When the mighty fall like Sammo Hung does, it looks darned sweet.
Yes, that was Hung who flipped his bulk from atop a car and landed squarely on his feet in last week’s CBS premiere of “Martial Law.” If you missed the sequence, you can still tune in 9 p.m. Saturday on Channel 5 for a continuing small-screen treat of the larger-than-life Hong Kong actor, director and action choreographer.
Hung joins a small television coterie of big-boned brethren: Drew Carey, Roseanne, John Goodman, Nell Carter, William Conrad, Jackie Gleason. The difference is that Hung’s moves make Chuck Norris look wooden (well, actually, Norris makes Norris look wooden). If anything, he should be a lesson to weight-obsessed Americans: Just because you have heft doesn’t mean you can’t be deft.
For those who did see it, yes, Hung’s moves do look like Jackie Chan’s. In fact, he was Chan’s “big brother” at the grueling Peking Opera drama academy, and apparently a mean one, according to Chan’s autobiography, although the two came to respect one another in their professional life.
Much as I revere Chan, I have to say that Hung is the better actor and director. Maybe the heavyweight’s heavy weight actually freed him from hero-mode typecasting. He has played villain, victim or romantic hero with no fisticuffs in sight. His films started several trends, from supernatural encounters to ensemble comedies to pure action.
Most of the time, Hung is the sweetly comic hangdog hero, but he fights it out beautifully in the beginning, middle and end. His filmography is too long to list (nearly 100 just as an actor), but it’s available at Web sites such as International Movie Database (www.imdb.com), locally produced Hong Kong Cinema Web page (razzle.stanford.edu/hk), unofficial fan page (www.sammohung.com) and network site (www.cbs.com). A chapter on Hung in “Hong Kong Action Cinema” by Bey Logan gives a fine background and video recommendations.
Local Chinese video stores, chains and Reel in Berkeley should carry most of these absolutely arbitrary recommendations (PG-13 unless otherwise indicated). See the man who already made Hong Kong film history and is now making television history:
“STUNT WOMAN” a k a “AH KAM” (1996): Ann Hui directed Michelle Yeoh in this true-life but slow-moving portrayal of a stuntwoman’s life. Hung plays the gruff stunt coordinator and father figure whose recklessness extends to his personal life. Nice insight into HK stuntwork with jarringly unexpected comic scenes and tragic drama. B
“THE KUNG FU CULT MASTER” (1993): Sheer nonsense distinguishes this Wong Jing movie. The director has done worse than this dizzying fantasy martial arts action starring Jet Li (“Once Upon a Time in China” series hero and “Lethal Weapon 4” villain), but Hung in his brief appearances as the white-bearded, white-eyebrowed master has one of the best lines puncturing the movie myth that virgins make the best martial artists. C+
“TOUCH AND GO” (1991): Fat Goose (Hung) witnesses a gang execution of a policeman and becomes a reluctant witness. Hung maintains a beleaguered and endearing good-citizen persona, even as he receives death threats, has his apartment fire-bombed and is dragged into near-death situations. Director Ringo Lam adds a gritty overlay to the buddy formula. Usual martial arts prowess. B
“PANTYHOSE HERO” (1991): Hung and co-star Kenny Bee are cops who go undercover as a gay couple to catch a serial killer. Be warned: The mercilessly broad Hong Kong humor wavers between homophobia, use of effeminate stereotypes and gay acceptance. C
“SKINNY TIGER AND FATTY DRAGON” (1990): Comic pairing of two out-of-control cops, with Hung doing Bruce Lee imitations down to the nunchaks and catcalls. B-
“EIGHT TAELS OF GOLD” a k a “EIGHT TALES OF GOLD” (1989): Touching drama (no action) with Hung as the New York cab driver who returns to China after a long absence. His homecoming brings up the questions of American success and failure, the homeland after the Cultural Revolution and the traditions that preserve heritage but can deny individual fulfillment. Hong Kong Film Award nominations for best film, actor, actress, director and screenplay. A
