinematography, and Sound. The French Connection marked a welcomed shift towards realism at the Academy Awards.

The French Connection

Popeye Doyle waves

Followed by: French Connection II

Dueling Banjos

Deliverance is a story of survival I only knew by reputation alone. R rated films were already well established by 1972, but they were no less shocking to viewers at the time. Since the intense 1970 novel maintained its author James Dickey as a screenwriter. I avoided Deliverance for years with the limited knowledge that it involved banjos and hillbillies. As boundary pushing as it was, Deliverance was still an Oscar nominated hit with a soon-to-be all-star cast. Jon Voight and Burt Reynolds already made an impression, but Ned Beatty and Ronny Cox were just getting started.

Every actor is on equal footing as a group of city folk who take a male bounding canoe trip in the great outdoors. Lewis is the more experienced macho leader, Ed is less confident, Buddy complains the most, and Drew would rather play his banjo. Their trip starts off well with the iconic “Dueling Banjos” scene between Drew and a backwoods boy. The song puts you in a good mood before the terror sinks in. As the four men journey down the river, Ed and Buddy encounter a couple of malicious mountain men.

The most difficult scene to get through involves Buddy being sexually assaulted and forced to “Squeal like a pig.” It only gets worse from there when the men argue over whether to cover up the incident. They face intense rapids, drowning, life threatening injuries, and the remaining mountain man in a desperate attempt to survive. Director John Boorman maintains a realistic feel by having the actors perform stunts themselves. Even their trauma is explored where most movies would leave out the aftermath. Deliverance lures you in and never lets go.

Deliverance

Drew plays with a banjo boy

The Slow Motion Picture

Star Trek: The Motion Picture is not the feature film Trekkies deserved. Star Trek: The Original Series is a landmark of science fiction created by Gene Roddenberry. The 1966 series was all about exploration through space, the final frontier. It followed the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its 5 year mission was to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life, and new civilizations. “To boldly go where no man has gone before!” My parents have always been Trekkies who grew up watching the original series, but my brother and I always remained in the neutral zone. It wasn’t until last year that we finally decided to experience everything Star Trek at warp speed. I may be a casual fan turned instant Trekkie, but even I know they could’ve done better than The Motion Picture. When the original series was cancelled after only 3 seasons, The Animated Series was all that filled the void. Roddenberry felt the best way to revive the franchise was with a movie. Paramount disagreed and the continuation became a TV series titled Star Trek: Phase II.

Ironically, the success of Star Wars and the subsequent success of Close Encounters of the Third Kind ensured a movie would be made instead of a show. The problem with The Motion Picture is no one knowing the right direction to take. You can tell it’s trying to be as different from Star Wars as possible. Academy Award winning director Robert Wise is brilliant, but you can tell he has a very limited understanding of Star Trek. The script was often incomplete, production faced many problems, and one very important cast member almost didn’t return. William Shatner, DeForest Kelley, James Doohan, Walter Koenig, Nichelle Nichols, George Takei, and Majel Barrett all agreed to return after a decade, but Leonard Nimoy was hesitant. I’m glad they worked something out, because Star Trek isn’t the same without the fan favorite Vulcan. The Motion Picture has an out of this world score by Jerry Goldsmith and impressive special effects for a 1979 film, but that’s one of its biggest problems. The runtime is an unbearably boring 2 hours & 25 minutes worth of slow moving shots of the USS Enterprise, wormholes, and a villain that’s literally a space cloud. There’s practically no phaser action, color, or sense of fun. The redesigned Enterprise has cinematic grandeur, but the new uniforms are incredibly drab.

Captain’s Log, Stardate 99096.66: The Motion Picture begins with a very important contribution to the warmongering Klingons. This is the first time they’re seen speaking Klingon and having ridged foreheads. The language was developed by Doohan himself. They’re attacked by the space cloud which is headed straight for Earth. Since the Enterprise is in range, Admiral James T. Kirk commandeers his ship long after the completion of their 5 year mission. Shatner is every bit the charming overactor he’s always been. Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy is just as snarky when reluctantly energized through the Transporter. Apart from Scotty trying to fix the faulty Engine room, Uhura, Sulu, Chekov, and Nurse Chapel are basically glorified extras. I value what little screen time they receive, but even the return of Grace Lee Whitney as Janice Rand is barely given attention. More attention is given to characters who were indented to appear in the Phase II series. Stephen Collins plays Commander William Decker. The former captain whose job Kirk takes for himself. Bald model Persis Khambatta plays Deltan navigator Ilia. She shares a romantic history with Decker, but makes a point about her celibacy so that Kirk doesn’t get any ideas.

