I’m sick. I have ropes of snot spurting from my nose every few minutes. I shake like I just woke up in an ice cream freezer. I’m so weak I probably couldn’t start a lawn mower. Worst of all, I can’t even drink. Sure, my Grandpa Ray always swore by a glass of milk with a heavy dose of Old Crow Reserve as a cold cure, but he was apparently sick every day of his life and always out of milk so who knows if it works. And anyway, I’m a beer man and to me right now, it tastes like windshield wiper fluid and cat piss so I’m screwed.
The good news? Kung Fu. Even now, every time I get sick I remember the days my mom would let me stay home from school sick as a kid, laid up on the couch, and I would watch old kung fu movies from the ’70s with my Uncle Frank. We watched for different reasons, but both got a lot out of it. For Uncle Frank, all the fighting usually stirred him up to where he had to go get all the cutting boards from the kitchen and punch them until his hands bled; for me, these things were practically medicine. Watching a kung fu movie when you’re physically wrecked is like taking a long nap in a warm bath. So I set up the couch for a solid two-or-three-day visit, propped the laptop on a stack of Game Informers and cued up Ten Fingers of Death.
Not seven. Not nine. But all ten, asshole.
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As a plus, this one’s got Jackie Chan in it, and he starred in one of my absolute favorites: Snake in Eagle’s Claw, I think it’s called. He’s so young in Ten Fingers that he looks like he’s in middle school. Turns out it was his first real movie made in 1971 when he was 17. At that age I was masturbating to Britney Spears videos and making flamethrowers out of lighter fluid and discarded PVC piping, not doing backflips and memorizing complex fighting techniques. So I’m impressed.
This one starts strong, with the head bad guy Lu Chi doing all kinds of training in a stupid mustache, a lot of it blindfolded. At one point he kicks a hanging kettle to pieces and birds fly out of it. If I were a superhero, I would want my power to be that birds fly out of all the shit I break. Then we jump right into the action, because Lu is pissed that two of his henchmen refused to kill somebody on his order, so he tells them they have his permission to leave the organization… as long as they are dead. He then takes them on blindfolded and weaponless while they have swords and he kills one of the henchdudes with a conscience by stepping on the guy’s stomach super hard. This is called the Leg of Doom. Before he dies, the henchman croaks, “My son, my son…” (This is important so stick that somewhere safe.) Something tells me we’re gonna see how the Leg of Doom matches up against the Ten Fingers of Death before all this is over.
In case you don’t know, this is what’s called backstory. It’s history that explains why the shit that’s happening now is happening. Like for instance, the fact that my ex-wife Lacey never got a pony for Christmas is why she became a screaming bully with toilet issues and no sense of humor. So then we’re in the present and some guy is training a bunch of kids in martial arts. He says we’ll start with the basic steps and then does a routine that lasts twenty minutes and has about four hundred moves to remember. A young poor boy named Jackie is watching from a distance and is obsessed with trying to learn the fighting skills on his own despite the fact that his father says no way. Here I’ve got to take issue with the old man for any number of reasons, not least because his son is sucking on a pacifier even though he’s like eight years old. If this kid doesn’t learn how to fight, he’s going to be feeding on whirlies and beatdowns for the rest of his natural born life.
Rescue comes in the form of an old beggar who happens to know a shitload of Kung Fu. This same character is in every single one of these movies and I love it. Just the idea that anytime your parents tell you not to do something there’s another guy around the corner who has all the time in the world to show you how to do it like a master is too awesome. Actually, my insane stepdad is the one who showed me the flamethrower trick, but you know what I’m saying. Mom won’t get you a guitar? No problem. Kerry King’s on vacation and he wants to show you a thing or two, kid. So then the old beggar says, “We’ll start your lessons tonight in the woods. It shall be a secret between us.” And I start feeling uncomfortable because it’s starting to sound like an after-school special I saw once about stranger danger. Then it’s nighttime, they’re in the woods and the old beggar starts off the lesson by telling the kid he has to take off all his clothes and get into a burlap sack that has “magic” in it.