“PEDICAB DRIVER” (1989): Screwball comedy that dwindles into a tale of melodrama and revenge, but its early scenes of Hung negotiating between rickshaw workers and the two-wheeled pedicab drivers are hilarious. Amazing action (and Hung goes a-courting). B+
“PAPER MARRIAGE” (1988): Two years before “Green Card, ” this comedy throws Hung and Maggie Cheung (“The Actress, ” “Irma Vep”) into a marriage of convenience. A kickboxing match, female mud wrestling and a random money-crazed tangle with gangsters mix action and weird Farrelly-brothers-like humor. B-
“PAINTED FACES” (1988): An extraordinary insight into growing up in the grueling Peking Opera drama academy. Hung plays the driven, harsh academy head. Nominated for best director, screenplay and picture, the film got Hung a Hong Kong Film Award for best actor. A
“DRAGONS FOREVER” (1987): Tai Seng Video has just released a letterbox edition (with a chance to win a Jackie Chan jacket valued at $3,600), which showcases one of the best onscreen match-ups of academy brethren Hung, Chan and the lithe Yuen Biao. Chan, a lawyer investigating industrial waste and drugs, enlists his private detective friend Hung and his dotty pal Biao. Features some sidesplitting and jaw-dropping fight scenes, including one between Chan and kickboxing champion Benny “The Jet” Urquidez. A-
“EASTERN CONDORS” (1986): Underground cult classic with American audiences. Prisoners are released to go on a suicide mission in this Rambo-like escapade. The fight between a relatively thin Hung and a small but incredibly spry villain ranks as an action favorite. Check out Hung’s beauty queen wife, Joyce Godenzi, as a Vietnamese guerrilla. B+ (rated R)
“MILLIONAIRES EXPRESS” a k a “SHANGHAI EXPRESS” (1986): A fantastic Chinese Western-comedy with a heady swirl of humor and subplots. Scalawag Hung wants to bring wealth to his godforsaken country town by forcing a train full of millionaires, Japanese spies, robbers and goofy adulterers to make a stop. Delightfully dizzy in the best Marx Brothers tradition. A.
“MEALS ON WHEELS” a k a “WHEELS ON MEALS” (1984): A beautiful Barcelona setting and Hung with a perm. Oh well, at least he rejoins his academy brothers Chan and Biao in this fun action-comedy with a spectacular Chan-Urquidez face-off. B
“PROJECT A” (1983): In the grand American tradition of slapstick and screwball comedy. Chan, Biao and Hung unite to fight pirates in turn-of-the-century China. One of the best martial arts comedies in the film lexicon. A
“PRODIGAL SON” (1983): A classic. Biao plays real-life Wing Chun master Leung Jarn in his early days as a martial arts dilettante. When he finds out his dad has been paying his opponents to lose, he seeks a true master. Biao ends up with two, one of them Hung as a Toisonese bumpkin with amazing skill. A
“ZU: WARRIORS FROM THE MAGIC MOUNTAIN” (1983): Another cult classic notable for reviving high-wired martial arts in this fantasy spectacle. B
“CARRY ON PICKPOCKET” (1982) An enjoyable flick with Hung as part of a pickpocket gang who gets inadvertently pulled into dangerous crimes. The sleight-of-hand thievery almost makes you want to never mind, it’s all good fun (and action). B+
Other pure action recommendations: “Enter the Dragon” (boxing sequence); “Enter the Fat Dragon” (humorous but effective Bruce Lee imitations); “Magnificent Butcher” (R; beware of rape scene); “Spooky Encounters” (Hung possessed by fighting spirits); “My Lucky Stars” (HK-style humor with some action and a Japanese bodybuilder); “Twinkle, Twinkle Lucky Stars” (goofy, but two words: tennis racket); “The Victim” (master-student relationship with a twist).
Vera H-C Chan learned all the inflammatory Chinese she knows watching martial arts films. Randy Myers’ Rewind column returns next week.
This article originally appeared in the Contra Costa Times