Kirk was supposed to get a new Vulcan science officer, but Spock returns when he dies in a Transporter accident. Spock is every bit the fascinating logical half-Vulcan he’s always been. Planet Vulcan makes its second live-action appearance along with a Vulcan language. Spock tries to purge his emotions, but his human half calls to the cloud. Turns out the cloud is really a sentient computer named V’Ger that is very slowly revealed when Spock mind melds with it during a trippy spacewalk. Ilia is turned into a living computer through V’Ger’s consciousness in an attempt to find its creator. SPOILER ALERT! The extremely philosophical ending culminates in V’Ger’s reveal as the Earth probe Voyager 6. The living machine must join with a human (that ends up being Decker) in order to fulfill its mission. The new lifeform seems important, but it’s never brought up again. Although the story isn’t too far off from the prime directive of Star Trek, the 2001: A Space Odyssey approach made Star Trek: The Motion Picture a snoozefest. “Live long and prosper.” ๐Ÿ––

1. Star Trek The Motion Picture

The crew of the Enterprise

Followed by: Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

His Legacy Lives On

Game of Death is the martial arts epic we sadly never got to see. Everyone (my mother included) was shocked to learn Bruce Lee passed away at the young age of 32. It seemed like he was just getting started. Game of Death was meant to be Lee’s second directorial effort, but Enter the Dragon kept him from finishing it. Despite over 39 minutes worth of footage existing, only 11 minutes were repurposed into an awkward American production. Needless to say, my mom was less than eager to recommend it. The much cooler original Game of Death plot would’ve seen Bruce Lee as retired martial arts champion Hai Tien.

The idea of him ascending a pagoda to fight increasingly tough opponents can still be seen in action movies and video games today. Same with his iconic yellow & black jumpsuit. The 1978 film butchers the footage with a less than original revenge story against racketeers. Every trick in the book is used to convince you several stunt doubles are Bruce Lee. The most infamous example being a cardboard cutout of Lee’s face taped to a mirror. Footage from Way of the Dragon and Fist of Fury are used since Billy Lo is an actor filming scenes from both movies. The stand-in always wears thick sunglasses and stands at a distance, but you can clearly tell he isn’t Lee in close-ups.

A presumed death, that distastefully uses real funeral footage, gives Billy the excuse to have plastic surgery and wear a disguise. When his American girlfriend played by Colleen Camp is threatened, Lo takes a yellow motorcycle tracksuit and faces the mob at their pagoda restaurant. As expected, the only highlight is seeing Bruce Lee himself. Although it feels harsher without the dialogue, it’s good enough seeing Lee fight the nunchucking Dan Inosanto, flashy Ji Han-jae, and 7 ft. basketball player kareem Abdul-Jabbar himself. Their fight is particularly memorable since Abdul-Jabbar is so huge. Game of Death has so much lost potential that can’t always be found in the finished cut.

5. Game of Death

Billy Lo (Hai Tien) faces an opponent

P.S. I’ve supplied the real Game of Death underneath.

The Art of Fighting Without Fighting

Enter the Dragon is the greatest martial arts movie I’ve ever seen. A fitting end to Bruce Lee’s tragically short career. Enter the Dragon was released only a month after Lee’s death in 1973. It became one of the most successful movies of all time and a major influence on pop culture. Elements of the plot inspired TV shows, comic books, video games, and anime. Unlike his previous movies, I did see pieces of Enter the Dragon when I was younger thanks to my parents watching it a lot. Enter the Dragon is the ultimate combination of everything awesome about the 70’s. More than just the Kung Fu craze, Enter the Dragon has elements of a Bond style spy flick and Blaxploitation.

Bruce Lee became such an icon in America that Enter the Dragon was co-produced in Hong Kong as well as the U.S. It was finally my chance to hear his un-dubbed English speaking voice. Bruce Lee plays a Shaolin Temple instructor simply known as Lee. Like Lee himself, he brought his own martial arts philosophy to the role. Lee uses emotional content in the art of “fighting without fighting.” A British Intelligence agent brings him in for a mission on a private island. Like Mortal Kombat, the best fighters in the world are brought together for a martial arts competition. Lee goes to avenge his sister who was inadvertently killed by the American O’Harra. Most of the cast is ethnically diverse with horror legend John Saxon as wealthy gambler Roper and afro sporting African American martial artist Jim Kelly as Williams. They’re a precursor to Power Man and Iron Fist who join Lee in his fight.

The competition is an exciting display of everyone’s individual skill. Even bodybuilding martial artist Bolo plays a part. The drug trafficking villain Han is literally right out of a comic book with a deadly series of iron clawed hands. There’s a distinct amount of blood and steel in the movie. Along with nudity in the form of ladies keeping the competitors company. Lee is only interested in fellow undercover spy Mei Ling. Bruce Lee delivers his most passionate performance yet. His high flying fight with O’Harra is a personal one. An underground fight against henchmen makes perfect use of his bo staff, baton, and nunchuck skills. You may even spot a young Jackie Chan. When an epic martial arts battle breaks out, Lee has an iconic brutal encounter with Han in an impressively shot hall of mirrors. You know it’s serious when Lee tastes his own blood. Enter the Dragon is the culmination of everything groundbreaking about Bruce Lee.