Listen to me. I had a girlfriend named Chelsey not long ago and one night we’re laying around looking for a movie to watch. I’m trying to be strategic by letting her pick and she puts on something called Happiness because she likes movies that make her feel good. OK so far, except the movie is actually about a pedophile and a bunch of other degenerates destroying everyone they meet. When we turned it off two thirds done it was already too late. Chelsey and I broke up ten days later because we could barely look each other in the eyes anymore. Total shame. I liked her too. Even her elbows were soft. And I still haven’t eaten a tuna sandwich since. My point being that right now, my Ten Fingers of Health are hovering over the Escape key.
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Turns out it’s only snakes in the sack and the beggar says they’re to help the kid control his fears. Next, he makes Jackie hold an egg between his knees that he can’t break, he lights a fire under him and makes him try to catch a chicken leg in his mouth without using his hands. “What you must learn is to endure. That is our goal.” Well, I can’t argue with that. I give that speech to my colon every time I sit down at Taco Bell. Then the movie fades out and the kid’s now grown-up Jackie Chan. People who only know him from the Rush Hour movies have no idea how talented JC is. He is capable of insane stunts and he’s super funny at the same time. Even more so than Wee Man. And note the initials, yeah?
Basically, the next hour of the movie is various henchmen and thugs stirring up trouble and Jackie reluctantly turning them into chow mein. All the while, he has his dad punishing him for scrapping and the old beggar popping up all the time to scream “Fight!” At one point, Jackie’s pops forces him to shove his hands into broken glass and he starts letting himself get pulverized by the henchmen without fighting back. The beggar is disgusted and starts beating Jackie around and telling him to ignore his dad. “You are a fighter! And you will fight! You must. It’s in your blood now, Jackie.” And at this point I’m starting to confuse Ten Fingers of Death with home movies of my stepdad shouting at me during Little League tryouts. The beggar finally just heals Jackie’s hands by turning them into the Ten Fingers of Death.
The Syndicate keeps harassing everybody in town and Jackie can’t go anywhere without somebody wanting to hurt him. The bad guys start breaking out more fight styles, which I’ll call the Epileptic Swan, the Drunk Popeye and the Asian Hulk. It’s feeling more like Three Stooges movies for a while than serious Kung Fu. Then no joke, the beggar cuts in on one fight and farts on a bad guy’s face. I haven’t seen that move since my older brother Dan used it as my alarm clock every morning of tenth grade.
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But then the truth is revealed: Jackie’s dad isn’t his real dad and all these douchebags looking to throw down with Jackie work for Lu Chi, the guy who killed Jackie’s real dad at the beginning. His stepdad didn’t want him to fight all this time so he could protect him from Lu Chi. There’s some similarities here with my own life only my real dad wasn’t killed by the Leg of Doom, he was seduced by the Slutty Blonde of the ’88 Classic Car Show. So Lu Chi, who is now an old man, finally steps out of the shadows and challenges Jackie to a fight. But only once Jackie’s rested up. On the one hand, this is such a stupid move I can barely comprehend it. On the other, I kind of admire the guy for not pouncing on Jackie when he’s already exhausted. Still, what the fuck is Lu Chi thinking? In any case, the whole resting thing is bullshit anyway because the old beggar uses that time to push Jackie through more insane training, including with no kidding, a trident, and I’m exhausted just watching the whole spectacle. The final showdown does finally take place, but I’m not going to tell you how it plays out. Suffice it to say some crazy Legs, Fingers, Arms, Balls, Heads and Feet of Doom/Death all get in on the action.
Ten Fingers of Death was everything I needed it to be. It didn’t show me anything new but what I got was definitely enough. You should know that it’s dubbed into English and a few sections of film have been nearly worn through. But it’s a perfect example of what makes kung fu movies so great. They make it seem like even as a kid you can learn amazing cool feats just by doing bizarre exercises that make sense only to the person laying them out. That kind of thinking almost makes all the pointless crap from high school seem worth something. And these films show how useless movies like The Matrix are when you’re a bunch of kids looking for something to do on a dead Saturday afternoon. How could I relate to Neo and Morpheus? It may as well be a foreign film. When I was 12, I couldn’t exactly play fight club with my friends inside a computer or on a rooftop in the city or whatever, but these guys in the kung fu films always looked like they were smacking each other around in somebody’s overgrown backyard. That we had. So the only other thing we needed was the ten fingers.
7,000 RPMs is the weekly movie column of Randall P. Manville (“RPM”), an entrepreneur, bike enthusiast and freelance writer in New Castle, Delaware.
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