4. Enter the Dragon

Lee readies for battle

Return of the Dragon

The Way of the Dragon is the martial arts extravaganza that brought us the epic fight between Bruce Lee & Chuck Norris. Apart from that, Way of the Dragon is probably my fourth favorite Bruce Lee film by default. There’s definitely a stronger lean towards comedy different from Fist of Fury or The Big Boss. Not that Bruce Lee’s accomplished martial arts action doesn’t shine through. He also wrote, produced, and directed the film himself. Tang is much more of a fish out of water getting himself into awkward situations since he doesn’t speak much English. The movie’s only nude scene involves him accidentally picking up a prostitute.

Tang travels to Rome where he meets the lovely restaurant owner Chen and her Uncle Wang. Tang is used for his martial arts skills when their restaurant is threatened by gangsters led by their big boss Ho. Bruce Lee’s knowledge of different fighting techniques is displayed when he uses karate and Chinese boxing all while continuing to dance around. He teaches this to the restaurant staff so that they can defend themselves. Another highlight is Tang’s use of a bo staff and two nunchucks at once. Way of the Dragon was retitled Return of the Dragon after Bruce Lee’s tragic death.

It’s far more international since martial arts were still so popular in America. That’s where Chuck Norris comes in. Before he became a living legend, Norris was just a humble martial artist playing Colt opposite his Chinese counterpart. Their 10 minute Coliseum fight more than lives up to the legend. Norris’ hairy chest couldn’t be more different than Lee’s bare chest, but they are very evenly matched. They adopt each other’s style all while a cat watches. In the end, Tang shows respect for his opponent when forced to take him out. Way of the Dragon is more lightweight, but it knows when to leave an impact.

3. The Way of the Dragon

Tang vs. Colt

The Chinese Connection

Fist of Fury is truly the martial arts flick that unleashed Bruce Lee. Although The Big Boss got his foot in the door, Fist of Fury made him an international phenomenon. Despite mixing up its American title The Chinese Connection, the film was an even more successful Hong Kong production. There wasn’t a person alive in the 70’s who didn’t want to learn martial arts or hurt themselves swinging nunchucks. Fist of Fury is easily my second favorite Bruce Lee movie. This is the film that finally shows his fist fighting furoristy in full force. While still having an unexpectedly complex story backing it up. Fist of Fury takes place in the 30’s and explores tension between the Chinese and Japanese. Specifically the honorable Jingwu School and the dishonorable Hongkou dojo.

Bruce Lee is the man in the middle playing instant Kung Fu icon Chen Zhen. Although he comes to Shanghai for his fianceรฉ, he’s devastated to learn of his master’s mysterious death. Chen suspects Hongkou dojo when they taunt his death with the disrespectful sign “Sick Man of East Asia.” I knew I was watching something special when Chen arrives at their doorstep and makes the entire dojo eat their words. You feel the strength of Bruce Lee’s every punch, kick, and jab. Followed by his awesome use of nunchucks. Lee’s trademark scream only enhances the experience.

When tensions rise after a discriminatory park incident, Chen becomes a fugitive seeking revenge when he learns the truth. Although not as bloody as The Big Boss, there is still a nude scene involving a dancer. Chen infiltrates the Japanese dojo just to get to their big boss Suzuki. Despite the all-Asian cast, there is a non-dubbed white Russian played by real life Bruce Lee student Robert Baker. He displays his martial arts skills in an intense fight with Chen that leaves him hypnotized. Since the fighting will never be over, Fist of Fury ends on an appropriately ambiguous note. Fist of Fury strikes a balance between social commentary and high flying action.

2. Fist of Fury

Chen Zhen hypnotizes his enemy

The Big Brother from Tangshan

The Big Boss is my introduction to the greatest martial artist who ever lived. Thanks to my parents, I’ve known the legend of Bruce Lee my entire life. I just haven’t seen any of his movies until very recently. Although it’s part of the experience, I saw them all with subtitles instead of awkward dubbing. After the cancellation of The Green Hornet, Bruce Lee struggled to find work for years. Despite having to leave his family and work in terrible conditions, filming a low budget movie in Hong Kong was the best decision he could’ve made.

Although confusingly titled Fists of Fury in America, The Big Boss became the most successful Hong Kong production at the time. Bruce Lee is cool because he broke free from Asian stereotypes and delivered intensely complex martial arts heroes. The Big Boss is definitely his most raw and bloody film. The 70’s were rife with R rated exploitation style violence. One scene involving a saw-to-the-head was so gory that it had to be cut. There’s also an expected nude scene involving a prostitute. The Big Boss is probably my third favorite of Bruce Lee’s four completed films.

Lee plays Cheng Chao-an, a big brother visiting his cousins in Thailand. Although I expected more, Cheng doesn’t fight thanks to a promise he made to his mother. When his jade necklace comes off, Bruce Lee lets loose with his signature fast-paced furosity. The Big Boss refers to the owner of his local ice factory who uses the business as a front to smuggle cocaine. When friends & relatives turn up missing, Cheng seeks bloody revenge. Despite the intense nature of his fights, there’s still room for humor like the big boss throwing a birdcage onto a hanger. The Big Boss isn’t flashy, but it is a powerful introduction to a martial arts legend.

1. The Big Boss

Cheng strikes